Regina Luttge (TU/e)

Regina Luttge is chair of the Neuro-Nanoscale Engineering group at TU/e’s Microsystems section and ICMS Institute of Complex Molecular Systems. (photo: ICMS)

What sort of research are you doing?

“My group works on methods for the temporal and spatial control of the cellular microenvironment by utilizing nano- and microfabrication. Finding appropriate technological control mechanisms is key to developing physiological and clinically relevant solutions for the prevention, relief and cure of human diseases.

My research line also covers the general investigation and development of microsystems for medicine and biology. We make microsystems with integrated bio-inspired functionality mediated by down-scaling device features and adjusting material properties utilizing pattern transfer techniques, that apply emerging and established nano- and microfabrication methods. My specific goal is to combine microfluidics with tissue engineering to create a realistic in vitro model of the brain, a so-called Brain-on-Chip (BoC), which can provide insights into both normal and disease-state functions of brain cell networks.

In my previous research project (ERC-StG, 2011-2016), we used a soft-lithography approach for the rational design of miniaturized 3D cell culture experiments and the generation of artificial micro-environments of physiological relevance working with primary neurons. Encouraged by the results, we now aim to forward-engineer a nervous system on-a-chip from neuronal stem cells within a new, EU-funded collaborative project, called CONNECT.”

Why do we need more research on nano- and microfabrication?

“The engineering sciences generally focus on multifactorial aspects of how things work and when it comes to the microscale, life does not reveal its secrets easily. Introducing controlled environments by nano- and microfabrication methods and enabling the set-up of experiments that can study dynamic phenomena of cells and tissues occurring and being influenced at the nanometer length scale is very challenging. Hence, the understanding of critical design rules for such bio-hybrid microsystems is important and demands a broader understanding of material-tool interactions. For example, when a laser is used to ablate a polymeric material to create a micro sieve structure (as we aim to use in CONNECT) it changes also the material properties. And, it is the material’s properties and geometrical structure that a cell is reactive to.

In my group, we combine the expertise required to address how fabrication at small length scales works but keep the requirements, preferences and constraints of the specific BoC application in mind.”

Vision of enabling BOC technology using TU/e’s integrated microbioreactor and microsieve technology. (Illustration | Regina Luttge)

Who are you working with, within hDMT?

“Mainly, I have collaborations within the hDMT BoC theme group, and specifically within CONNECT with prof. Steven Kushner and dr. Femke de Vrij (Erasmus MC). Of course, hDMT allows for a wider net of collaborations, for example, my contacts with prof. Arn van den Maagdenberg and dr. Else Tolner (LUMC) and dr. Govert Hoogland (Maastricht University Medical Centre) have been very inspiring for moving forward in tackling BoC challenges and learning more about the topic from the (bio)medical perspective.

Naturally, I work closely together with my former postdoc, dr. Jean-Philippe  Frimat, who has been awarded a personal ZonMW Off-Road project grant, for which he is now based as PI in the group of Govert Hoogland. He will develop a Brain Biopsy-on-Chip model for epilepsy. At the same time, he is a guest researcher in my Neuro-Nanoscale Engineering group to further develop the BoC technology that he is using in the Off-Road project. Soon, he will transfer to the LUMC and take part as a tenure track candidate in the NOCI research program under supervision of Arn van den Maagdenberg. Probably, Jean-Philippe’s CV is the best showcase for hDMT’s strength and impact. I am sure that these type of partnerships and researchers like him will bring many new collaborations in hDMT and beyond to fruition also for my group. Of course, I always keep informally in touch with my former research partners and colleagues at University of Twente.

I further try to keep an eye on other theme groups within hDMT, i.e. culturing of integrated vessels could be an important design item in my research and prof. Christine Mummery is indispensable as CONNECT’s scientific advisor. I feel it has been the broad base on brainstorming opportunities which made in the end the difference in receiving the FETProACT CONNECT grant together with my national and international researcher partners. I like to name particularly prof. Jens Schwamborn (University of Luxembourg). He has been instrumental for me in pushing forward my own visions on BoC technology towards an exceptionally well received grant proposal. Partnering up with Jens Schwamborn made the change from technology push to technology pull, which has been always an important factor for the innovation pipeline.

Outside of academia and within CONNECT, we work with FFUND, a business consultancy firm, who helps us to define Organ-on-Chip business models. Additionally, I work together with InnoSer, a biomedical research company and CRO, who recently started to explore Organ-on-Chip as a next generation screening tools next to their established in vivo tests.”

What do you like about hDMT?

“I was brought in by prof. Jaap den Toonder, who has been with the Microsystems section here at TU/e and his own group one of the founding fathers of the hDMT initiative working mainly on Cancer-on-Chip. For the BoC theme group, giving my ERC project background, I was Microsystems’ representative. Instantaneously, I felt the strength in bringing (bio)medical and technology-driven researchers at one table, however, also the challenges that come with brainstorm sessions across multiple disciplines.

What I really like about hDMT is that there is room for exploration and growing from seed to tree, so to say: at this stage of having learned each other’s languages somewhat better, we start to produce the first fruits, like our established collaborations. For me, initiating CONNECT would have not been possible without the encouragement of many hDMT researchers and hDMT as a recognized innovative community for Organ-on-Chip research, and this is very enlightening.”

What could hDMT do better?

“I guess: walk more, talk less! What I mean is that we not only need sharing talks but also establish working connections. I often think that just being together working in the lab and  experience together research progress is underestimated, when building meaningful relations. I find that visiting each other’s labs at all levels and encourage more young scientists to carry out research across different labs with different background expertise based on mutual research interests (just like the hDMT Junior Challenge Grant) is a really powerful means to produce successful research outcomes and creating impact for society, now and in the future.”

What else do you need from hDMT?

“I would like to see hDMT setting up a researcher’s capital mobility program with funds that will be invested to explore novel technical ideas rather than keeping tight focus on application showcases. So therefore I would like to encourage hDMT to attract more funds for carrying out pilot research studies as a basis for new grant applications.”

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