Biosensors for bioengineering

The Biosensors for bioengineering group is a junior group under IBEC’s Tenure Track scheme.


Javier Ramón Azcón | Group Leader / ICREA Research Professor
Francesco De Chiara | Senior Researcher
Juanma Fernandez Costa | Postdoctoral Researcher
Xiomara Gislen Fernández Garibay | Postdoctoral Researcher
Gerardo López Muñoz | Postdoctoral Researcher
Armando Cortés Reséndiz | PhD Student
Ainhoa Ferret Miñana | PhD Student
Sheeza Mughal | PhD Student
Ainoa Tejedera Villafranca | PhD Student
Albert Garcia Castaño | Laboratory Technician
Iñigo Alzaga Alzaga | Masters Student
Carolina Elisabeth De Korte | Masters Student
Miriam Fernandez Gonzalez | Masters Student
Artur Rydosz | Visiting Researcher



Our research is focused on multi tissues organs-on-a-chip (OOC) and more specifically in the metabolic crosstalk within tissues and their relationship with metabolic diseases. Our projects are focused on four key tissues regulating glucose homeostasis, namely, the pancreas, liver, skeletal muscle, and adipose tissue. To achieve this objective, it is necessary a combined interdisciplinary approach:

Human myotubes encapsulated in micropatterned hydrogel scaffold. Scale is 100 µm.

-Biomaterials and tissue engineering research

1) We have several lines of research related with skeletal muscle. Our first approach was with C2C12 mice cell line. We evaluated the influence of mechanical stiffness and geometrical confinement on the 3D culture of myoblast-laden chemically modified gelatin photo-cross linkable composite hydrogels in terms of in vitro myogenesis.

2) Encapsulation of beta-cells like from human skin fibroblast (collaboration with IDIBAPS). This work addresses two critical issues in the design of an efficient beta-cell replacement therapy: an accessible cell source for generation of substitute beta-cells and an adequate delivery device for transplantation. On one hand, we propose to generate transplantable functional insulin-producing beta-cells from fibroblasts through direct reprogramming strategies that bypass the pluripotent iPS stage. On a second objective, we are working in a new system of encapsulating beta-cells like in two steps, microencapsulation to protect cells from immune system and microencapsulation to mechanically protect them and manipulate them.

3) We are developing three-dimensional micro liver models using various biomaterials to recreate the in vivo-like mechanical properties and using hepatocytes and stellate cells. We are collaborating with Grifols company to test some drugs in our model.

4) We have a collaboration project with NovoNordisk to work in new approaches to encapsulate retinal cells.

-Biosensing technology:

Pancreas islet stained in blue for nuclei and red for actin inside a microporous microfibrillated cellulose-gelatin scaffold stained with green.


1) Integrating biosensors in an organ-on-a-chip. We are studying with in situ electrochemical biosensors the release of insulin under the effect of external stimuli, changes in glucose levels and myokines secreted by skeletal muscle (multi-OOC approach).

2) Related with this project we are implementing new biosensors systems. To fully exploit the potential of the organs-on-a-chip, there is a need to interface them to integrated sensing modules, capable to monitor in real-time their biochemical response to external stimuli, like stress or drugs.  The goal of this project is to answer this need, by developing a novel technology based on integrating localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) sensing module to organs-on-a-chip devices to monitor disease and evaluate drug response in organs-on-a-chip models.

3) Myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) (collaboration with Hospital de la Fe and INCLIVA, Valencia, Spain). We have developed human skeletal muscle micro physiological tissues using micro molding technology and we have integrated them with amperometric biosensors to study the inflammatory process related with electrical and chemical stimuli. We have used transdifferentiated skin fibroblast human cells from DM1 patients and healthy human. Using this platform, we have started to evaluate different treatments, to screen drugs and to evaluate doses.

4) NMR integrated with OOC. The objective of this project is to develop a new technology based on magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging using dynamic nuclear polarisation (DNP-MR) integrated with OOC devices to monitor disease and evaluate drug response in OOC models. As a proof-of-concept, this project will fabricate a biomimetic multi OOC integrated device composed of liver spheroids and pancreatic islets and develop the necessary DNP-MR hardware and software to study metabolic diseases and for future drug screening applications. We are working in collaboration with Oxford instrument and Multiwave companies. 


Schematic overview of the configuration and function of the muscle-on-a-chip. (A) The flow pass through the microdevice where 3D SM tissue is electrically (ITO-IDA electrodes) or biologically (LPS) stimulated. The outlet flow containing the IL-6 and TNF-α goes directly to an 8-way microfluidic distributor to reach the sensing system. (Lab Chip 19, 2568–2580 (2019)).



