The Bragg Centre is proud to celebrate the achievements of its community.
This year despite the difficulties of the global pandemic, our members have continued to deliver successes across the breadth of the Centre’s research activity.
In support of the publication of the Bragg Centre’s Annual Report 2019–2020, we would like to shine a spotlight on some of the people who make our community a vibrant and stimulating research environment.
Enhancing IVF treatment with an Organ-on-Chip approach
Dr Virginia Pensabene
University Academic Fellow
Today, around 12% of the world’s population struggle to conceive naturally. Sadly, understanding the origin of this increasing infertility rate is difficult due to ethical limitations and discrepancies between humans and current animal models.
One prevalent solution to this problem is In Vitro fertilisation, which has changed lives for the better and created many more. However, although widely used, current success rates of these treatments remain suboptimal, with direct impact on costs for NHS and pain for patients.
To rectify this, Dr Virginia Pensabene, is developing improved model systems to aid fundamental fertility research as well as technologies that provide an optimised environment for culturing embryos and thereby increasing the success rates of In Vitro fertilisation treatments.
To achieve this, her research is creating new microfluidic systems that better replicate the human physiology than a bare petri dish. This approach is referred to as an organ-on-chip model and these can be derived from a patient’s own cells which enables researchers to observe the function of an organ tissue under natural conditions or when that tissue is stimulated by drugs, toxins or unknown compounds.
With this in mind, Virginia’s work is developing new techniques to better grow embryos in vitro and to continually assess their development, through the creation of new organs-on-chip models that recreate the function of the amniotic sac and the placenta.
Virginia described how a key underlying challenge is to source more appropriate materials for manufacturing these in vitro systems;
“The medical and in vitro devices of the future need to be safe and sustainable, so my research aims to test and identify new, bio-derived materials for manufacturing zero waste in vitro systems for research and clinical intervention…”
Much of this work is related to microfabrication of microfluidic systems and manufacturing with polymers, making extensive use of the Bragg Centres’ Nanotechnology cleanroom and Bionanotechnology expertise.
With a view to translation of her research Virginia and her team, have established IVFmicro, which is participating in an UKRI ICURe programme to engage with prospective customers, regulators, clinicians and competitors in the global IVF marketplace. This will help Virginia to validate the commercial potential of the patented embryo culture technology and is an essential step towards the commercialisation of the technology. This is supported work to identify and test non-toxic manufacturing materials for the devices in collaboration with several international medical device manufacturers, including Eden Tech, Micronit Microtechnologies and the Microfluidic Chipshop.
Virginia has an engineering background and became passionate about organs-on-chip models and toxicology during her postdoctoral work. She joined the University of Leeds as a UAF in 2016 supported by a Marie Curie Fellowship and narrowed her focus to the development of new models of the female reproductive organs. Her work is in
keeping with the Bragg Centre’s ethos of multi-disciplinarity and benefits by a mix of collaborators from Reproductive Biology, Material Science, Molecular Biology and Engineering.
When speaking about how the Bragg Centre supports her work, Virginia said:
“The creation of these new systems for supporting the in vitro development of highly dynamic cells such as embryos and tissues derived from the placenta and the uterus, requires the selection and fine characterisation of materials, in particular the evaluation of innovative biocompatible and bioderived materials that are possible only with the state-of-the-art facilities that the Bragg centre provides.”
The Bragg Centre annual report provides a snapshot of the productivity, outputs and achievements of our advanced materials research community, with a strong emphasis on the people who deliver these successes.