In September 2016, a Portuguese team led by MIT Portugal/Universidade do Minho PhD student Raquel Almeida will test their experiment in the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Large Diameter Centrifuge. Team Achilles is one of three selected to participate in the Spin Your Thesis! Program, which allows students to research under hypergravity conditions usually only available to senior researchers. The team is developing a patterned membrane to help tendons regenerate from injuries, and hopes to obtain a bioinstructive patch that could be implanted into the patient for better results. In this experiment, the students will test the influence of hypergravity on tendon cells cultured in bioinstructive systems.
Comunicado de Imprensa em Português
Raquel Almeida is a veteran in the Spin your Thesis! Program. In 2014, she took part in the AngioGravity project, which researched the influence of hypergravity in the regeneration of damaged tissues or organs. Two of hers Achilles teammates were part of that project: Miguel Ferreira and Daniel Carvalho, both Bioengineering Master students at Faculdade de Engenharia da Universidade do Porto (FEUP)/Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas Abel Salazar (ICBAS). The team is also composed by Elsa Silva, Miguel and Daniel´s colleague at the Master course, and endorsed by Manuela Gomes, Principal Investigator at 3B’s Research Group of Universidade do Minho. Furthermore, Raquel has won the Mars One University Contest, and is currently preparing seeds to be planted on Mars. In this e-mail interview, she told us about her research, the contests and programs she is involved with and how she manages to do it all.
This is the second time you participate in the Spin Your Thesis Program!. Why did you decide to apply again?
After being selected for the SYT in 2014, we could work at the top-notch facilities of ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre, having the opportunity to interact with people from very distinct fields of expertise. During this project, we were able to understand the potential of applying altered gravity conditions to our area of research, towards the development of new therapies, particularly for the regeneration of damaged tissues or organs. In our case, the SYT campaign gives us the chance to study cell behavior under hypergravity conditions, which is still relatively unexplored. My current research is focused on cell- and biomaterial-based approaches for the regeneration of tendons and ligaments. In the body, these tissues are permanently exposed to mechanical forces and, knowing this, we decided to apply again for SYT to have the chance of testing a system that is being developed as part of my PhD work under the supervision of Manuela Gomes (3B’s Research Group). We believe this experiment will generate novel insights regarding the modulation of tendon cell response.
How did SYT help with your previous research?
I developed my previous research in the field of vascularization strategies for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. During my master, I worked under the supervision of Pedro Granja (i3S - Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde, Universidade do Porto), who also supervised the team AngioGravity during SYT 2014. We were interested in investigating the interplay between different cells during an in vitro process of capillary-like structure assembly. Distinct factors are involved in the formation of blood vessels and by further studying the influence of mechanical forces during the SYT program (in this case, hypergravity), we were able to improve the understanding on the behavior of endothelial cells, which constitute the inner layer of blood vessels. Nevertheless, SYT only allows us access to the LDC for two and a half days. Thus, by having the combined expertise from previous research and results from the AngioGravity project, we can plan new experiments to generate additional insights in what concerns the development of regenerative medicine strategies or therapeutic approaches targeting pathologies with vascular alterations.
What do you expect to accomplish this time?
In a general way, the team is interested in the development of a bioinstructive patch to regenerate tendons. Being part of the musculoskeletal system, tendons are critical elements in assuring the movements of the body, as they are responsible for the transmission of mechanical forces between muscles and bones. In addition, tendon healing seems to be a quite complex process, since natural and surgical repair have poor outcomes in terms of functionality, resulting in pain and disability and diminishing the quality of life of a patient. This inefficient repair results from difficulties in replicating the delicate organization of tendon tissues, which are mainly constituted by a matrix of hierarchically assembled and aligned fibers (mainly of collagen). Tendon cells are embedded in this niche governed not only by mechanical stimuli, but also by a balance of biochemical factors. In this project, we are combining all these cues in a membrane to guide tendon cells. Here, we produce patterned membranes using platelet lysates as a source of bioactive factors. After being selected to SYT, we have the opportunity to study the influence of hypergravity on tendon cells cultured in these bioinstructive systems. Thus, we expect to improve the obtained system, aiming at providing a regenerative niche to guide tendon cells and ultimately engineering a bioinstructive patch to be implanted into the patient. As a curiosity, whole body vibration (WBV) therapies are already applied in the clinics as hypergravity stimulation, helping to maintaining bone mass and strengthening muscle.
