Meet, Catarina Gonçalves, Staff Researcher in the Food Processing and Nutrition Group. Catarina works on the development of in vitro methodologies to study the fate of nanostructures and/or bioactives under digestive conditions, including cell-based models using human cell lines derived from the intestinal epithelium.
Catarina holds a Diploma (2004) in Chemical Engineering, from ISEP, Porto and a PhD degree (2010) in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.
What got you interested in Nanogels and Cell Culture?
Actually, I was looking for research grants in the chemistry and biological fields. I found an offer related with chemical modification of natural polymers at the University of Minho. Later, I understood that some polymers with specific features can self-assemble in water forming nanogels. Basically, nanogels are gels in a nanometric size that are able to carry hydrophobic drugs. Indeed, there are many bioactive molecules, with huge potential (therapeutic, diagnostic or both) that need a carrier, an approach that enables their formulation in water, and this is the role of nanogels.
Moreover, nanogels may be small enough to escape the immune system and travel into our bloodstream. The decoration of their surfaces with specific molecules that recognize the target site (disorder or injury) in the human body leads to their accumulation there, increasing the therapeutic efficacy and reducing the side effects. It´s a short, not easy story, but the challenge itself captured my interest. During my PhD, I had the possibility to use cell lines to test the cytotoxicity of the nanogels and this is why I have learnt the cell culture techniques. Afterwards, I got fascinated with the wonderful images acquired in a confocal microscope where different parts of a cell can be labelled with different colours and the nanogel can be labelled, as well, and detected inside the cell. Briefly, I am a chemical engineer who lately discovered a passion of the human physiology.
What is the importance of your research?
Envisaging food applications, different nanostructures are produced in my research group, and their safety and efficacy need to be tested. A bioactive molecule can be loaded within the nanostructure to be protected and delivered to a specific site. The first question is: what happens to the nanostructure when it goes through the digestive process? Does it remain a nanostructure? And is the payload effectively protected and resists the harsh digestive conditions to be finally absorbed in the intestine?
In my research, I try to understand the fate of compounds/nanostructures under the digestive conditions and their interaction with the human intestine. I am working on the development of a microdevice to simulate the complete digestion process. It aims to be a high throughput methodology suitable for nanomaterials which are usually valuable samples. The micro-device constitutes a Gastrointestinal tract-on-a-chip to be used as an alternative to animal experimentation to predict efficacy and safety of bioactive compounds in humans, improving the effectiveness of preclinical studies, reducing costly failures in clinical trials.
What is the most exciting change you made during your research and how can inspire young researchers to follow this professional path?
I use to say that I have a tortuous path. I wanted to be a maths professor, but I graduated in Chemical Engineering and I followed a PhD in biomedical engineering. I did a post-doc focused on diagnostics using nanogels to carry contrast agents and improve imagiology techniques. In 2016 I joined INL to be part of the Food Processing and Nutrition Group where I am focused on the digestive process and nutrition. I am always teaching myself to adapt my knowledge after diving into new subjects. I would say to young researchers to follow their passion and never give up. Sometimes the path is long but what matters is to achieve our dreams and be happy every day in our job.
Briefly, what excites you about your work?
I am a curious person. I love to think about a question or get a question from someone, define the plan (considering all the controls needed), perform the experiment, and analyse the results to get an answer. It excites me to be able to understand what happens physiologically using in vitro models in the laboratory, without using animal models. In the end, I hope some products using our technologies, can reach the marked and improve the nutrition, health or wellbeing of our society.