EMBL-IBEC Winter Conference: a collaborative post by EMBL Barcelona scientists

The basics

by Heura Cardona, Research Technician at Sharpe Group

From 10th to 12th of February took place the first international IBEC-EMBL Winter Conference: Engineering multicellular systems. It gathered scientists from all over the world and it was hosted at the emblematic Antoni Gaudí’s building, La Pedrera. The organizing committee consisted of Xavier Trepat, Nuria Montserrat and Josep Samitier from IBEC and James Sharpe, Miki Ebisuya and Vikas Trivedi from EMBL Barcelona.

During those two days, the meeting joined remarkable international scientists from the fields of stem cell biology, mechanobiology, organoids, 3D bioprinting techniques, in vitro vascular systems and organ-on-chip-assays. To cite some, we had the pleasure to hear Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, Roger D. Kamm, Alfonso Martínez Arias, Hongxia Fu, Josef Penninger, Matthias Lütolf, Arthur D. Lander and Wei Sun among many others.

The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, opened the conference highlighting the importance of fostering science and ethics in the city.

The Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, opening the conference

The increase of novel techniques in science such as 3D bioprinting and tissue engineering makes indispensable engineers and biologists to work together in order to create disease models and move from 2D to 3D biological systems.

#EIWC20 was the hashtag used in Twitter to follow the conference and had more than 150 Tweets.

Ethics at the #EIWC20

by Sean Dwyer, Predoc at Bernabeu Group

My group leader, Maria Bernabeu (a Barcelona native) opened the scientific discussion with an exciting example of how engineered multicellular systems represent a new frontier in how we model complex diseases like cerebral malaria. What followed over the three days was an impressive list of speakers from the world’s leading institutions. There were particularly big names from the fields of synthetic and developmental biology, however the impressive work happening in Barcelona took centerstage. It was great to see such a strong representation from EMBL Barcelona among the speakers, including Tina, Guillermo, and Xavi (who didn’t even need a microphone!).

Maria Bernabeu during her presentation

Of the visiting speakers, one presentation very obviously stood out due to its unique topic. Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist, gave a refreshing talk about the importance of socially responsible research in bioengineering. As a society, we are trying to grapple with our environmental footprint but often overlook the ways we can make our research more sustainable and ethical. Insoo discussed new initiatives taken by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to better define guidelines which ensure responsible research when engineering human tissues. While we continue to make great strides in how we model and recapitulate human systems, he encouraged us to take the opportunity to collaborate with ethicists and critically consider the impact of our work as well as its public perception.

First time speaker

by Guillermo Martínez, Predoc at Ebisuya Group

I had some mixed feelings when I saw my talk was selected for a short talk at the EMBL-IBEC Winter Conference. On one hand, it was a great opportunity to get useful feedback and get to know people interested in the same field I work on. But on the other hand, it was the first time I would give a short talk on a conference and I was going to be sharing stage with prominent researchers from the field! Also, this meant I had to manage to explain my project in a clear way in less than 12 minutes!

Many rehearsals later, the day finally arrived, and it was then when I discovered there was a short talk also about tissue folding just before mine! What if the same results I had were going to be presented just some minutes before my talk? After some moments of stress, I finally saw our projects had a very different approach and didn’t overlap, so I felt relieved and I could relax a bit to get ready for my talk.

Guillermo Martínez during his talk at EIWC20

In the end, it was a very positive experience! The time I spent preparing it helped me think what were the truly important results and which parts still needed some more work before being presented. Moreover, the ambience of the event was great! I got very interesting feedback, met new people and everybody was very kind to me. It is very encouraging to see that a welcoming (while still critical and constructive) community is being created here!

There’s no one way to construct or analyse multicellular systems

by Jia Le Lim, Predoc at Trivedi Group

It was my first day back at EMBL Barcelona as a PhD student and what better way to kick-start my predoctoral project than with a conference, which centred on the theme of engineering multicellular systems.

Though the presentations were fascinating and awe-inspiring, I have always personally preferred poster sessions, where one could walk around and admire beautiful images while getting to know people from labs from all over the world as well as have discussions on very varied topics.

Poster Session at EIWC20

I enjoyed, in particular, the poster sessions of this conference, as they highlighted how researchers, specialising in different fields, typically have very diverse perspectives and approaches to conducting the same experiment.

For example, when constructing multicellular systems, instead of using moulds to spatially confine cells to certain regions, Tiziano Serra, from AO Research Institute Davos, Switzerland, uses sound to spatially localise cells. On the other hand, instead of adding proteins to cell culture solutions, Simone de Jong from Eindhoven University of Technology experimented with supramolecular biomaterials to induce increased Notch signalling in cells.

Meanwhile, others focused on how self-organisation of cells naturally occur in nature. Akshada Khadpekar, from the Indian Institute of Technology, looked at how cells form patterns when grown on inhomogeneous substrates while Shayan Shamipour from IST Austria created a model to look at how actin dynamics drive cytoplasm and yolk segregation in early zebrafish embryos. At the same time, Akanksha Jain from ETH-Zurich studies the self-patterning of cerebral organoids with the use of long-term live imaging and image analysis techniques.

Antoni Gaudi drew inspiration from nature and created La Pedrera, a building with structural forms resembling those found in our green surroundings, thereby combining nature and architecture. Similarly, I believe that by gathering researchers of different backgrounds with similar aims and objectives, we can combine all of the varied but complementary approaches to better understand naturally-occurring self-organising patterns.

There is, after all, no one way to construct or analyse multicellular systems.

Group Photo of the conference ©IBEC