As most of the living beings, cells require very special conditions in order to live in community and organize. The secret lies in unveiling those conditions, in the same way an architect builds houses to satisfy their residents needs.
Could you tell us a bit about your first contact with Biology?
Yes, it started early on in my life. I was born in Mar del Plata, Province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1965. I lived here until I was 6. Then, my family and I moved to the Province of Salta, in the north of Argentina. Here was where my interest in Biology started, surrounded by a variety of fauna and flora, which resulted in my fascination with nature. My mother was my main mentor. She encouraged my two sisters and I to love and respect nature. We had a monkey at home called Martín and a variety of animals we caught, for example, frogs, rococo toads (a species of toad native to South America that can be up to 20 cm long and is sometimes too heavy to be able to jump), birds that fell from trees, insects, arachnids and, of course, dogs and cats! Together with my mother, I ran an ‘insect health center’, in which we rescued insects from the pool, dried them with paper and kept them in cages until they were able to resume their normal lives. During the following years, as an adolescent, my summer hobby was going up the sedimentary river springs in the Argentine Mesopotamia looking for fossils and identifying species of local fauna and flora. This activity connected me directly with the idea of biodiversity, its evolution and mechanisms.
How about your education on this field?
At the age of twelve, my mother gave me ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ and ‘The origin of species’ by Charles Darwin (1860 edition), which I read during the following summers. My passion for Biology was quite clear and that was why I didn’t have any doubts at the time of choosing my course of studies. My father was an engineer, as well as his father, and he wanted me to become one too. However, it wasn’t difficult for me to make him change his mind and I started studying Biology at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in the summer of 1984. Curiously, some years later (more than 30) I find myself working on Bioengineering, as if I would have continued my father’s legacy somehow. I graduated in 1990 with a specialization in Molecular Biology and Genetics. Then I made my PhD in Chemistry at Fundación Campomar, founded by Luis Federico Leloir Ph D (who received the 1970 Nobel Prize for Chemistry). My doctoral thesis tutor was Dankert Ph D, who worked on biosynthesis and the structure of bacterial complex polysaccharides.
What came next?
Once I finished my Ph D in 1994, my family and I moved to Boston, USA, where I worked at the Center for Cancer Research of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), together with Phil Robbins, under a postdoctoral contract of 4 years. It was a hard but fruitful time because of both the experience of living abroad and working at the MIT. In 1998 I started working at Phylonix Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (a spinoff of Harvard Medical School). I spent two years working with zebrafish embryos, using them as models to test the toxicity of drugs. I was in charge of the molecular toxicology area and I developed systems for analyzing and identifying toxicity in organs (mainly the liver) of drugs (used to treat cancer), which resulted in a patent.
Even though my experience in this field was quite gratifying, my interest in fundamental research took me back to the institute. At the end of 1999, I applied for a position as researcher at MIT. I worked there from 2000 to 2008 as a designer and manufacturer of artificial extracellular matrixes for the obtention of tissues (mainly hepatic and skeletal muscle) capable of generating tissue models and their further applicability in both fundamental science and Biomedicine. Also at MIT, together with other scientists, I developed a synthetic extracellular matrix, PuraMatrix, which was the beginning of amy companybusiness, called 3DMatrix, Inc.
What has made PuraMatrix unique?
PuraMatrix has been the first commercial product with similar properties to natural collagen. With this self-assembling, peptide-based material, it was possible to obtain three-dimensional (3D) cell cultures, as it happens in vivo. Nowadays, there exist hundreds of similar materials inspired in PuraMatrix. In 2007 I was hired as a professor at the IQS-School of Engineering, Ramon Llull University, in Barcelona and in 2008 I started working at my new Tissue Engineering Laboratory.
Which research lines are you working on in your laboratory?
My Tissue Engineering Laboratory was financed by gants that I obtained from the European Commission (Sixth and Seventh Framework Programme) as well as by private institutions (AO Foundation from Switzerland, TV3 Marató from Barcelona, etc.). I developed a programme applicable at both educational and research levels, which consisted of developing complex cellular systems. These systems are based on the study of what I call ‘the social life of the cells’ and is an holistic study approach to the development of functional tissues according to principles of embryo growth, self-organization phenomena and suitable environmental conditions. In other words, as most of the living beings, cells require very special conditions in order to live in community and organize. Once they are organized, we can educate them, helping them grow and develop into functional tissues. That is why we can group liver cells (hepatocytes) but if the conditions aren’t suitable, those cells lack liver function. The secret lies in unveiling those conditions, in the same way an architect builds houses to satisfy their residents’ needs.
What applications does your investigation have?
In fact, Bioengineering is like cellular architecture. With those fundamental principles it’s possible to explain in simple words what a group of cells needs (either embryonic or adult stem cells) to form a tissue, create a system of regeneration or even a tumor. At my laboratory, the team’s work is to obtain different types of tissue, such as myocardium, cartilage, bone, liver, pancreatic and tumor tissues. These have their own growth dynamic, similar to the embryos but with a different paradigm. The Tissue Engineering Laboratory is formed by Ph D, Master and University Degree students and also welcomes international professionals from different parts of the world, who come for an internship and are trained in 3D cell culture.
When I was working at MIT I received exchange students from IQS who came to do their Degree Final Project at my laboratory. My first student was Elsa Genové, who invited me to Barcelona to participate as defense tribunal member as a juror in her dissertation. I remember falling in love with the city during my first visit in 2004. I felt really comfortable and happy there. Although at first I didn’t know exactly why that happened to me, then I realized Barcelona is a wonderful city because of both its architecture and its sociocultural offer. The city has what an Argentine person living abroad would dream of. It’s a lively and mysterious city, with endless hidden corners and beautiful landscapes of the sea and the mountain. It’s also a forward-looking city that takes care of its history, with a lot of possibilities for settling down and growing. Moreover, Barcelona is a modern destination with plenty of job opportunities in my field and a top city in Europe. In 2007 I was offered a job opportunity in Barcelona and I didn’t doubt it for a minute.
What’s the role of Oi Real Estate in your life?
I’ve lived in different neighborhoods of Barcelona, including Sarrià, the area of Ronda Ginardó and Eixample. With the help of Oi Real Estate I have purchased a house in Les Planes. It’s a privileged area just 10 minutes away from my job by train and 15 from Plaza Catalunya, right in the heart of the city. Here, close to Collserola Natural Park, our new house enjoys a fresh mountain air surrounded by trees and very close to the city, as well. After travelling a lot, I think that I have finally found my place, very similar to my family home in Argentina, near the sea and nature.
Carlos E. Semino, Ph. D
Head of Tissue Engineering Laboratory,
Department of Bioengineering,
IQS – School of Engineering, Ramon Llull University (IQS-URL)
Via Augusta 390, 08017 Barcelona, Spain
Tel. +34 932 672 107 (direct)
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