Team Achilles is researching tendon injuries. Are you focused on Achilles Tendon injuries or is it related to general tendon injuries?
The project isn’t only focused in Achilles tendon injuries. We have a general understanding on the physiology and pathology of different tendons. However, different anatomical sites have distinct requirements, particularly in terms of mechanical properties. The majority of research using patches is focused on enhancing the repair of rotator cuff, which is located in the shoulder. Our patch can still be modified to match the properties of different tendons and to be used as an augmentation strategy to guide the regeneration of the injured tissue.
Do you expect to take to market the patches you develop on the LDC?
These patches are still far from going to market. After understanding which are the optimal conditions – that set of characteristics that will have a true guidance effect on tendon cells – we need to investigate the functionality of the patch in a tendon defect model. Nevertheless, our approach presents a very interesting feature: we can use a material that is entirely produced from the blood of the patient (platelet lysates), avoiding compatibility issues in what concerns the use of implantable materials.
You also won the Mars One University Contest, and should be sending seeds to Mars in 2018. How is the preparation going?
The mission was delayed to 2020. We are currently working on the initial steps of payload design and on the planetary protection strategy. Our team had the chance to participate in a planetary protection workshop at ESA's European Space Research and Technology Centre.
One could say you are a “serial contester”. What do you believe you gain by participating in all these contests?
These initiatives are a great opportunity to be challenged at different levels. I had the opportunity to develop my soft skills related to project and team management, for instance. In the case of Mars One Competition, we have been working in public outreach, in contacting companies and gathering sponsors. All of us could improve our communication skills. Besides, these contests allow us to meet people from different backgrounds, being an incredible way of networking and learning. So far, we have worked with researchers from prestigious centres in the Netherlands, having very different inputs during all the works, contributing to get experience in differential ways of thinking. Considering the programs altogether, I have been improving myself both at the professional level, as a scientist, and personally, by gathering all these experiences. During these years, we have been competing not only at the European level (for SYT) but also globally (Mars One Competition) and I believe we can inspire other students to embrace new challenges. In Portugal, we still have a general underappreciated idea of ourselves and it’s our job (it’s an “all-of-us” job) to change that paradigm. The main reward I get from this is, step by step, inspiring others to go further, to push themselves to the limit (no, it’s not easy to be enrolled in a bunch of projects, having simultaneously a full time PhD to finish). I think this is the road towards generating excellence, in science, or any other career.
How did you start that path and what would you recommend other students who wish to follow it?
This is the funny part of the story. In 2013, I finished my master degree from FEUP and, some time after defending my thesis, my supervisor, Pedro Granja, called me. He had a group of students (from the Integrated Master in Bioengineering, FEUP) interested in applying to SYT and to propose an experiment in the field of regenerative medicine. This was how I met Miguel Ferreira and Daniel Carvalho (who are also part of the teams Achilles and Seed) and Guilherme Aresta (also from Seed, Mars One). Together, we decided to write a proposal related to vascularization strategies, as it was the focus of my master thesis. I consider I was lucky enough to have the privilege of meeting this group of outstanding students, who somehow inspired me at first. The group is now extended, with Teresa Araújo (Seed team) and Elsa Silva (Achilles team), all from the same course (FEUP). The main advice I can give to other students is to enrol in projects (look for calls from ESA Education Office), to be part of networks, like the Student European Low Gravity Research Association (SELGRA), which provides information on gravity related initiatives for students and organizes conferences. Besides these programs, there are a lot of initiatives in universities organized by students (groups that organize conferences, debates, etc.) – it’s as simple as looking around. Before, I was also involved in the creation of a junior enterprise. During my course (Biology) at the Faculty of Sciences, Univ. of Porto (FCUP), I co-founded Scientia FCUP Junior Enterprise in collaboration with other colleagues, I was president for 2 years and I still am advisor of the board. There are a lot of opportunities out there. The most important thing in a career (and in life) is to be active, to look for or even to create opportunities. I consider the key to success to lie in motivating yourself to do more and better, without giving up or being afraid of the challenge!
Angiogravity - https://www.facebook.com/angiogravity
Seed Mars One - https://www.facebook.com/seedmarsone
Scientia - http://www.scientiafcup.org