HBB - Health Biotechnology and Bioengineering

This thematic line comprises fundamental and applied knowledge on biofilm science, virulence of pathogenic fungi, bioactive peptides/proteins, biomaterials and polymers for drug delivery and regenerative medicine and systems and synthetic biology approaches aiming to develop added-value products and processes aligned with major social health challenges. This line encompasses a multidisciplinary team merging the main activities of 2 CEB’s research groups: Biofilm Science and Technology (BIOFILM), Bionanotechnology (BNG) and including part of the activities of Bioprocess Engineering and Computational Biosystems (BIOSYSTEMS) and Applied Mycology (AMG). While BIOFILM is interested in the understanding of the physiology of biofilms and on the identification of new strategies and antimicrobial molecules, BNG is focused on the development of strategies for the delivery of bioactive molecules. BNG focuses the virulence of pathogenic fungi and The BIOSYSTEMS group is developing systems and synthetic biology strategies addressing some specific health issues. Accordingly, BioHealth focuses 6 main topics of research:

  • Micro/nanoformulations for cosmetic, pharma and biomedical applications;
  • Bioactive peptides/proteins for biomedical applications;
  • Fundamental studies on biofilm science and technology;
  • Development of novel strategies for detection and control of pathogens;
  • Virulence of pathogenic fungi;
  • Systems and synthetic biology strategies for health and biomedical applications;

The development of strategies for the delivery of antimicrobial molecules is another main area of activity. Liposomal, PLGA, protein based, nanogels nano/micro formulations are being studied for the control of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, for cosmetic applications exploiting the bioactivity of a keratin derived peptide, for wound healing applications and finally for imagiology purposes using nanogels associated with superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles. Stemming from these activities, 7 patents have been granted in the past few years, an asset that supports the 2 spin-offs: BCTechnologies and Khairpep (khairpep.com) to exploit technologies related to the use of bioactive peptides for cosmetic applications and also the development of biomedical and other applications of bacterial cellulose. Another relevant output is the case of the development of patented injectable hydrogel for bone regeneration, developed in close collaboration with a company and now entering a final set of preclinical assays, while an application for clinical trials is being prepared.

The understanding of the physiological alterations triggered by the biofilm phenotype will help the identification of new targets for biofilm control. The team has been using omic approaches to disclose virulence determinants and resistance mechanisms (as it is being exploited also by AMG regarding pathogenic fungi). Furthermore, the biofilm extracellular products with antimicrobial properties have been isolated and characterized. Molecular probes based on PNA-FISH for biofilm speciation and the fast detection of pathogens in clinical samples has been developed. Three patents based on this technology are presently being exploited by a start-up company that emerged from BIOFILM (Biomod). In addition the team has also been exploiting bacteriophages and phage derived peptides as antimicrobial compounds.

Under the scope of systems biology the main applications include the model-driven physiological characterization of pathogens (e.g. H. pylori or S. faecalis) and the identification of drug targets for unmet health concerns. Under the scope of synthetic biology the engineering of new carriers (viral particles) and molecules (aptamers and peptides) are being developed for targeting and treatment of cancer cells and the development of a phage-based nanocarrier for cancer treatment and diagnosis.

Overall, the following specific new scientific objectives may be highlighted:

  • Development of drug delivery systems for the control of biofilms;
  • Development of studies on the infections/biofilms associated with biomaterials (Biomaterials Associated Infections).
  • Development of nanoencapsulation systems for toxicology and animal testing and ultimately clinical trials under the frame of a H2020 project and/or private funds under a new spin-off.
  • Development of new line of peptides for strengthening of hair and hair curliness development and formulation of elastase inhibitors for cosmetic and wound healing therapeutics/diagnostics
  • Further development of an injectable dextrin hydrogel as a competitive product for bone regeneration: submission of a request for clinical assays and establishment of a business model
  • Establishment of the grounds for the exploitation of antimicrobial peptides, namely production of the peptides in plant expression system
  • Disclose virulence and resistance determinants in polymicrobial biofilms and identify biofilm markers using an integrated omic approach (genomics, proteomics and metabolomics)
  • Develop novel strategies to overcome antibiotics resistance by using bacterial transport systems to successfully deliver antimicrobial compounds (“trojan horse” strategy); genome mining approaches to identify gene clusters potentially coding for antimicrobial molecules, antisense therapy to kill or to block specific virulence genes on pathogenic bacteria and chimeric endolysins
  • Develop pathogens detection kits based on already available PNA-Fish and phage recognition technologies.
  • Develop publicly available databases to accommodate standard biofilms records and enable data analysis across experiments
  • Examine the potential of MALDI-TOF ICMS for the identification of clinical isolates of dermatophytes
  • Study and simulation of host-pathogen relationships, of microbial antibiotic resistance and of metagenomes. A more challenging field is related to the study of human metabolism and its deregulation in diseases such as cancer, diabetes or obesity.
  • Development of new viral carriers at the genetic level that can selectively recognize, enter and eliminate cancer cells and exploitation of other biological carriers for cancer diagnosis and treatment;
  • Selection of molecules that recognize cancer cells to be used as tools in synthetic biology devices.