EU-funded projects
DAMOC · ‘Diabetes Approach by Multi-Organ-on-a-Chip’ (2017-2021) ERC Javier Ramón
BLOC · Benchtop NMR for Lab-on-Chip (2020-2022) European Comission FET-Open Javier Ramón
National Projects
Development of a “Muscle-on-a-Chip” (MoC) platform for the preclinical evaluation of potential therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (2020-2022) DUCHENNE ESPAÑA, IV Convocatoria Ayudas a Proyectos de Investigación Juanma Fernandez
BLAD · BioLiver Assist Device (2020-2021) AGAUR, Ajuts per a projectes innovadors amb potencial d’incorporació al sector productiu – LLAVOR Javier Ramón
Análisis metabólico en tiempo real de modelos de cultivo de células 3D de la enfermedad del hígado graso no alcohólico: órganos en un chip y resonancia magnética nuclear  (2020-2021) MINECO, Acciones Dinamización Europa Investigación Irene Marco
Privately funded projects
Tatami · Therapeutic targeting of MBNL microRNAs as innovative treatments for myotonic dystrophy (2019-2021) Fundació bancaria “La Caixa” Javier Ramón
Fundraising Projects
Programa Faster Future 2020: COVID-19 (2021) Fundraising Javier Ramón
Finished Projects
INDUCT · Fabrication of a biomimetic in vitro model of the intestinal tube muscle wall: smooth muscle-on-a-chip (2018-2020) MINECO Javier Ramón


De Chiara, Francesco, Ferret-Miñana, Ainhoa, Fernández-Costa, Juan M., Senni, Alice, Jalan, Rajiv, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2022). Fatty Hepatocytes Induce Skeletal Muscle Atrophy In Vitro: A New 3D Platform to Study the Protective Effect of Albumin in Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Biomedicines 10, 958

The liver neutralizes endogenous and exogenous toxins and metabolites, being metabolically interconnected with many organs. Numerous clinical and experimental studies show a strong association between Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and loss of skeletal muscle mass known as sarcopenia. Liver transplantation solves the hepatic-related insufficiencies, but it is unable to revert sarcopenia. Knowing the mechanism(s) by which different organs communicate with each other is crucial to improve the drug development that still relies on the two-dimensional models. However, those models fail to mimic the pathological features of the disease. Here, both liver and skeletal muscle cells were encapsulated in gelatin methacryloyl and carboxymethylcellulose to recreate the disease’s phenotype in vitro. The 3D hepatocytes were challenged with non-esterified fatty acids (NEFAs) inducing features of Non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) such as lipid accumulation, metabolic activity impairment and apoptosis. The 3D skeletal muscle tissues incubated with supernatant from fatty hepatocytes displayed loss of maturation and atrophy. This study demonstrates the connection between the liver and the skeletal muscle in NAFL, narrowing down the players for potential treatments. The tool herein presented was employed as a customizable 3D in vitro platform to assess the protective effect of albumin on both hepatocytes and myotubes.

Azagra, Marc, Pose, Elisa, Chiara, Francesco, Perez, Martina, Avitabile, Emma, Servitja, Joan‐Marc, Brugnara, Laura, Ramon‐Azcón, Javier, Marco‐Rius, Irene, (2022). Ammonium quantification (AQua) in human plasma by 1 H‐NMR for staging of liver fibrosis in alcohol‐related liver disease and non‐alcoholic fatty liver disease Nmr In Biomedicine ,

Clua-Ferré, Laura, Chiara, Francesco, Rodríguez-Comas, Júlia, Comelles, Jordi, Martinez, Elena, Godeau, Amelie Luise, García-Alamán, Ainhoa, Gasa, Rosa, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2022). Collagen-Tannic Acid Spheroids for beta-Cell Encapsulation Fabricated Using a 3D Bioprinter Advanced Materials Technologies , 2101696

Vila, JC, Castro-Aguirre, N, Lopez-Munoz, GA, Ferret-Minana, A, De Chiara, F, Ramon-Azcon, J, (2021). Disposable Polymeric Nanostructured Plasmonic Biosensors for Cell Culture Adhesion Monitoring Frontiers In Bioengineering And Biotechnology 9,

Over the last years, optical biosensors based on plasmonic nanomaterials have gained great scientific interest due to their unquestionable advantages compared to other biosensing technologies. They can achieve sensitive, direct, and label-free analysis with exceptional potential for multiplexing and miniaturization. Recently, it has been demonstrated the potential of using optical discs as high throughput nanotemplates for the development of plasmonic biosensors in a cost-effective way. This work is a pilot study focused on the development of an integrated plasmonic biosensor for the monitoring of cell adhesion and growth of human retinal pigmented cell line (ARPE-19) under different media conditions (0 and 2% of FBS). We observed an increase of the plasmonic band displacement under 2% FBS compared to 0% conditions over time (1, 3, and 5 h). These preliminary results show that the proposed plasmonic biosensing approach is a direct, non-destructive, and real-time tool that could be employed in the study of living cells behavior and culture conditions. Furthermore, this setup could assess the viability of the cells and their growth over time with low variability between the technical replicates improving the experimental replicability.

