ChemComm Milestones – Claudia Contini

We are excited to share the success of Claudia Contini’s first article as an independent researcher in ChemComm; ‘ Manufacturing polymeric porous capsules included in the full milestones collection. 

Read our interview with Claudia below.

What are the main areas of research in your lab and what motivated you to take this direction?

Our research harnesses the power of bottom-up synthetic biology to engineer motile artificial cells that can move, squeeze, climb and synergistically organise each other in collective behaviours.
We use a bottom-up approach to create minimal cell-like model systems from scratch that can help us to investigate biological properties and re-create biological functions. Our model systems are 100% controllable, made of different molecular tools and used as models to gain insights into biological processes.

Can you set this article in a wider context?

We use a bottom-up approach to create minimal cell-like model systems from scratch that can help us to investigate biological properties and re-create biological functions. Our model systems are 100% controllable and made of different molecular tools, in the case of this article, they are fully polymeric.
This review article illustrates how different methods can be employed to generate polymeric porous capsules. Thanks to a controlled permeability, micro or nano capsules have applications in the fields of drug delivery, biosensing and bottom-up synthetic biology, for the engineering of a more sensitive through-shell communication, applied for gene expression, protein exchange and artificial quorum sensing.
Polymeric capsules represent a versatile alternative to more conventional lipid-based structures, which are the basis of biological membranes and many therapeutic delivery systems. Controlling their permeability through the introduction of pores is a powerful strategy that allows enhanced control of their molecular exchange capabilities with the surrounding environment. Indeed, low permeability is a common shortcoming of existing lipid and polymeric self-assembled capsules, which often impedes their applicability in biotechnological and therapeutic areas. Porous structures have the potential to alleviate this limitation.

What do you hope your lab can achieve in the coming year?

By using molecular building blocks, my research group will create compartmentalised structures that resemble the compartmentalisation observable in biology at the nano and microscale level and impart to them life-like behaviours such as motility. Engineering well-defined bespoke synthetic protocells from scratch that exhibit autonomous and directional motion in response to their environment will pave the way for applications of artificial motile protocells in clinical and industrial settings. For example, synthetic motile systems will allow an intelligent and active delivery of therapeutics directly to a specific target site or the swimming to specific sites that require bioremediation or also the generation of artificial tissues and dynamic materials, adaptive to their environment.

Describe your journey to becoming an independent researcher.

After completing an MRes in pharmaceutical chemistry sciences (University of Padua, Italy and the University of Sheffield, UK), I pursued a PhD in physical chemistry applied in devices for drug delivery (UCL, UK), followed by a postdoctoral position focused on investigating the interaction of nanomaterials with model membranes at the bio-nano interface (ICL, UK). This has been followed by an ISSF Fellowship on understanding cellular processes through the use of innovative protocells (ICL, UK) and a second postdoctoral position focused on fusing natural and artificial cells to design hybrid systems. This has been followed by the award of two prestigious fellowships: the L’Oréal-UNESCO UK Engineering Fellowship and a 3-years BBSRC Fellowship. Particularly the latter marks the beginning of my career as independent researcher.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been give?

“Concentrate in what you can control”. A career in academia can be very competitive and comparing yourself to other extremely successful academics is sometimes demoralising. A career in academia is also full of ups and downs and uncertain for an early career researcher. Everyone should focus instead in focusing in what they can control and be motivated on achieving personal and career goals.

Why did you choose to publish in ChemComm?

ChemComm is one of the most respected journals that offer a rapid publication process of short communications. It has also the open access option which helps in sharing novel findings that will benefit the entire research community.

Dr Claudia Contini is a BBSRC Fellow at Imperial College London, working in bottom-up synthetic biology. Her multidisciplinary training comprises a Master’s degree in medical chemistry at the University of Padua, Italy and a PhD in Physical Chemistry at the University College London, UK. This has been followed by a postdoctoral position focused on investigating the interactions at the bio-nano interface at Imperial College London (ICL). She then obtained an ISSF Fellowship (ICL, UK) to create innovative protocells. This has been followed by the award of a L’Oréal-UNESCO UK Engineering Fellowship and a 3-years BBSRC Fellowship. Multiple awards have recognised her research, including the ‘Italy Made Me’ award from the Italian Ambassador in London to recognise her innovative research carried out in the UK.

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