A new Surrey research group is using an innovative approach to explore how cells’ behaviour in ‘non-optimal’ environments might help improve efficiency in fields including cancer treatment, industrial food processing and bio-fuel production.
Launched in April, the Biological and Biochemical Engineering group (BioProChem), part of the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, is being led by Dr Eirini Velliou, an expert in bioprocess engineering and the impact of environmental stress on biological systems.
All cells – from simple bacterial cells to human cells – react differently when they’re exposed to ‘non-optimal’ environments (environments they are not used to), often finding ways to adapt themselves to stressful factors. In humans with cancer, for example, cells around a tumour will be less oxygenated than normal tissue and may show local ‘starvation’ areas because of the high proliferation of cells nearby.
Whereas research of this type has traditionally been done in a laboratory flask, Dr Velliou’s research group is utilising advances in tissue engineering to develop 3D bio-material based platforms that closely mimic features of a real tissue microenvironment and can even be injected with patient samples (cells derived from patient tumours). Working in collaboration with academics in the Department of Physics, the Ion Beam Centre (IBC) within the Advanced Technology Institute (ATI), and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences (FHMS), and clinicians at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the group is using this novel platform to investigate how cells react during chemotherapy and radiotherapy in patients with pancreatic cancer and patients with gynaecological malignancies.
Another strand of the group’s work focuses on how bacterial pathogens could develop Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) in certain processing environments – research which could be very valuable in the food industry in enabling the efficient design and/or control of industrial processes.
New ‘minimal’ processes such as ultrasound, cold atmospheric plasma, high hydrostatic pressure and usage of natural antimicrobials are beginning to take the place of traditional sterilisation in the preservation of food because they have less effect on the flavour, texture and nutrients of the product. However in order for food producers to ensure food safety, and provide reassurance for consumers, they need to know exactly how effective these processes are, since – being milder than a classical sterilisation, for example – they could increase the AMR of bacteria. Collaborating with Dr Jorge Gutierrez, Lecturer in Food Security in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, the new research group is developing mathematical models based on laboratory studies to predict the microbial behaviour of food-related pathogens in specific environments.
A third area of the group’s research focuses on algae cells, looking at how parameters such as light, starvation stress, shear stress and other environmental factors can be optimised in order to make cells increase the production of biofuels and other valuable products.
Dr Velliou says, “This field of research has huge potential scope. Understanding more about how cancer cells behave in non-optimal environments could potentially lead to more effective treatments and less need for animal-based testing. Our work in the microbial field could enable the food industry to bring safe products to market at lower cost, while the algae project contributes to making bio-fuels a more viable option for a range of industries.”
Dr Madeleine Bussemaker, who is collaborated closely with Dr Velliou in this research, comments, “Ultrasound has shown potential for sonodynamic therapy in conjunction with current drug therapies for the inactivation of cancer cells. The bio-material platforms constructed by Dr Velliou are able to assist our understanding of the mechanisms of sonodynamic therapy, bringing it closer to reality!
“Ultrasound is also used for the inactivation of bacteria in foods and water systems. Using systematic studies in this areas can provide a greener alternative with reduced use of chemicals for bacteria inactivation across the food and waste water industries.”
The BioProChem Group is collaborating with a number of universities and industrial partners as it takes these early-stage projects forward.
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