Keywords: cell confluency, cell culture, nanocrystals, optical biosensor, Adhesion monitoring, Biosensing, Biosensors, Cell adhesion, Cell confluency, Cell culture, Cells, Condition, Cost effectiveness, Disposables, Nano-structured, Nanocrystals, Optical bio-sensors, Optical biosensor, Plasmonic biosensors, Plasmonic nanostructures, Plasmonics, Polylysine

Rodríguez-Comas, Júlia, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2022). Islet-on-a-chip for the study of pancreatic beta-cell function In Vitro Models 1, 41-57

Diabetes mellitus is a significant public health problem worldwide. It encompasses a group of chronic disorders characterized by hyperglycemia, resulting from pancreatic islet dysfunction or as a consequence of insulin-producing ?-cell death. Organ-on-a-chip platforms have emerged as technological systems combining cell biology, engineering, and biomaterial technological advances with microfluidics to recapitulate a specific organ’s physiological or pathophysiological environment. These devices offer a novel model for the screening of pharmaceutical agents and to study a particular disease. In the field of diabetes, a variety of microfluidic devices have been introduced to recreate native islet microenvironments and to understand pancreatic ?-cell kinetics in vitro. This kind of platforms has been shown fundamental for the study of the islet function and to assess the quality of these islets for subsequent in vivo transplantation. However, islet physiological systems are still limited compared to other organs and tissues, evidencing the difficulty to study this “organ” and the need for further technological advances. In this review, we summarize the current state of islet-on-a-chip platforms that have been developed so far. We recapitulate the most relevant studies involving pancreatic islets and microfluidics, focusing on the molecular and cellular-scale activities that underlie pancreatic ?-cell function.

Keywords: pancreatic islets, Diabetes, Microchips, Microfluidics

Lopez-Muñoz, Gerardo A, Fernández-Costa, Juan M, Ortega, Maria Alejandra, Balaguer-Trias, Jordina, Martin-Lasierra, Eduard, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2021). Plasmonic nanocrystals on polycarbonate substrates for direct and label-free biodetection of Interleukin-6 in bioengineered 3D skeletal muscles Nanophotonics 10, 4477-4488

Abstract The development of nanostructured plasmonic biosensors has been widely widespread in the last years, motivated by the potential benefits they can offer in integration, miniaturization, multiplexing opportunities, and enhanced performance label-free biodetection in a wide field of applications. Between them, engineering tissues represent a novel, challenging, and prolific application field for nanostructured plasmonic biosensors considering the previously described benefits and the low levels of secreted biomarkers (?pM–nM) to detect. Here, we present an integrated plasmonic nanocrystals-based biosensor using high throughput nanostructured polycarbonate substrates. Metallic film thickness and incident angle of light for reflectance measurements were optimized to enhance the detection of antibody–antigen biorecognition events using numerical simulations. We achieved an enhancement in biodetection up to 3× as the incident angle of light decreases, which can be related to shorter evanescent decay lengths. We achieved a high reproducibility between channels with a coefficient of variation below 2% in bulk refractive index measurements, demonstrating a high potential for multiplexed sensing. Finally, biosensing potential was demonstrated by the direct and label-free detection of interleukin-6 biomarker in undiluted cell culture media supernatants from bioengineered 3D skeletal muscle tissues stimulated with different concentrations of endotoxins achieving a limit of detection (LOD) of ? 0.03 ng/mL (1.4 pM).

Keywords: assay, crystals, drug, label-free biosensing, molecules, plasmonic nanostructures, sensors, skeletal muscle, tissue engineering, Biodetection, Biomarkers, Biosensors, Cell culture, Cells, Chemical detection, Histology, Interleukin-6, Interleukin6 (il6), Label free, Label-free biosensing, Muscle, Nano-structured, Nanocrystals, Plasmonic nanocrystals, Plasmonic nanostructures, Plasmonics, Polycarbonate substrates, Polycarbonates, Refractive index, Sensitivity, Skeletal muscle, Tissue engineering, Tissues engineerings

Parra-Monreal V, Ortega-Machuca MA, Ramin-Azcin J, Svendsen W, Romano-Rodriguez A, Moreno-Sereno M, (2021). Detection of cytokines in skeletal muscle tissue using optical SPR sensing platform Proceedings Of The 2021 13th Spanish Conference On Electron Devices, Cde 2021 , 102-105

In this work we have explored the use of a Surface Plasmon resonance (SPR) phenomenon for the detection of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a pro-inflammatory cytokine. It plays an important role in the muscle tissues, having direct relation with muscle contraction and, thus, it is considered a biomarker for some types of muscular dystrophies. Here we show that SPR can be used as a real-time monitoring of the shift of the reflectance dip of a gold diffraction grating in front to the antibody adhesion to gold.

