David Martínez Martín: ‘Spain is one of the best countries in science’


David Martínez Martín (Aranda de Duero, 1982) has invented a device that calculates changes in a cell’s weight in real time: the Cytomass Monitor. The device is expected to lead to huge progress in all kinds of disease treatments.

David Martínez Martín holds a degree in Physics from the University of Valladolid and a PhD in Physics summa cum laude from the Autonomous University of Madrid. He continued studying and doing research in the United States, Germany and Switzerland, where he currently lives. He is working on the development of the Cytomass Monitor commercial prototype for ETH Zürich and the Swiss company Nanosurf AG.

You have developed an innovative technology that can measure and weigh living cells quickly and accurately. How does it work?

The device we have developed is what we call an inertial balance. It measures the difficulty in accelerating cells, that is, it uses an amount of inertia. Strange as it may seem, no big movements are required. We have a kind of ‘microscopic cantilever’ where the cell can live for several days.

The cantilever is laser-induced to oscillate slightly, between 1 and 5 atoms of interatomic spacing. With this very small movement, we can measure a cell’s mass very quickly and with great accuracy.

When and how did you start working on your invention?

In 2012, when I first came to Switzerland. For many years, I would say for over a hundred years, scientists, particularly biomedical scientists, have been trying to find out how cells regulate their size.

Our body is made up of cells. When we look at our eyes or our organs, we realise that our cells must know when they must stop growing, what the best size is to be part of these organs… and they are really precise at that.

However, our understanding of the mechanisms of cell growth regulation is still very poor. What we do know is that some diseases, like cancer, result from failures in these mechanisms. So in order to learn how cells regulate their size we needed a really precise measuring instrument.

Your cell scale can track a cell’s mass fluctuations for a comparatively long time…

That’s right. Scientists can conduct experiments and measure the mass of cells within a very short time, but they can also monitor how their weight changes over time. They can do so with millisecond time resolution.

What could be the medical applications of your cell scale?

It could be used to understand the mechanisms pathogens use to attack cells, or to observe the effect of pathogens in the cells they invade. Also, it could be used to see what happens when cells are infected by a virus, or to analyse tumour evolution and learn why and how cancer cells grow.

What is your opinion about Spanish science?

Spain has excellent scientists and research centres. I myself studied in Spain – Physics at the University of Valladolid and then at the Autonomous University of Madrid. I would like to congratulate our country because Spanish scientists working abroad are highly praised. They are living evidence of the quality of Spain’s higher education.

And what do scientific communities from other countries think about Spanish science?

Spain is one of the best countries in science. It has excellent researchers and facilities. Despite the fact that in Spain they get much less funding than in other countries, scientists do ground-breaking research in the country. This is why Spanish scientists always catch the attention of scientific communities from other countries.