In the second instalment of our ‘STARSTEM researchers’ series, we reached out to Dr Marta Nardini of the Università di Genova (UNIGE) to find out more about cells and extracellular vesicles for therapeutic applications and researcher life during Covid-19.
Two UNIGE departments are involved in the STARSTEM project. The Dipartimento di Medicina Sperimentale (DIMES) brings many years of experience and expertise in cell production and animal models of regenerative medicine to the project. The Department of Internal Medicine and Medical Specialties (DIMI) involves 12 disciplinary scientific fields that widely cover the field of internal medicine, medical specialties and translational medicine, making cross-integration of research possible: oncology; cardiology; pneumology; gastroenterology; endocrinology; nephrology, clinical immunology; rheumatology; pharmacology and applied biology.
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your role in UNIGE. What is your role in STARSTEM?
I am a Post-Doc in UNIGE with a PhD in Translational Medicine. During my PhD, thanks to the wide expertise of UNIGE in Regenerative Medicine and in particular in Mesenchymal Stem cell research, I was able to improve my training in this field.
After my PhD, I am involved in STARSTEM Horizon 2020 Project, as Post-Doc for my technical know-how on mesenchymal stem cells, extracellular vesicles and xeno-free culture medium supplement.
My role in the project is to follow the cell cultures production, in vitro and in vivo characterization of several cell populations that will be used from the other partners. In particular I work on the production of Platelet derivatives used as culture medium supplement for the selection and cultivation of a large number of mesenchymal stem cells.
Why is STARSTEM important to UNIGE? What unique opportunities does it present?
STARSTEM is an innovative project that propose a new technology to monitoring of the activity and the tracking of cells during their application in tissue regeneration as osteoarthritis. STARSTEM provides UNIGE a new opportunity to develop new instrument useful for clinical application. In particular is important for UNIGE the share of the expertise regarding cells and extracellular vesicles used for regenerative purposes with a novel nanotechnology enhanced optoacoustic imaging platform, which represent the key element of the project, in order to increase the capability of cells and extracellular vesicles tracking, biodistribution, engraftment and mechanisms of action.
Besides STARSTEM offers to the young researchers involved in the project, the opportunity to actively interact with high profile European partners with different know-how.
During the meetings, the exchange of experience broadens the training and gives indications on possible professional choices for the future.
The production and optimisation of stem cells, extracellular vesicles, and culture medium has many challenges. What do you see as the major ones?
The production of cells and extracellular vesicles for therapeutic applications requires the use of a xeno-free tissue culture medium in order to avoid the animal components contamination and limiting the use of animal derivatives for bioethical reasons. In this view the use of human platelet derivatives as medium supplement, represents an effective alternative that overcomes all these problems.
With the optimization of the cells culture environment, in addition, the exosome production capacity of the cells could be improved. Cells and vesicles represent main tool of tissue regeneration. So their traceability through new marking methods will favour technologies that must monitor the fate of cells implanted in the body
Personally, what has been the best part of working on STARSTEM?
From scientific point of view the best part lies at the heart of the project. The most interesting idea is the labelling of mesenchymal stem cells that will be used to regenerate a pathological tissue: this will allow for the first time to monitor the cells inoculated in the body up to the site of activity, allowing to evaluate all the activities carried out by the themselves during the reparative phase.
Besides with other young researchers involved in the STARSTEM project, we form a networking group which opens my mind to new realities and implements my work activity.
Covid-19 has seriously impacted how we go about our work day. Tell us about your experiences.
Covid-19 pandemic impacted a lot in our work, from March to May we could not continued our work, we performed only smart working, and as you can understand for our work is a very difficult situation.
We also, working with human-derived cells and supplement, have had many difficulties to recover material as cells and platelets to perform our experiments. So this situation now places serious restriction on our work, in term of obtaining the samples. From June until now we have started again a slow recovery of biological samples from the surgery clinics. The new worsening of the actual situation sets us many limits again.
We hope, to be able very soon, to work again without any restrictions.