Keywords: Antibodies, Gratings, Interleukin-6 (il-6), Proteins, Surface plasmon resonance

Nashimoto Y, Abe M, Fujii R, Taira N, Ida H, Takahashi Y, Ino K, Ramon-Azcon J, Shiku H, (2021). Topography and Permeability Analyses of Vasculature-on-a-Chip Using Scanning Probe Microscopies Advanced Healthcare Materials 10

Microphysiological systems (MPS) or organs-on-chips (OoC) can emulate the physiological functions of organs in vitro and are effective tools for determining human drug responses in preclinical studies. However, the analysis of MPS has relied heavily on optical tools, resulting in difficulties in real-time and high spatial resolution imaging of the target cell functions. In this study, the role of scanning probe microscopy (SPM) as an analytical tool for MPS is evaluated. An access hole is made in a typical MPS system with stacked microchannels to insert SPM probes into the system. For the first study, a simple vascular model composed of only endothelial cells is prepared for SPM analysis. Changes in permeability and local chemical flux are quantitatively evaluated during the construction of the vascular system. The morphological changes in the endothelial cells after flow stimulation are imaged at the single-cell level for topographical analysis. Finally, the possibility of adapting the permeability and topographical analysis using SPM for the intestinal vascular system is further evaluated. It is believed that this study will pave the way for an in situ permeability assay and structural analysis of MPS using SPM.

Keywords: cell, electrochemical microscopy, membrane-permeability, microphysiological systems, organs-chips, platform, scanning electrochemical microscopy, scanning ion conductance microscopy, scanning probe microscopy, shear-stress, surface-topography, Ion conductance microscopy, Microphysiological systems, Organs-chips, Scanning electrochemical microscopy, Scanning ion conductance microscopy, Scanning probe microscopy

Velasco-Mallorqui, F, Rodriguez-Comas, J, Ramon-Azcon, J, (2021). Cellulose-based scaffolds enhance pseudoislets formation and functionality Biofabrication 13,

In vitro research for the study of type 2 diabetes (T2D) is frequently limited by the availability of a functional model for islets of Langerhans. To overcome the limitations of obtaining pancreatic islets from different sources, such as animal models or human donors, immortalized cell lines as the insulin-producing INS1E beta-cells have appeared as a valid alternative to model insulin-related diseases. However, immortalized cell lines are mainly used in flat surfaces or monolayer distributions, not resembling the spheroid-like architecture of the pancreatic islets. To generate islet-like structures, the use of scaffolds appeared as a valid tool to promote cell aggregations. Traditionally-used hydrogel encapsulation methods do not accomplish all the requisites for pancreatic tissue engineering, as its poor nutrient and oxygen diffusion induces cell death. Here, we use cryogelation technology to develop a more resemblance scaffold with the mechanical and physical properties needed to engineer pancreatic tissue. This study shows that carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) cryogels prompted cells to generate beta-cell clusters in comparison to gelatin-based scaffolds, that did not induce this cell organization. Moreover, the high porosity achieved with CMC cryogels allowed us to create specific range pseudoislets. Pseudoislets formed within CMC-scaffolds showed cell viability for up to 7 d and a better response to glucose over conventional monolayer cultures. Overall, our results demonstrate that CMC-scaffolds can be used to control the organization and function of insulin-producing beta-cells, representing a suitable technique to generate beta-cell clusters to study pancreatic islet function.

Keywords: biomaterial, cryogel, pancreatic islets, scaffold, tissue engineering, ?-cell, Architecture, Beta-cell, Beta-cell heterogeneity, Biomaterial, Carboxymethyl cellulose, Cell culture, Cell death, Cell engineering, Cell organization, Cells, Cellulose, Cryogel, Cryogels, Cytoarchitecture, Delivery, Encapsulation methods, Gelation, Gene-expression, Immortalized cells, Insulin, Insulin secretory responses, Islets of langerhans, Mechanical and physical properties, Monolayer culture, Monolayers, Pancreatic islets, Pancreatic tissue, Pancreatic-islets, Proliferation, Scaffold, Scaffolds, Scaffolds (biology), Size, Tissue, Tissue engineering

Fernández-Garibay X, Ortega MA, Cerro-Herreros E, Comelles J, Martínez E, Artero R, Fernández-Costa JM, Ramón-Azcón J, (2021). Bioengineered in vitro 3D model of myotonic dystrophy type 1 human skeletal muscle Biofabrication 13,

