Stories: Interview with Future and Emerging Technologies Innovator Silvia Scaglione
Silvia Scaglione is specialist in bioengineering. Since 2010, she is a permanent researcher at the Italian National Research Council (CNR) and head of the Laboratory of Tissue Engineering CNR-IEIIT in Genoa. She is also founder, president and chief scientist of React4Life, an innovative biotech start-up. Currently, Silvia Scaglione is coordinating the B2B project, which is supported by the FET Open programme under the Horizon 2020 Framework. B2B (in full title “Modeling spontaneous Breast cancer metastasis TO the Bone with a first-of-its-kind 3D device that recapitulates physiological tissue-level complexity”) wants to propose a unique device allowing to generate a first-of-a-kind 3D model of spontaneous breast cancer metastasis to the bone to dissect the complexity of the metastatic process and empower high-throughput drug screening in a physiological context.
What did inspire you to follow a career in bioengineering?
Since I was a young student, I have always been passionate of scientific subjects, like math, physics and science. In parallel, I've been interested in applying this passion to something useful for the mankind, like the biomedical research. Back in 1996, when I enrolled in university to pursuit my career in Engineering, biomedical engineering was emerging discipline, which interconnected engineering subjects with biochemistry, materials science and human physiology. That is how biomedical research enhanced with use of the rigorous mathematical and physical approaches became my life path.
B2B focuses on breast cancer, which is the most common cancer in women worldwide. When you began with your research, there were no models available to recapitulate the spontaneous development of bone metastasis from a breast cancer lesion, or any other cancer. What has changed since then?
The multidisciplinary research has allowed to broaden the use of novel approaches (i.e. organoids, lab-on-chip, bioprinting) for the development of alternative in vitro cancer models. These breakthrough technological solutions favor an analytical approach aimed to split the scientific problem related to the metastasis onset into sub-problems, which are simpler to tackle and can be faced with a standardized, reproducible and measurable approach. The introduction of technological approaches supporting biomedical research has drastically advanced scientific knowledge of cancer.
The B2B project is based on interdisciplinary approach, which seems to be an essential strategy for general sustainable development of research. Which disciplines are employed in your project?
I have always believed in interdisciplinarity (the human body is inter-disciplinary by definition); The B2B project is highly interdisciplinary addressing bioprinting, fluidic bioreactors (also called organ-on-chip), bioimaging and organoids. The consortium includes ERC-grant holders and experts in breast cancer circulating cells, top scientists in 3D printing and bone scaffolds, and successful entrepreneurs in biotech field. It is a very strong, interdisciplinary and lean team, which makes the perfect mix for producing successful results.
There are eight research entities from five countries involved in your project. Does this international cooperation work well? And, how have the coronavirus-related restrictions affected the participating institutions and their input?
The consortium is cooperating very well. There have been some post-doc exchanges among the laboratories of different countries in order to optimize interactions and accelerate research. Clearly, Covid-19 has slowed down these experimental activities that cannot be carried out in smart working; the coronavirus restrictions have also forced us to organize project meetings in virtual mode, even if the vis-a-vis meetings are fundamental for pushing results and also for team building that creates cohesion and harmony, with a final increase in productivity. Depending on the breaks, some labs have almost never closed while others are still in pain.
Currently, you are involved in a start-up project of your previous research. Could you present it to our readers?
My passion has always been to do something that would generate a concrete and immediate impact on the society. For this purpose, I believe that basic research outputs necessarily need to be transformed into usable and exploitable products.
Therefore, four years ago I founded React4Life, an innovative company whose mission is to develop fluidic systems allowing to cultivate 3D living tissues to accelerate biomedical research and the discovery of new oncological therapies. We have already completed some interesting validations in drug efficacy and toxicology fields, in pharmacokinetics and absorption studies and by testing immunotherapies. Different pharma companies and international R&D centers are already our customers.
We enable scientists to transform their testing concept into concrete programs, providing an in vitro human systemic platform that also supports the culture of clinically-relevant size tissue models under physiological fluidic environments. Our final goal is to accelerate drug development and boost oncological personalized medicine. Thanks to B2B project, React4life has also already added a new product to its line, and it will take care of the exploitation of the core B2B product.
Besides B2B, React4Life coordinated also another project (MOOD), that makes you quite experienced with the Horizon 2020 Framework and the FET programme. What is your personal view on them, both as researcher and president of Reac4Life?
The EU funding has been crucial for the company growth. It adds value to the projects. The European Commission selects convincing proposal and gives them the opportunity to consolidate important product validations, which are time- and cost- consuming, and finally, it helps with market exploitation of projects’ outcomes.
Up to now, we already have some interesting ideas for new products, which we want to bring on the market provided that an accelerating project is done with the help of EU. Moreover, the EU e-collaborative research programmes like FET help with building significant scientific partnerships that arise and develop even further after the end of the funded projects.
The EU should convince member states to draw a national strategy, coherent with the EU strategy, for supporting high-tech SMEs: for example, by providing either interest-free loans or grants for SME that have particularly distinguished themselves in H2020 projects. Furthermore, preferential paths should be identified for new funding within Horizon Europe, especially by addressing those SMEs participating in successful projects, that have already demonstrated ability to transform research in innovation of value.
FET-Open and FET Proactive are now part of the Enhanced European Innovation Council (EIC) Pilot (specifically the Pathfinder), the new home for deep-tech research and innovation in Horizon 2020, the EU funding programme for research and innovation.