“Research into 3D skin models for better science”
Biomedical scientist Ellen van den Bogaard (36) works at Radboud University Medical Center, where she leads the Experimental Dermatology Laboratory. In the laboratory, her team uses tissue culture technology to mimic small pieces of skin. “We research how skin reacts when it is exposed to bacteria. Or what happens to skin when changes in DNA occur, as is the case with certain diseases. Because we create this skin ourselves and the research we do with it is tightly controlled, we need fewer laboratory animals or patients as test subjects.”
“Using tissue culture technology, we create 3D skin organoids to study the functions of skin in illness and health.”
As a child, Van den Bogaard was fascinated by nature, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to work in a laboratory. “That is why I decided to study Biomedical Sciences, and I then specialised in skin diseases. Our research group is made up of 12 people, including post-doctoral researchers, research analysts and PhD candidates. Using tissue culture technology, we create 3D skin organoids to study the functions of skin in illness and health.
Those 3D models contain all layers of the epidermis, including its protective layer, the stratum corneum. This allows us to test the application of salves or antibiotics on the outermost layer of the skin in a controlled manner. We use skin cells of healthy volunteers or patients to create these models.”
“The skin of mice differs significantly from human skin and therefore also responds differently to external influences.”
Fewer laboratory animals
“It’s in essence an elegant, sound and quick way of carrying out research on skin without having to do long-running patient studies or use laboratory animals. It currently only entails a more refined and reduced use of laboratory animals, as it is not yet feasible to replace all animal experiments.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a proponent of animal-free medical research on moral grounds. We are mainly doing this for scientific reasons, based on the conviction that this research makes a key contribution to better science. The skin of mice differs significantly from human skin and therefore also responds differently to external influences. But in some cases, such as when you want to research the interplay between different cell types or organs, you cannot work without laboratory animals. For the time being, we are focusing on improving specific skin models and making available the technology and materials needed to create skin in the laboratory.”
New technology and protocols
On 1 January 2021, a new study will start into the use of human measurement models for research into skin diseases (PAST4FUTURE1, funded by SGF/Health Holland). “This is slightly later than originally planned, due to the COVID-19 measures and capacity issues in the laboratories. The necessary project preparations took a bit longer than usual,” Van den Bogaard explains.
“With our project, we want to set up a platform to develop new technology to create skin models. At the same time, we want to ensure this technology is easily reproducible, so that everyone around the world can work with the same cell materials. This will make research findings more easily comparable. We are researching this together with VU University Medical Center, Leiden University Medical Centre and Dutch Burns Center Beverwijk. Radboud University’s Molecular Developmental Biology department will provide the stem cell technology, as well as access to the ‘omics’ technology. This will enable us to unravel the details of the molecular biology underpinning the skin models.”
“We are going to test the application of a new kind of antibiotics for specific conditions in our skin models.”
Testing new antibiotics
“Two companies will take part in our study, including a Swiss company specialised in cell and tissue culture (CELLnTEC). In addition, we are going to test the application of a new kind of antibiotics for specific conditions in our skin models on behalf of the company TropIQ Health Services. With these new antibiotics, we want to avoid targeting 'good’ bacteria on the skin and only kill off specific ‘bad’ bacteria.
By joining forces, we hope to achieve better results, generate a source of cells and protocols and learn from each other within the platform.”