Myotonic dystrophy type 1 (DM1) is the most common hereditary myopathy in the adult population. The disease is characterized by progressive skeletal muscle degeneration that produces severe disability. At present, there is still no effective treatment for DM1 patients, but the breakthroughs in understanding the molecular pathogenic mechanisms in DM1 have allowed the testing of new therapeutic strategies. Animal models and in vitro two-dimensional cell cultures have been essential for these advances. However, serious concerns exist regarding how faithfully these models reproduce the biological complexity of the disease. Biofabrication tools can be applied to engineer human three-dimensional (3D) culture systems that complement current preclinical research models. Here, we describe the development of the first in vitro 3D model of DM1 human skeletal muscle. Transdifferentiated myoblasts from patient-derived fibroblasts were encapsulated in micromolded gelatin methacryloyl-carboxymethyl cellulose methacrylate hydrogels through photomold patterning on functionalized glass coverslips. These hydrogels present a microstructured topography that promotes myoblasts alignment and differentiation resulting in highly aligned myotubes from both healthy and DM1 cells in a long-lasting cell culture. The DM1 3D microtissues recapitulate the molecular alterations detected in patient biopsies. Importantly, fusion index analyses demonstrate that 3D micropatterning significantly improved DM1 cell differentiation into multinucleated myotubes compared to standard cell cultures. Moreover, the characterization of the 3D cultures of DM1 myotubes detects phenotypes as the reduced thickness of myotubes that can be used for drug testing. Finally, we evaluated the therapeutic effect of antagomiR-23b administration on bioengineered DM1 skeletal muscle microtissues. AntagomiR-23b treatment rescues both molecular DM1 hallmarks and structural phenotype, restoring myotube diameter to healthy control sizes. Overall, these new microtissues represent an improvement over conventional cell culture models and can be used as biomimetic platforms to establish preclinical studies for myotonic dystrophy.

Keywords: 3d cell culture, hydrogel micropatterning, myotonic dystrophy, skeletal muscle, tissue engineering, 3d cell culture, Hydrogel micropatterning, Myotonic dystrophy, Skeletal muscle, Tissue engineering

Ortega MA, Rodríguez-Comas J, Yavas O, Velasco-Mallorquí F, Balaguer-Trias J, Parra V, Novials A, Servitja JM, Quidant R, Ramón-Azcón J, (2021). In Situ LSPR Sensing of Secreted Insulin in Organ-on-Chip Biosensors 11,

Organ-on-a-chip (OOC) devices offer new approaches for metabolic disease modeling and drug discovery by providing biologically relevant models of tissues and organs in vitro with a high degree of control over experimental variables for high-content screening applications. Yet, to fully exploit the potential of these platforms, there is a need to interface them with integrated non-labeled sensing modules, capable of monitoring, in situ, their biochemical response to external stimuli, such as stress or drugs. In order to meet this need, we aim here to develop an integrated technology based on coupling a localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) sensing module to an OOC device to monitor the insulin in situ secretion in pancreatic islets, a key physiological event that is usually perturbed in metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes (T2D). As a proof of concept, we developed a biomimetic islet-on-a-chip (IOC) device composed of mouse pancreatic islets hosted in a cellulose-based scaffold as a novel approach. The IOC was interfaced with a state-of-the-art on-chip LSPR sensing platform to monitor the in situ insulin secretion. The developed platform offers a powerful tool to enable the in situ response study of microtissues to external stimuli for applications such as a drug-screening platform for human models, bypassing animal testing.

Keywords: biosensor, cytoarchitecture, dna hybridization, gelatin, in situ insulin monitoring, langerhans, lspr sensors, microfluidic device, organ-on-a-chip, parallel, platform, scaffold, Human pancreatic-islets, In situ insulin monitoring, Lspr sensors, Organ-on-a-chip

De Chiara F, Ferret-Miñana A, Ramón-Azcón J, (2021). The synergy between organ-on-a-chip and artificial intelligence for the study of nafld: From basic science to clinical research Biomedicines 9, 1-16

Non-alcoholic fatty liver affects about 25% of global adult population. On the long-term, it is associated with extra-hepatic compliances, multiorgan failure, and death. Various invasive and non-invasive methods are employed for its diagnosis such as liver biopsies, CT scan, MRI, and numerous scoring systems. However, the lack of accuracy and reproducibility represents one of the biggest limitations of evaluating the effectiveness of drug candidates in clinical trials. Organ-on-chips (OOC) are emerging as a cost-effective tool to reproduce in vitro the main NAFLD’s pathogenic features for drug screening purposes. Those platforms have reached a high degree of complexity that generate an unprecedented amount of both structured and unstructured data that outpaced our capacity to analyze the results. The addition of artificial intelligence (AI) layer for data analysis and interpretation enables those platforms to reach their full potential. Furthermore, the use of them do not require any ethic and legal regulation. In this review, we discuss the synergy between OOC and AI as one of the most promising ways to unveil potential therapeutic targets as well as the complex mechanism(s) underlying NAFLD.

