Stéphanie, what have been the milestones in your career?
I was born in Lausanne in the canton of Vaud, but I grew up in Neuchâtel, so I consider myself more of a Neuchâtel girl. I studied chemistry at the EPFL. What I liked about this discipline was the mix between the scientific and practical side, the playful and magical side of being able to create matter. I also did a one-year exchange in Canada. In 2002, I started my doctorate in materials science at the ETHZ in Zurich. I spent part of my thesis in Australia. Then I had my first job at the CSEM in Neuchâtel, in the sector that developed biosensors, i.e. devices capable of measuring biological values. For seven years, I developed, among other things, fibre optic sensors for textiles or dressings, or systems for measuring contaminants in food. For professional and family reasons, we moved to Zurich. I worked for two years at Sensirion, which produces moisture sensors, among other things. Then we moved back to Neuchâtel with our two children.
I then worked for three years at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) in Bern in international cooperation, setting up scientific cooperation programmes between Switzerland and other countries. There I learned a lot about research funding and communication, especially in an international context. But I missed the research and I took the opportunity to return to the CSEM in the group that develops biosystems.
A central area in the biosystems group is "organ-on-chips" technology - what is it?
We develop "organ-on-chips" thanks to the various competences that exist at the CSEM (biology, chemistry, physics, electronics, microtechnology, mechanics). The idea is to recreate, in the laboratory, the functioning of a given organ on a microfluidic chip. Cells are placed on a device, fed and subjected to drug therapies in order to observe their reaction.
Ultimately, this could replace animal research. In addition, when a drug is administered to a patient, the response varies for each individual because their immune system is unique. With "organ-on-chips", it would be possible to put a given patient's cells on this chip and analyze the effects of the therapy on an individual before treating them. There is still a lot of research to be done, especially since the systems are still impractical. Many manual steps are required, and reliability and speed must be improved. We will have to industrialise these systems so that pharmaceutical players can use them.
What are the demands for this technology today?
This is a fairly new and promising field. Small companies or startups have an idea, with a great technology coming out of their labs. We support them with our product understanding and our micro-nano manufacturing technologies. The step towards production is a real challenge and requires a multidisciplinary approach difficult to find in a small laboratory.
We collaborate in particular with different specialized groups of the CSEM : microfluidics, signal processing, integrated electronics. We join forces, the fact of having everything in the same institution is quite attractive for the company that mandates us.
What are your current projects?
We are working with a company specialising in organic printing. Instead of ink, cells and gels are used. This allows a high level of precision in 2D and 3D. As part of the mandate given by the company, we are thinking about a more efficient, sterile print head that is also biocompatible with cells. This is essential for the survival of cells during printing.
We are also developing bioreactors capable of preserving or maturing cell agglomerates or mini-organisms in vitro, which guarantee an adequate environment for these living tissues, and enable them to be delivered the necessary nutrients or to measure biological constants. These integrated biosystems thus constitute a platform that simultaneously allows the administration of products and the characterization of biological tissues in the same device, while minimizing manual operations, leading to greater reliability and lower cost.
When do you think organ-on-chips technology will be more widely available?
For simple biological systems such as cell agglomerates (e.g. liver), some could already be tested by pharmaceutical companies within five years. For a truly integrated system, I imagine it will take another ten to fifteen years of research.
What are the biggest challenges in the research you are conducting?
At this stage, the challenge is mostly technical. We must succeed in proposing a system that is fairly simple, reliable and usable by people who are not necessarily familiar with it. Of course, there is the whole process of acceptance by pharmaceutical companies, but we are not yet at this stage.
Stéphanie Boder-Pasche, R&D Expert Nanoscale Technologies, lives in Neuchâtel. Passionate about her work, Stéphanie also invests a lot of time with her three children and her husband, with whom she enjoys skiing and boating.