Biophysical Society Bulletin | May 2018

Biophysicist in Profile

Mibel Aguilar Areas of Research biomembrane nanotechnology, peptide-based biomaterials, and drug design

Institution Monash University


Mibel Aguilar describes herself as a biophysicist and peptide chemist working across many disci- plines whose research focuses on biomembrane nanotechnology, peptide-based biomaterials, and peptidomimetic drug design. She hopes to establish a focus on the biomembrane as a fully participating interactive partner in cell biology, and to combine her research areas of membrane biophysics with biomaterial design to investigate the cell-material interface in a new way that focuses on biomembrane structure.

Mibel Aguilar

Mibel Aguilar , Professor of Biochemistry and Group Leader at Monash University, was born in Melbourne, Australia, to a British mother and Spanish father who had arrived in Mel- bourne four months before she was born. From her earliest days in school, she enjoyed studying science and also had a passion for languages, which she maintains to this day. After high school, Aguilar enrolled in a bachelor of science program at the University of Melbourne. “I always had a fasci- nation with understanding systems at the molecular level so I structured my third-year subjects to complete a double major in chemistry and biochemistry, selecting all the biologically relevant subjects in chemistry to fulfill the major and also the key subjects in biochemistry,” she explains. She then began a PhD program in chemistry, studying the metabolism and toxicity of paracetamol. “I knew that I wanted to be the one directing my future and in control of my work days and not be someone else’s subordinate. These two ambitions left no doubt as to enrolling in a PhD program and who I would study with,” she says. “When it came to embarking on my research training, I was lucky enough to work with a group headed by Ian Calder in Chemistry who was collaborating with Kathryn Ham in the Pathology Department on the metabolism of paracetamol.” Aguilar joined the group soon after the time when the renal toxicity of Bex, a widely used compound analgesic, had been identified and characterized. “’Safe and gentle to the stomach’ paracetamol had come onto the market after phenacetin, the active ingredient of Bex, was found to cause serious renal problems. However, paracetamol can also, in reasonably low levels, cause severe liver failure. So the group was studying the molecular basis of this toxicity, and my project was to study the mechanism of less toxic analogues of paracetamol,” she explains. “The work was truly interdisciplinary. I synthe- sized a range of metabolites of the drugs, administered them to animals, collected their urine, had the histology analyzed, and also developed novel HPLC techniques to measure the metabolic profile of the drugs. That interdisciplinary approach really equipped me with the language of drug design and analysis and organic chemistry — a space that I am in the middle of to this day.”

After her PhD, Aguilar completed a postdoctoral position at St. Vincent’s Institute for Medical Research, working on devel- oping new methods for protein analysis and purification. “This was the beginning of a very productive time building on my bioanalytical skills in HPLC drug analysis, but applying them to the much more complex world of peptide and proteins. I elected not to go overseas as this position was really the type of position I was interested in — again at the interface between chemistry and biochemistry, this time in the analyt- ical sphere,” she says. “During this time I traveled regularly to international meetings and met all the major players in the field, and so while I was conscious of the fact that I had not taken a position in an overseas lab, I was still able to build up the network of senior contemporaries in the field.” “ There are many factors that impede the increase in numbers of women in science—the combination of child bearing responsibilities and the brutal nature of publish or perish—and there is no real allowance made for any break in productivity. ” In 1986, the research group relocated to Monash University, where their bioanalytical work expanded significantly. “I was awarded a Monash University postdoctoral fellowship and utilized this to develop my ongoing interest in using analyti- cal and biophysical techniques to study biomembranes. This work was initiated by PhD students Henriette Mozsolits and John Lee , and John is currently driving this area in my group today,” she says. “The membrane projects have also given me the opportunity to collaborate with a fantastic group of scien- tists, including David Small , University of Tasmania, on amy- loids; Wally Thomas , University of Queensland, on GPCRs; and

May 2018



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