We are continuing our Birdie Voices series, presenting the people that make up the Birdie consortium. This time, we meet Dr. Jopeth Ramis, a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University who’s work in the Birdie project focuses on creating biomaterials that mimic the extracellular components in the kidney, that lets him cultivate different kidney cell types. Jopeth works together with Sveva Fagiolino to optimize ways to develop induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) into kidney organoids.
― My role is to develop biomaterials suitable for cells used in the project. Once we have the iPSC converted into kidney organoids and the appropriate biomaterials, we are going to combine them using bioprinting techniques, Jopeth says.
Joseph started his research career in his native Philippines, where he studied chemical engineering. Before coming to Maastricht to do a postdoc, Jopeth moved to the UK to do a PhD at the University of Nottingham. Here, his research was in the field of regenerative medicine and cell therapy with focus on creating in vitro models of the airways. In the Birdie project, Jopeth puts all these experiences into play.
― I work in the interface between biology, chemistry, engineering and materials science, which is something I really like and which is an important reason why a got into the project, Jopeth comments.
In the Birdie project, Jopeth uses his combined skills to model the kidney extracellular matrix. ― Kidney organoids are frequently cultured in an air-liquid interface, and that is not really capturing what is happening in the native microenvironment, Jopeth explains.
Some of the questions that he would like to address with an in vitro kidney model has for instance to do with the mechanical properties of the kidney and how the extracellular matrix interacts with secreted factors.
― In the end, what we aim for is that, once we initially prime the cells, we want to just let them mature further. We then want to study how the biomaterials assist the cells’ paracrine signaling and design them to further support that function, Jopeth explains.
Currently, most of Jopeth’s work concerns optimizing material synthesis, but in the end, the goal is to have a device that gives control of both the mechanical and chemical environment that makes it possible to study their respective roles in kidney physiology and pathophysiology.
When describing his research, Jopeth says that one thing that really excites him is being able to recapitulate what is happening inside the developing embryo by designing a devices and materials that maximizes cell-to-cell interactions that that can steer the cells to develop in a correct way.
― I think we have a great potential to do this, compared to many other kidney organoid models at the moment. With most models, you can only culture them up to a certain point and then they degrade. But with the combination of the right materials and the bioprinting technology, it could be possible to extend it further to achieve more mature organoids that we can test, says Jopeth.
Jopeth interest in the research does not only stem from curiosity, he is also invested in the project on a personal level. For nearly three decades, Jopeth’s father has been living with a chronic kidney disease. This has given Jopheth a very direct understanding of the many burdens that these types of disease cause, both on a physical and emotional level, but also financially.
― This is why I would like to challenge the status quo when it comes to treatments. Right now, there is only transplantation, which is not successful. This is something that really pushes me to try to make a change for my family, my father, for my friends and colleagues. This is a really personal goal for me.
When thinking about what he would like the project to achieve, beyond all the material design, cell culture optimization and bioprinting method development, Jopeth mentions to be able to take cells from a patient, convert them into organoids and put them on a chip and use them to test drugs or viruses.
― What if you could create multiple copies of the patients’ own mini-kidneys on a chip? That could really enable us to find new treatments.