Cristina Müller

Cristina Müller, radiopharmaceutical research scientist

© Paul Scherrer Institut PSI/Markus Fischer

Cristina Müller does research in the Centre for Radiopharmaceutical Sciences at PSI. Radiopharmaceuticals are radioactive substances that are injected into the blood stream to image tumour cells or to fight them. The basic principle of Müller’s work is illustrated in the drawing next to her: The molecules are constructed in such a way that one part, the ligand, docks onto the surface of tumour cells, like a key in a lock. Another part carries the drug, a radioactive nuclide. During radioactive decay, radionuclides used in therapy emit electrons that form aggressive radicals in the tumour cell. These can attack the cell’s genetic material and, thus, destroy the cancer cell. Her goal is to develop radiopharmaceuticals that target and kill tumour cells more precisely.

By the time she began secondary school, Cristina Müller had already developed a preference for subjects in the natural sciences, thanks largely to her excellent teachers. She faced a dilemma when choosing a career direction, as she was equally interested in chemistry, biology, and medicine. She eventually chose pharmacy, a subject in which she could cover several of her areas of interest and combine them in an interdisciplinary manner. At ETH Zurich, after completing the basic semesters in pharmacy at the University of Bern, she came face to face with her future field of expertise, radiopharmaceuticals. The subject was being taught by August Schubiger, who was head of the Centre for Radiopharmaceutical Sciences at PSI at the time. This resulted in her coming to PSI for the first time, for her diploma thesis, in 2000. 

Again, it was the interdisciplinary nature of radiopharmaceutical research that appealed to the young scientist. Physics, chemistry, biology, pharmacy, and medicine – they all came into play. After her successful state examination at ETH Zurich, Cristina Müller worked for a year and a half as a pharmacist in a public pharmacy, before finally deciding to return to PSI. She did her doctoral work in the research group of Roger Schibli, who today is head of the Centre for Pharmaceutical Sciences. After that, she went abroad for two years, to the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. At the end of 2007, she came back to PSI again, this time as a postdoctoral researcher.

After just under a year, she was awarded an Ambizione grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation – a first step towards scientific independence. Cristina Müller put together a small team and was able to advance her own research projects. In 2014, she became head of the Nuclide Chemistry research group. Her work with the radionuclide terbium-161, which she used in preclinical trials against prostate cancer, was honoured in 2018 with the prestigious Marie Curie Award. In 2023, cited for her world-class radiopharmaceutical research, she was appointed titular professor at ETH Zurich.

As head of a research team – currently 15 strong, including students, doctoral candidates, postdocs, lab technicians, and an apprentice – and given her dedication to her own work, she often has to let hobbies fall by the wayside. Nevertheless, Cristina Müller does make time for a second passion dating back to her school days: studying foreign languages. She finds that foreign languages not only expand one’s horizons but can also make things easier during holiday travel or in the international academic environment. She says it’s also a great way to train your memory, though it’s not as easy for her as it once was. She is currently studying Brazilian Portuguese – she’s been to Brazil and would like to go back one day.

Text: Paul Scherrer Institute PSI/Christian Heid

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