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©Courtesy of MSc. Gizem Altay (IBEC)


Epithelial tissues cover all body surfaces and line most of our organs, internal cavities and passageways, including the digestive tract. Prof. Elena Martínez is engineering intestinal epithelial tissues that mimic the physiological characteristics of human intestinal tissue with the aim of advancing the in vitro modelling of diseases, the preclinical screening for drug efficacy and toxicity, and the understanding of organ development.

Functional in vitro models of epithelial tissues are key elements in basic biological research, disease modelling, drug discovery and regenerative or personalised medicine. In the case of the small intestinal epithelium, functional in vitro models are needed to accurately predict the absorbance of drugs delivered orally.

Prof. Martínez applied an experimental approach combining microfabrication techniques, tissue engineering components and the self-organising characteristics of intestinal organoids to develop a new cell culture platform for intestinal epithelial tissues. To date, the project team, funded by the ERC, has set up a strategy to fabricate micro 3D villi-like structures on very soft materials. The 3D model shows functional parameters that are closer to physiological tissue than conventional flat monolayer culture systems. In this, the researchers succeeded to ‘open up’ intestinal organoids which are 3D closed structures.

The most significant output of the COMIET project will be to demonstrate that engineering strategies can be successfully used to provide intestinal epithelial cells with physical and biochemical cues that guide their compartmentalisation, barrier formation and renewal as in vivo.

"If this concept is successfully demonstrated, a similar approach could also be used to mimic other epithelial tissues with complex geometries such as kidney, skin or lungs” says Prof. Martínez. Those involved in drug screening, drug absorption and toxicology could also benefit from a system that improves predictability of current assays. And patients will ultimately gain from the project outcomes, as the system can be used for personalised medicine strategies.

Elena Martínez holds a PhD in Physics by the University of Barcelona (Spain). After postdoctoral stages at the EPFL (Switzerland) and Imperial College (UK), she established at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). Her research focus is the development of new systems that mimic 3D tissue microfeatures for biomimetic in vitro assays. She leads the COMIET project “Engineering complex intestinal epithelial tissue models”, funded under the ERC Consolidator grant scheme.