Keywords: artificial intelligence, extra-hepatic outcome, nafld, organ-on-a-chip, Artificial intelligence, Extra-hepatic outcome, Nafld, Organ-on-a-chip

Fernández-Costa JM, Fernández-Garibay X, Velasco-Mallorquí F, Ramón-Azcón J, (2021). Bioengineered in vitro skeletal muscles as new tools for muscular dystrophies preclinical studies Journal of Tissue Engineering 12,

© The Author(s) 2021. Muscular dystrophies are a group of highly disabling disorders that share degenerative muscle weakness and wasting as common symptoms. To date, there is not an effective cure for these diseases. In the last years, bioengineered tissues have emerged as powerful tools for preclinical studies. In this review, we summarize the recent technological advances in skeletal muscle tissue engineering. We identify several ground-breaking techniques to fabricate in vitro bioartificial muscles. Accumulating evidence shows that scaffold-based tissue engineering provides topographical cues that enhance the viability and maturation of skeletal muscle. Functional bioartificial muscles have been developed using human myoblasts. These tissues accurately responded to electrical and biological stimulation. Moreover, advanced drug screening tools can be fabricated integrating these tissues in electrical stimulation platforms. However, more work introducing patient-derived cells and integrating these tissues in microdevices is needed to promote the clinical translation of bioengineered skeletal muscle as preclinical tools for muscular dystrophies.

Keywords: biomaterials, drug screening platforms, muscular dystrophy, skeletal muscle, tissue engineering, Biomaterials, Drug screening platforms, Muscular dystrophy, Skeletal muscle, Tissue engineering

Marco-Rius I, Wright AJ, Hu De, Savic D, Miller JJ, Timm KN, Tyler D, Brindle KM, Comment A, (2021). Probing hepatic metabolism of [2-13C]dihydroxyacetone in vivo with 1H-decoupled hyperpolarized 13C-MR Magnetic Resonance Materials In Physics Biology And Medicine 34, 49-56

© 2020, The Author(s). Objectives: To enhance detection of the products of hyperpolarized [2-13C]dihydroxyacetone metabolism for assessment of three metabolic pathways in the liver in vivo. Hyperpolarized [2-13C]DHAc emerged as a promising substrate to follow gluconeogenesis, glycolysis and the glycerol pathways. However, the use of [2-13C]DHAc in vivo has not taken off because (i) the chemical shift range of [2-13C]DHAc and its metabolic products span over 144 ppm, and (ii) 1H decoupling is required to increase spectral resolution and sensitivity. While these issues are trivial for high-field vertical-bore NMR spectrometers, horizontal-bore small-animal MR scanners are seldom equipped for such experiments. Methods: Real-time hepatic metabolism of three fed mice was probed by 1H-decoupled 13C-MR following injection of hyperpolarized [2-13C]DHAc. The spectra of [2-13C]DHAc and its metabolic products were acquired in a 7 T small-animal MR scanner using three purpose-designed spectral-spatial radiofrequency pulses that excited a spatial bandwidth of 8 mm with varying spectral bandwidths and central frequencies (chemical shifts). Results: The metabolic products detected in vivo include glycerol 3-phosphate, glycerol, phosphoenolpyruvate, lactate, alanine, glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate and glucose 6-phosphate. The metabolite-to-substrate ratios were comparable to those reported previously in perfused liver. Discussion: Three metabolic pathways can be probed simultaneously in the mouse liver in vivo, in real time, using hyperpolarized DHAc.

Keywords: carbon-13 magnetic resonance spectroscopy, dynamic nuclear polarisation, gluconeogenesis, glycolysis, hyperpolarisation, liver, Carbon-13 magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Cycle, Dihydroxyacetone, Dynamic nuclear polarisation, Excitation, Fructose, Gluconeogenesis, Glucose, Glycolysis, Hyperpolarisation, Liver, Magnetic-resonance, Metabolism, Mri

Gómez-Domínguez, D., Epifano, C., Miguel, F., Castaño, A. G., Vilaplana-Martí, B., Martín, A., Amarilla-Quintana, S., Bertrand, A. T., Bonne, G., Ramón-Azcón, J., Rodríguez-Milla, M. A., Pérez de Castro, I., (2020). Consequences of Lmna exon 4 mutations in myoblast function Cells 9, (5), 1286

