Conversations Between Body and Metal
What drives physicist Prof Regine Willumeit-Römer?
Teamwork within the "MMetallic Biomaterials" (Shortname WB) is very important to Regine Willumeit-Römer. Photo: HZG/Christian Schmid
Prof Regine Willumeit-Römer leads the Metallic Biomaterials Division at the Institute of Materials Research
Life sometimes takes us down strange roads. Prof Regine Willumeit-Römer moved into a new building at the HZG with her division in autumn of 2018. It is there with her team that she researches how magnesium implants behave in our bodies. What happens at this border between physics and biology, where metal meets human cells?
At the beginning of her career, however, she wasn’t interested in the microscopically small, but in the opposite: “Outer space fascinated me as a child. My father had explained to me back then that light needs years to reach Earth. That’s something I wanted to understand better. So I started to read books on astrophysics.” As a school student, she travels from her home in Westphalia to the trade fair in Hannover and visits the DESY booth. She wants to discover more about the place where researchers simulate the Big Bang. She makes contacts, snags a student internship at the particle accelerator in Hamburg – a rare opportunity at the time – or which she sacrifices her entire summer. “There I met people from all over the world,” explains Willumeit-Römer. “They got together over coffee and discussed new theories. I thought to myself: wow, that’s the way work can be! You make a difference as a team. I knew then that I wanted to do this later too!”
So after she finishes secondary school, she heads to Hamburg to study physics. Sure, mathematics and biology were her main courses in secondary school – not bad preparation. But she had dropped physics in school, of all subjects.
“Calculating parallelograms of forces and free fall – found that completely boring. That wasn’t the type of physics that interested me.
In her first semester, however, she came up against these very things again, and Willumeit-Römer soon thought of giving up. “I had the papers for un-enrolling on my desk and had even celebrated a farewell party with my friends. But the others convinced me to keep going. We even tore up the paper the same evening.” Willumeit-Römer holds on and finishes her degree. “As a lone fighter,” she says, “I never would have made it on my own.” She obtains a doctoral student position at the GKSS in Geesthacht, where she studies proteins. She said goodbye to astrophysics – a fruitless art – long before that.
“I really wanted to leave university research after my dissertation. There was already a lucrative offer from the commercial sector,” she says. Again, it was external motivation that changed everything: her department head received a call from abroad – the institute director asked Willumeit-Römer if she would like to be his successor. “That meant several steps ahead in my career all in one go. So I accepted.” Why did they choose her? “As a doctoral candidate earlier I had led guided tours for visiting groups. I wanted to know what the other departments at the centre were actually doing. In hindsight, it really helped me. This was because suddenly I knew a great number of colleagues and I wound up in a role as a sort of mediator. My institute leader said at that time: ‘You’re the only one who can explain to me what is going on in your department.’
She initially researched a new form of antibiotics in her small department. She returned to metal again through a mixture of coincidence, teamwork and communication: on the recommendation of her institute director, Willumeit-Römer developed titanium implant coatings and studied the biological reaction.
“I noticed at certain point that magnesium is a much more exciting material for such experiments.”
This is because magnesium degrades, unlike titanium, in the human organism.
Today Willumeit-Römer’s institute division researches magnesium implants, such as screws that hold broken bones together. Because they dissolve, this spares the patient a second surgery in which the implant would need to be removed. This, for example, is the case with children, whose bones are still growing – but their metal prostheses are not. They cannot, therefore, remain inside the body. The costs of such subsequent surgeries in Germany alone are more than a billion Euros per year.
Regine Willumeit-Römer describes the interaction of the biochemical reactions between magnesium and human cells as a “conversation”, as “communication” This dialogue, she says, ends only when the screw has completely degraded within the body. There are at present only a few approved magnesium implants on the market, and the surgeons are closely observing how the material performs in the patient. Willumeit-Römer’s hope for the fifteen remaining years of her career? “That magnesium will at some point be well established as a material utilised in osteosynthesis.” She views this as a “ninety per cent chance of happening.” To achieve this, she’ll do what she’s always done. Working hard. Talking to a great number of people. Remaining a curious team player. And continuing to listen to the secret dialogues between bone and metal.
Author: Jochen Metzger
Published in2science #7 (December 2017)