Interview with Irene Marco-Rius and Javier Ramón Azcón, coordinators of BLoC project

BLoC is a European Project that brings together different academic and industrial partners to improve a new technology that integrates tissue engineering and magnetic resonance spectroscopy using dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP-MR), to monitor diabetes and liver diseases.

Irene and Javier talked about their work and involvement in the project, and shared with us some personal feelings and opinions about the project and the future of this new technology.

1) What is your role within BLoC and what does it entail?

Irene:
We are the coordinators of the BLOC Consortium and that implies bringing all the team together. It means making sure that all work packages and all the partners are working towards the same goal, organizing regular and review meetings, writing reports, ensuring that the communication with the European Commission is fluent and regular, and of course contributing with scientific ideas.
Besides being coordinators of the project, we are also the scientific leaders of the specific work packages of the projects that are being developed at IBEC in our research groups.

Javier:
As coordinators we always have these 2 missions: to take care of the full project and to put all the small pieces of each work package and partners together to have the big picture of the work.

2) Could you tell us a little bit about the concrete work you are involved in inside BLoC project?

Irene:
Within the consortium, our workpackage is the link between the biological model and the new technology. From a biological point of view, the project focuses on two disease models: one is the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and the other one is diabetes. We want to see the changes in metabolic reactions these diseases induce.
From a tissue engineering point of view, we are lucky to count with Javi’s experience and knowledge. On the other hand, my scientific background in molecular imaging serves as a good starting point to assess what parameters are needed to have a good match between tissue engineering and NMR.

Javier:
Our main contribution to the project is to join some pieces that usually are not together, not integrated, as tissue engineering and NMR technology. We are the bridge between the technology and the biological part.
Related to science, I can say that Irene has a lot of experience in NMR and nuclear polarization, and in in vivo and cell experiments, which are crucial to develop the project. Besides, in our lab, we already had previous experience in working with tissue engineering by using similar models. This helped a lot to start the project!

3) What is the expected impact of the work you are doing and of the project as a whole?

Irene:
The impact to the whole consortium is that we will develop a portable machine, a benchtop device, that any tissue engineering lab, environmental research facility or company can potentially use. Anyone that needed this technology could have it in their laboratory, or even in their office space, if they wanted! An easy-to-use machine with minimal maintenance cost!

Javier:
At the end of the project, we want to have a new machine that everyone can use, and that is accessible for anyone, even for people who do not have too much experience or training in NMR technology. We expect at least three different areas to be impacted by our project:

  • Commercial: this machine can be easily commercialized (user-friendly and economically accessible)
  • Society: we will develop a new machine to study metabolic diseases and help people by studying highly prevalent diseases. Moreover, the use of tissue engineering will reduce animal experimentation in clinical trials.
  • Scientific and technological: we will have a new tool to make some studies that were not possible before. Using human models in tissue engineering instead of animal models will reduce possible biological differences with human biology for the pharma industry.

4) What are some of the things you have found easy/challenging to work with in this project?

Irene:
Finding the best model that replicates human physiology in the lab is quite hard. Additionally, we want to find the simplest working model, so other people can use it easily, in a fast and reproducibly way in the lab. This is very challenging!

Javier:
We must find a compromise: we need cell models that work in a way that we can easily reproduce to have a standard system suitable to do lots of experiments, but at the same time, we need a model that mimics as much as possible the functionalities of the in vivo human system. In summary, we need a compromise between a good and easy model to standardize the machine.

5) How do you see the future of this technology?

Irene:
I see a brilliant future! We are still at the beginning of the project, but in 1 year we have made a lot of progress. We do think that at the end of the project we will have achieved the objective of having a prototype of this benchtop NMR machine. And only time can tell if we will be able to have more efficient tissue engineering models, use the benchtop NMR spectrometer to understand other diseases or whether it will be used in other areas such as environmental sciences.

Javier:
There are so many potential applications for this machine, that for the moment we are not sure of which will be the final ones. Once we have the machine, we may have lots of potential projects and applications to use it, which will in turn validate our system in different technological and research fields. Toward the end of the project we will have a clearer view of the potential uses of this new technology.

6) Do you have any lessons to share?

Irene:
This is a very ambitious and challenging project that can only be done with a multidisciplinary team,  where all the partners involved have different skills, are motivated to make it happen and push the project towards the same goal. I think that a good outcome for the future is that we will continue working together in other challenges where engineering, informatics, biology, and tissue engineering are needed. It is the first time that we all are working together, and it is going so well that we will probably stick together in the future. For the moment, the take-home lesson is that having a great team is the most important element for success!

