INTERVIEW SONJA HANSEN
Dr Sonja Hansen has dedicated all her professional life to science and research. With a PhD in Molecular Microbiology by the Northeastern University (Boston), she worked as a researcher in different research institutes in the US and Germany. She is now the EU Project Manager at Max Delbrück Center (MDC) for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association.
Sonja is one of the personalities that made the CORBEL project possible. CORBEL represented the beginning of an era in the scientific community. A cluster project funded by The European Commission that brought together the Life Science Research Infrastructures (LS RIs). The mission of the project was to support cutting-edge science by offering access to the latest technologies, comprehensive resource collections and technical expertise. CORBEL itself ended in May 2020, but LS RIs continue to work together to offer access to researchers from both academic and industrial sectors.
Every day more often, the cosmetics market demands leading edge technology-based developments. The application of bioinformatics tools, statistics, and machine-learning methods is a prerequisite for today’s data-driven biomedical research. Computational analyses of large data sets from high-throughput experiments may help to unravel new skin biological pathways and targets.
Dr Hansen, we understand that the ultimate objective of cluster projects like CORBEL is to connect its users with the 13 biomedical and biological research infrastructures that cooperate and participate on this project, to achieve a stronger communication and dissemination within the scientific community. However, how is it contributing to the scientific or technological development of private enterprises? Could you please tell us about the possible applications of the project for the industry?
The CORBEL Open Calls specifically adapted requirements on publishing and IP rights to attract applications from SME and industry. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of CORBEL, we received very innovative project ideas, which not only drove technology development at the RIs but also resulted in cutting-edge science. Our LS RI offer access to technologies, such as chemical screening and advanced imaging and resource collections such as biobanks, which are of high interest to industry and SMEs.
To facilitate the collaboration with industry, our innovation helpdesk offers partnering advice and easy access to tools and resources for collaborations.
These research infrastructures have the most talented teams and specialized know-hows across Europe. These core services are necessary to share the costs of the extraordinarily expensive equipment and reagents that generate the Big Data needed for the Omics sciences (Genomics, Transcriptomics, Metabolomics, etc.). To our knowledge, this is the regular path for leading research groups within the academia to maximize their efforts but, we wonder, is it possible for private companies to also benefit from these infrastructures? How can an individual from the industry get access to these services?
Yes, our RIs are open to industry and SMEs! Through visiting our Lifescience-RI website, they can learn more about the access modalities of the individual RIs, as well as funding opportunities!
Provital’s R&D team have made use of two of your infrastructures so far: Next Generation Sequencing at the Sciences Academy of Athens, and the Bioinformatics Platform at the Berlin Institute of Medical System Biology (BIMSB) of MDC-Berlin, which were very useful in some our developments. This shows how the cosmetic industry can also capitalize on scientific infrastructures.
However, we are an active ingredient’s supplier, so our clients are the final product manufacturers. Which of your services/infrastructures do you think they could take the most advantage of?
Research for new cosmetics can also highly benefit from opportunities offered by biological RIs. Let me highlight the example of EU-OPENSCREEN. The LS RI with a focus on chemical biology provides access to high-content and high-throughput screening including a variety of read-out technologies and strong expertise in complex cellular models. Natural compound collections can be exploited to address the increasing demand of active natural products in the cosmetic industry.
I can further see potential applications e.g. for advanced imaging, including high-throughput and live imaging technologies at Euro-BioImaging, biomolecular imaging and 3D structural analysis at Instruct.
It would be amazing if you could give us a preview on the pathway that the technical trends might probably take in the following years. Are there any infrastructures that – like Euro-BioImaging, for instance, have a potential use in cosmetic’s research and development practices?
Provital accessed our RIs to obtain bulk gene expression data on skin cells. Now we can go a big step further and perform multi-omics analyses at the single-cell level. Recent developments in spatial transcriptomics and in situ sequencing further provide spatial resolution. These technologies are offered by the pan-European infrastructure consortium EASI-Genomics. At MDC, we are co-coordinating the calls for access. I am happy to provide more information!
The imaging field is also seeing big advances, across a wide variety of potential applications for your industry. Euro-BioImaging is a research infrastructure that provides access to imaging technologies to users from academia and industry, with a specific focus on cutting-edge technologies. One of the areas where new technology developments may be relevant for your industry, are the huge advancements in cryo-electron microscopy, which allows a much more detailed investigation of cellular ultrastructure and the interactions between proteins and small molecules. At the other end of the scale, advances in light-sheet microscopy, combined with organoid culture, can allow the imaging of cellular processes in response to various different treatments in a complex and bio-realistic context.
At the same time, many new research advances continue to produce very large datasets and cloud computing and resources become more central to many research projects. Large cluster projects, such as the European Open Science Cloud for the Life Sciences (EOSC-Life), can serve to connect researchers, both from academia and industry, to shared cloud resources, which allows the sharing and re-use of data, tools and workflows in the cloud.
Provital is using the most advanced technologies for the study of skin biology there are, even within the realm of basic research. With the help of CORBEL and the European LS-RIs, we have been able to sequence the whole transcriptome of two skin cell types, which enabled us to study the impact that several natural compounds exert in these cells as a whole. Meaning, we have not only explored some genes we selected according to our interests, but all of them (up to 25.000), what led us to unexpected, and very exciting, cutting-edge findings. To our knowledge, Provital is the only private Company of the cosmetic sector that has benefited from CORBEL. Is that really so? Could you give us another example of a cosmetic’s development or technical breakthrough that arose from the use of CORBEL or the European LS-RIs?
That’s correct! Provital is our first industry user from the cosmetic sector. They gained access to our technologies via the CORBEL Open Call. The term “access” stands for a number of different types of access, such as physical, remote or virtual. In the case of the Provital project, Miguel Aso sent some samples to our NGS sequencing platform at BRFAA in Athens. Visiting the facility and receiving on-site training would also have been possible, if desired. The sequencing data were shared with the bioinformatics platform at MDC, where they were analyzed and sent back to Provital. The CORBEL grant provided the technical expertise, staff hours, instrument time, and consumables. The users also had the opportunity to learn about other interdisciplinary CORBEL Open Call projects and the technologies and services that were accessed by our users at several CORBEL events.
We are grateful that CORBEL could attract Provital as a user, and hope that this example of a fruitful collaboration between infrastructures and an industry user will encourage new industry partners to access our services!