Laminopathies are causally associated with mutations on the Lamin A/C gene (LMNA). To date, more than 400 mutations in LMNA have been reported in patients. These mutations are widely distributed throughout the entire gene and are associated with a wide range of phenotypes. Unfortunately, little is known about the mechanisms underlying the effect of the majority of these mutations. This is the case of more than 40 mutations that are located at exon 4. Using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, we generated a collection of Lmna exon 4 mutants in mouse C2C12 myoblasts. These cell models included different types of exon 4 deletions and the presence of R249W mutation, one of the human variants associated with a severe type of laminopathy, LMNA-associated congenital muscular dystrophy (L-CMD). We characterized these clones by measuring their nuclear circularity, myogenic differentiation capacity in 2D and 3D conditions, DNA damage, and levels of p-ERK and p-AKT (phosphorylated Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinase 1/3 and AKT serine/threonine kinase 1). Our results indicated that Lmna exon 4 mutants showed abnormal nuclear morphology. In addition, levels and/or subcellular localization of different members of the lamin and LINC (LInker of Nucleoskeleton and Cytoskeleton) complex were altered in all these mutants. Whereas no significant differences were observed for ERK and AKT activities, the accumulation of DNA damage was associated to the Lmna p.R249W mutant myoblasts. Finally, significant myogenic differentiation defects were detected in the Lmna exon 4 mutants. These results have key implications in the development of future therapeutic strategies for the treatment of laminopathies.

Keywords: CRISPR, Laminopathy, LMNA, Nuclear envelope

Lopez-Muñoz, Gerardo A., Ortega, Maria Alejandra, Ferret-Miñana, Ainhoa, De Chiara, Francesco, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2020). Direct and label-free monitoring of albumin in 2D fatty liver disease model using plasmonic nanogratings Nanomaterials 10, (12), 2520

Non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFLD) is a metabolic disorder related to a chronic lipid accumulation within the hepatocytes. This disease is the most common liver disorder worldwide, and it is estimated that it is present in up to 25% of the world’s population. However, the real prevalence of this disease and the associated disorders is unknown mainly because reliable and applicable diagnostic tools are lacking. It is known that the level of albumin, a pleiotropic protein synthesized by hepatocytes, is correlated with the correct function of the liver. The development of a complementary tool that allows direct, sensitive, and label-free monitoring of albumin secretion in hepatocyte cell culture can provide insight into NAFLD’s mechanism and drug action. With this aim, we have developed a simple integrated plasmonic biosensor based on gold nanogratings from periodic nanostructures present in commercial Blu-ray optical discs. This sensor allows the direct and label-free monitoring of albumin in a 2D fatty liver disease model under flow conditions using a highly-specific polyclonal antibody. This technology avoids both the amplification and blocking steps showing a limit of detection within pM range (≈0.26 ng/mL). Thanks to this technology, we identified the optimal fetal bovine serum (FBS) concentration to maximize the cells’ lipid accumulation. Moreover, we discovered that the hepatocytes increased the amount of albumin secreted on the third day from the lipids challenge. These data demonstrate the ability of hepatocytes to respond to the lipid stimulation releasing more albumin. Further investigation is needed to unveil the biological significance of that cell behavior.

Keywords: 2D fatty liver in vitro model, Blu-Ray disc, Plasmonic nanomaterials, Label-Free Biosensing

Velasco, Ferran, Fernandez-Costa, Juan M., Neves, Luisa, Ramon-Azcon, Javier, (2020). New volumetric CNT-doped Gelatin-Cellulose scaffold for skeletal muscle tissue engineering Nanoscale Advances 2, (7), 2885-2896

Currently, the fabrication of scaffolds for engineered skeletal muscle tissue is unable to reach the millimeter size. The main drawbacks are the poor nutrients diffusion, lack of internal structure to align precursor cells as well as poor mechanical and electric properties. Herein, we present a combination of gelatin-carboxymethyl cellulose materials polymerised by a cryogelation process that allowed us to reach scaffold fabrication up to millimeters size and solve the main problems related with large size muscle tissue constructs. 1) By incorporating carbon nanotubes (CNT) we can improve the electrical properties of the scaffold, thereby enhancing tissue maturation when applying an electric pulse stimulus (EPS). 2) We have fabricated an anisotropic internal three-dimensional microarchitecture pore distribution with high aligned morphology to enhance cells alignment, cell fusion and myotubes formation. With this set up, we were able to generate a fully functional skeletal muscle tissue using a combination of EPS and our doped-biocomposite scaffold and obtain a mature tissue in a millimeter scale. We also characterized pore distribution, swelling, stiffness and conductivity of the scaffold. Moreover, we proved that the cells are viable and able to fuse in a three-dimensional (3D) functional myotubes throughout the scaffold. In conclusion, we fabricate a biocompatible and customizable scaffold for 3D cell culture suitable for a wide range of application such as organ-on-a-chip, drug screening, transplantation and disease modelling.