Javier:
We are still at the beginning, but what we can say is that for this type of project, which have at the same time technological and biological approaches, the way to integrate engineers (for example, NMR engineers) with clinician groups (as the IDIBAPS) is quite tricky and requires to talk the same language. This would be one lesson for the future: find a common language that we can share between totally different fields.

 

The other members of the BLoC Consortium are: Oxford Instruments, Multiwave Technologies and IDIBAPS.
If you want to know more about the project, Irene, Javier and the other partners, check the BLOC project webpage.

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science we present the women that helps making BLOC a reality

Today, the 11th of February, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, declared by a resolution of the United Nations on 2015. This day recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology. To celebrate it, BLOC wants to make visible the eight women involved on the project.

Inside this small interview you will find out about their trajectory and discover some reflections and personal experiences related with what they think about the role of women in science.

Enjoy the reading!

 

I am the coordinator and scientific lead of the BLOC project. I studied Physics and decided to learn more about Medical Physics and Biochemistry to do research that addresses biomedical questions and solves everyday problems. Science doesn’t have a gender and welcomes everyone with an insatiable curiosity!

Fun fact: Did you know that quantum mechanics is the basis of magnetic resonance imaging?

 

My name is Isabel Sáez and I am the Project Manager of BLOC’s project. I am a trained Biochemist and did my PhD in neuronal metabolism. I later moved to Cologne, Germany, to continue with my postdoc, which was focused on proteostasis in stem cells and aging. Since Summer 2019, I work at IBEC and currently manage 4 research groups, among them the group of Dr. Javier Ramon. My role in BLOC is ensuring a successful implementation of the project by, coordinating the management, communication between partners and the Research Executive Agency, the report of the project or organizing meetings, among others.
Events which promote the “International Day of Women and Girls in Science” are key for raising awareness of the scientific possibilities to girls, encouraging them to pursue a scientific career and reduce gender inequality already from early points in education.  As it is the case in almost all professional areas, women are clearly underrepresented in high positions in science. Thus, as equally qualified, women have to access to these senior positions, thus closing the current gender gap. I have been actively involved in the last years in promoting the career of Women in Science by, i.e. organizing the Seminar Series “Women in Science and Society Lectures” at the Research Consortium 829: Molecular Mechanisms of Skin homeostasis together with the University Cologne.

 

I am clinical Endocrinologist dedicated mainly  to diabetes care. I am also  the leader of the IDIBAPS group namely  Pathogenesis and Prevention of Diabetes. During the last decades  I have been conducting  different projects focused on islet biology, inter-organ cross-talk and lifestyle interventions to control diabetes. My role in the BLOC project is to supervise the pancreatic islet experiments and to bring my clinical experience to help the exploitable potential of the new invented techniques.
Scientific advancement is achieved with knowledge, effort, tenacity and excellence. None of these qualities is incompatible with being a woman. However, women must face and fight from a very young age against the cultural rules established for centuries. Many times society  forces young women to choose between family and scientific career. Indeed with a more equal society between genders women will decide their future and their preferences. Making the family compatible with science is a challenge for everyone.

 

I’m Maria Alejandra Ortega postdoctoral researcher of the Biosensors for Bioengineering Group at IBEC. I was born in Venezuela but my parents are Spanish so I have both nationalities. I did a bachelor and a Master in Chemistry in Venezuela. In 2010 I was accepted by the Nanoplasmonic’s group led by Prof Romain Quidant to perform a PhD in Photonics in the Institute of Photonics Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona. Finally, in 2017 I joined the group of Prof Javier Ramon to give support in the development of OOC devices and its integration with sensing platforms. Since 2 years ago I have combined my research activities with a Tech transfer manager role inside the group. I’m owner of a master in Project management together as well as a master in Business Administration (MBA), which allowed me to drive exploitation activities of some of the research developed in the group to a potential market. Inside the BLOC I’m working together with the Tech transfer Department as a support staff in the exploitation and IP protection strategies. Outside my professional side, I’m mother of two boys and a baby girl (expecting delivery day May 2021). During my free time I dedicate my entire time with them balancing like this my two passion: my family and my professional  life.
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science in my opinion is taking every year more visibility due to the general motivation of the scientific society in increasing an active participation of women into the scientific ecosystem. I strongly believe that these initiatives are changing gradually the situation, although there is still too much work to do in that sense.

 

My name is Samantha Morón-Ros and my main role in the BLOC project is to develop novel strategies to improve the islet-on-chip devices and to phenotype mouse models of diet-induced obesity. I obtained my PhD at the University of Barcelona where I studied the cross-talk between different tissues in the context of thermogenesis and obesity. I also participated in projects related to immunology.

