The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond.
Nikolaos (Niko) Dimitrakakis places a great importance on teamwork, which he learned from playing sports while growing up in Greece. At the Wyss, Niko is a team captain of sorts – he seems to know everyone’s name, encourages collaborative conversation among colleagues, and after eight years he certainly has demonstrated passion and spirit for the Wyss. Currently, he is developing a bone marrow click cryogel that would help boost the T cell regeneration in people whose bone marrow is damaged due to treatment for leukemia and myeloma or defective due to other congenital immunodeficiencies, autoimmune diseases, and impaired immune surveillance disorders. Learn more about Niko and his work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.
What are you working on?
I am part of the Immuno-Materials Platform and my main project right now is developing a bone marrow click cryogel. This is an injectable, cell-free artificial bone marrow made of a biopolymer that enables the body’s immune system to regenerate T cells, a specific type of small white blood cell that is part of the immune system and develops in bone marrow. T cells are born from hematopoietic stem cells, which are immature cells that can develop into all types of blood cells.
What real-world problem does this solve?
Patients with leukemia and myeloma often end up with damaged bone marrow from radiation and chemotherapy. The current clinical gold standard treatment used to reconstitute T cells in their blood is called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HCST). Approximately 50,000 people receive HCST annually, but 40-60% of those patients develop immunodeficiencies or related complications, such as opportunistic infections, and consequently a relapse of their original disease. Even in cases where HCST is effective, it can take months to years for full T cell reconstitution.
We are designing our bone marrow click cryogel to be injected after HCST and, in a tunable manner, to release and present the molecules necessary to reconstitute T cells that the damaged bone marrow is missing. It enhances the HCST by driving differentiation of the stem cells into functional immune system cells.
Making HCST more effective will help reduce side effects in patients and help the current HCST process go faster to attain balanced T cell repertoire reconstitution more quickly.
What inspired you to get into this field?
When I was growing up in Greece, I was always good at math and physics, and I liked chemistry too. I was interested in engineering and chemical engineering was the only type that combined all three of those fields. So, that’s what I chose to study.
Bioengineering has been developed from different disciplines, and I believe chemical engineering is the one that played the most critical role in the evolution of the field over the last 30 years as it is the only engineering discipline that is founded on chemistry, physics, biology, and math. During my undergraduate studies, I saw a presentation from a guest lecturer about nanoparticles and targeted drug delivery. That was a critical moment for me. The whole idea was fascinating! From then on, I found I was more interested in bioengineering than more traditional chemical engineering paths.
What continues to motivate you?
The love for what I am doing. I believe if you love what you do, you will be happy and good at it, so it’s important to be passionate.
The Wyss ecosystem is also really important. I feel very privileged and inspired to work with such brilliant people from different disciplines, including faculty members who are world leaders in their fields. When the people around me are hardworking, it pushes me to be the same. I see the potential in this technology, and I know leadership sees promise in me. Every day I come to work, I want to prove that I deserve to be among these people and I deserve their trust. I think, how can I add value to the team and our projects?
What excites you the most about your work?
The fact that there is great translational potential and that I believe that this project can really help patients is the most exciting thing.
What are some of the challenges that you face?
In recent years, the biggest challenge for me has been immigration changes. After 2017, changes to visa policies made things difficult for me. In addition to practical issues, there is a mental toll. For example, due to the circumstances I haven’t been able to travel to Greece and see my mom in more than five years. But, with the support both logistically and emotionally from the Wyss, my group, and Senior Academic Affairs Manager Margaret Ivins, I managed to make it through.
Why did you want to work at the Wyss?
I never imagined that I could work at the Wyss. Back around 2010, a good friend of mine was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and we used to chat via MSN Messenger. He sent me a YouTube link to a video of the RoboBee saying, “Look what these guys made! They made robots that can fly.” I thought to myself, who are these guys? What are they making? What’s going on there? Back then I never thought it was a possibility that I could be part of it.
I came to the United States from Greece in 2012 for graduate school at Tufts University and by the time I was graduating in 2014, the Wyss was already starting to become more established. I was amazed by everything that was going on and the unique model, vision, and mission. There were quite a few projects I was interested in, and I didn’t know of many other Institutes that were working on such a wide range of unique technologies. The Wyss approaches problems differently and I was excited to join.
What is unique about the Wyss?
What I really enjoy about the Wyss is that it provides me the freedom to try new things. There is a mentality here that you can dare to fail that I really identify with. Also, I always encourage people to talk to each other. There are so many people with such different backgrounds. By meeting people from other groups, you learn. These interactions have created amazing collaborations, projects, publications, and startups.
What is the difference between a scientist and an engineer? How does having both scientists and engineers at the Wyss benefit you?
There are two key components of engineering that I think are different than science. First, engineering is about solving problems on a bigger scale. For example, how do you design, scale-up, and build a (bio)chemical reactor or a whole chemical plant for the production of a specific product? For that kind of project, you’d have to understand the science behind the chemicals, but you’d also have to understand the design parameters, the material properties, the transport phenomena and other big picture parameters such as the cost, the efficiency, the environmental impact, and other constraints. The second thing is that scientists seek to find the answers to fundamental questions. Scientists, especially physicists, use math to understand and describe nature, whereas engineers use applied math to model and optimize processes and devices, which offer solutions to problems and help improve the lives of humans.
At the Wyss, I have learned how to think more about the science behind something and think more like a scientist. That has helped me to develop, though I think my mindset is still predominantly in engineering. I hope I’ve helped scientists to think of the bigger picture too. By having people with different skillsets come together, you can approach problems with multiple ways of thinking at once and have a better chance at solving them.
How do you collaborate with other teams across the Wyss Institute?
Collaborating with other teams is so easy you don’t even have to try! I’m an extrovert and I’ve been here for eight years, so I know most people, but regardless, it’s not difficult at all. Whenever someone has a problem, they can reach out to anyone for help. The issue can be anything from running out of a chemical to needing to learn a new technique or a skill. If the person you ask doesn’t have the expertise or knowledge, they’ll direct you to someone who does. The whole atmosphere of the Wyss encourages collaboration – even the way the booths are set up in the lobby areas. This encourages people to sit together while eating lunch and chat about projects.
Where do you see the field of drug delivery going in the future?
I think drug delivery system technologies will be hugely impactful, the same way they were for the COVID vaccines, for many diseases. Now, researchers in other fields, who were previously unaware or uninterested in the capabilities and advantages that drug delivery systems and technologies can offer, are realizing how instrumental and significant this field can be. Namely, I know of groups working on bioinformatics that are starting to bring drug delivery specialists into their groups to see how they can leverage these systems. They are beginning to expand their dry labs by combining them with wet labs to bridge these fields. I see this being hugely important.
How have your previous work and personal experiences shaped your approach to your work today?
I have held a lot of jobs unrelated to research – I worked in a grocery store, in the marble industry, in restaurants, at a screen-printing company, and at Zara. However, I think the experience that had the greatest impact on my working approach was playing sports. From when I was a kid through my undergraduate studies I played basketball, volleyball, and soccer. This shaped my whole mentality on the importance of teamwork. I really identify with the “do your job” mentality of the New England Patriots. This brilliant motto or philosophy helped them create the greatest dynasty in American football. It says you must be aware of the responsibility you have to do your job and do it well. Understand that if you don’t, the team will lose. If you lose, everybody loses.
My other motto is do not wish for fewer problems, wish for more skills. Do not wish it was easier, wish you were better. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s what I am striving for.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I come from Thessaloniki, Greece in the province of Macedonia. It is the region where Alexander the Great and Aristotle were from. Living by the sea had a big impact on how I would most like to spend my time outside of work.
Ideally, I’d love to spend time by the ocean. Aside from my people, the sun, the beaches, and the sea are what I miss the most from Greece. I love to hang out with my friends by the beach and spend a sunny, warm day in the water playing games, swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and basically doing any other aquatic activities I can. In Greece, we say everything looks more beautiful under the sun – the Greek word for Greece means the land of light. Then, I’d spend the night enjoying good seafood and fish with my friends.
Since I live in New England now, the weather does not really support sea and beach activities. So instead, I go biking, work out, and try to enjoy nature and the beautiful parks. I also enjoy reading and listening to music.
What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume?
I’m a fragrance collector. I like suggesting fragrances and perfumes for people, and maybe at some point I’d love to create my own fragrance. It’s not just collecting though – I read a lot about different notes and the effects of different fragrances. For example, clinical studies have shown that citrus scents have antidepressant effects. I also enjoy reading about the whole fragrance industry and the chemistry of different perfumes and colognes.
If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?
It would probably be something related to the travel and tourism industry and something that allowed me to have proximity to the sea. Maybe a chef at a seafood restaurant by the beach.
What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?
I feel there is so much possibility. It’s also very motivating – I know that the diseases do not stop, so it pushes me to keep going. Even if I take a break from working, the patients will not have a break from their suffering.