 

My name is Bia Moreno and I am the communications officer of the BLOC Project. My role is to disseminate the scientific and technological results of the project not only to the scientific and industrial community, but also to the general public, people that do not have a direct connexion with science but is interested in it. This is a very challenging, motivating and exciting task!  I am formerly a scientist, with a PhD in Molecular Biology, and after several years doing research in different laboratories I decided to fuse this background with science communication, because I really believe that a society that has access to science is more critical and prepared to face new challenges.
I have participated on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science giving talks to students from different ages, and it’s very gratifying to see that some of them realise that a woman can also be a scientist. It is very interesting to discuss with them about scientist stereotypes and show them that, contrary to what they usually see on the TV, we are “normal” people that make teamwork and have a family! You don’t need to be a crazy man with your hair in a mess to do science!

 

My name is Alba and I am currently working on the tissue engineering aspect of the BLOC project, taking care of the biological aspects involved.
I believe that having a day to shine light on the fact that women are capable and necessary in science is important to show the girls and boys that working together is possible and indispensable to advance together as a society, as well as the fact that science is not an unattainable goal for anybody as long as they put their heart in it.

 

My name is Megdouda Benamara. I obtained my PhD at the Graduate School of Electronics and Electrical Engineering of Paris and afterwards I joined  Multiwave, were I work as MRI RF engineer. My research interests include the design of metamaterials to improve performance of MRI coils.

 

 

 

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science we present the women that helps making
BLOC a reality

Bloc researchers present their work in the 13th IBEC Symposium

The 13th IBEC Symposium took place, from the 27th to the 28th October 2020 under the motto “Future and Precision Medicine”. For the first time, this event was held online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. It counted with the participation of more than 400 registered attendees, who gave 18 flash presentations and presented 106 posters. Top international researchers, such as Robert Langer from the MIT, Ada Cavalcanti from the University of Heidelberg and the Max Plank Institute and Raquel Yotti, Director of the Carlos III Health Institute, contributed to this high  level event on Bioengineering for Health.

BLOC researchers from the “Biosensors for bioengineering” laboratory at IBEC, in Barcelona, also participated showing their latest results.

Jose Yeste, postdoc researcher, gave a flash presentation where he talked about in situ metabolomic analysis, magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging using dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP-MR) with the aim to monitor diseases and evaluate drug response.

The other contribution of BLOC came from Marc Azagra, a PhD student from the same research group at IBEC. Marc presented a poster with an innovative protocol to analyse biomarkers for Myotonic dystrophy type1 in patient-derived tissues via nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. Irene Marco-Rius and Javier Ramón, coordinators of BLOC Project, were also co-authors of the poster.

Next year BLOC Project will be present in other international events with many more posters and presentations.

Barcelona hosts the kick-off meeting of the EU project BLOC

The Kick-Off meeting of the FET-Open EU project BLOC (Benchtop NMR for Lab-on-chip), an initiative led by Javier Ramón and Irene Marco from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia in Barcelona (IBEC), took place this week in Barcelona.

The event has brought together all the partners of the project, who have taken the opportunity to introduce themselves and explain their roles and responsibilities. The consortium members also presented the main production and research lines of the project and defined the work plan for the following months.

Among the beneficiaries of BLOC there are two research centres: the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), which covers most bioengineering fields, from basic research to medical applications, and the Consorci Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), a public research centre dedicated to translational research in the field of biomedicine.

Moreover, the consortium counts on two high-tech companies: Oxford Instruments (OI), a leading provider of high technology solutions, information and support for industry and research, and Multiwave Technologies AG (MW), a deep science technology company incubating, developing and bringing to market a portfolio of metamaterial innovations.

Main Production and Research Lines

All the partners of BLOC will work together until 2022 to make our lives easier by offering us new approaches to metabolic disease modelling and drug discovery. Concretely, partners will develop a new technology based on magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging using dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP-MR) integrated with organ-on-a-chip (OOC) devices to monitor disease and evaluate drug response in OOC models.

As a proof-of-concept, the project will fabricate a biomimetic multi OOC integrated device composed of liver spheroids and pancreatic islets and develop the necessary DNP-MR hardware and software to study metabolic diseases and for future drug screening applications.

Organ-on-a-chip (OOC) devices offer new approaches to metabolic disease modelling and drug discovery by providing biologically relevant models of tissues and organs in vitro integrated with sensing technology. As such, OOC devices have the potential to revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry by enabling reliable and high predictive in vitro testing of drug candidates.

To date, the capability to miniaturise microfluidic systems and advanced tissue fabrication procedures have enabled researchers to create multiple tissues on a chip with a high degree of control over experimental variables for high-content screening applications.