Hernández-Albors, Alejandro, Castaño, Albert G., Fernández-Garibay, Xiomara, Ortega, María Alejandra, Balaguer, Jordina, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2019). Microphysiological sensing platform for an in-situ detection of tissue-secreted cytokines Biosensors and Bioelectronics: X 2, 100025

Understanding the protein-secretion dynamics from single, specific tissues is critical toward the advancement of disease detection and treatments. However, such secretion dynamics remain difficult to measure in vivo due to the uncontrolled contributions from other tissue populations. Here, we describe an integrated platform designed for the reliable, near real-time measurements of cytokines secreted from an in vitro single-tissue model. In our setup, we grow 3D biomimetic tissues to discretize cytokine source, and we separate them from a magnetic microbead-based biosensing system using a Transwell insert. This design integrates physiochemically controlled biological activity, high-sensitivity protein detection (LOD < 20 pg mL−1), and rapid protein diffusion to enable non-invasive, near real-time measurements. To showcase the specificity and sensitivity of the system, we use our setup to probe the inflammatory process related to the protein Interleukine 6 (IL-6) and to the Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF-α). We show that our setup can monitor the time-dependence profile of IL-6 and TNF-α secretion that results from the electrical and chemical stimulation of 3D skeletal muscle tissues. We demonstrate a novel and affordable methodology for discretizing the secretion kinetics of specific tissues for advancing metabolic-disorder studies and drug-screening applications.

Keywords: Microphysiological tissues, Tissue engineering, Electrochemical, biosensors, Magnetic particles, Skeletal muscle, Electric stimulation

Ortega, María A., Fernández-Garibay, Xiomara, Castaño, Albert G., De Chiara, Francesco, Hernández-Albors, Alejandro, Balaguer-Trias, Jordina, Ramón-Azcón, Javier, (2019). Muscle-on-a-chip with an on-site multiplexed biosensing system for in situ monitoring of secreted IL-6 and TNF-α Lab on a Chip 19, 2568-2580

Despite the increasing number of organs-on-a-chip that have been developed in the past decade, limited efforts have been made to integrate a sensing system for in situ continual measurements of biomarkers from three-dimensional (3D) tissues. Here, we present a custom-made integrated platform for muscle cell stimulation under fluidic conditions connected with a multiplexed high-sensitivity electrochemical sensing system for in situ monitoring. To demonstrate this, we use our system to measure the release levels and release time of interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor alpha in vitro by 3D muscle microtissue under electrical and biological stimulations. Our experimental design has enabled us to perform multiple time point measurements using functionalized screen-printed gold electrodes with sensitivity in the ng mL−1 range. This affordable setup is uniquely suited for monitoring factors released by 3D single cell types upon external stimulation for metabolic studies.

De Chiara, F., Checcllo, C. U., Ramón-Azcón, J., (2019). High protein diet and metabolic plasticity in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: Myths and truths Nutrients 11, (12), 2985

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is characterized by lipid accumulation within the liver affecting 1 in 4 people worldwide. As the new silent killer of the twenty-first century, NAFLD impacts on both the request and the availability of new liver donors. The liver is the first line of defense against endogenous and exogenous metabolites and toxins. It also retains the ability to switch between different metabolic pathways according to food type and availability. This ability becomes a disadvantage in obesogenic societies where most people choose a diet based on fats and carbohydrates while ignoring vitamins and fiber. The chronic exposure to fats and carbohydrates induces dramatic changes in the liver zonation and triggers the development of insulin resistance. Common believes on NAFLD and different diets are based either on epidemiological studies, or meta-analysis, which are not controlled evidences; in most of the cases, they are biased on test-subject type and their lifestyles. The highest success in reverting NAFLD can be attributed to diets based on high protein instead of carbohydrates. In this review, we discuss the impact of NAFLD on body metabolic plasticity. We also present a detailed analysis of the most recent studies that evaluate high-protein diets in NAFLD with a special focus on the liver and the skeletal muscle protein metabolisms.

Keywords: High protein diet, Low carbohydrates, NAFLD, NASH, Physical activity

de Goede, M., Dijkstra, M., Obregón, R., Ramón-Azcón, J., Martínez, Elena, Padilla, L., Mitjans, F., Garcia-Blanco, S. M., (2019). Al2O3 microring resonators for the detection of a cancer biomarker in undiluted urine Optics Express 27, (13), 18508-18521

Concentrations down to 3 nM of the rhS100A4 protein, associated with human tumor development, have been detected in undiluted urine using an integrated sensor based on microring resonators in the emerging Al2O3 photonic platform. The fabricated microrings were designed for operation in the C-band (λ = 1565 nm) and exhibited a high-quality factor in air of 3.2 × 105. The bulk refractive index sensitivity of the devices was ~100 nm/RIU (for TM polarization) with a limit of detection of ~10−6 RIU. A surface functionalization protocol was developed to allow for the selective binding of the monoclonal antibodies designed to capture the target biomarker to the surface of the Al2O3 microrings. The detection of rhS100A4 proteins at clinically relevant concentrations in urine is a big milestone towards the use of biosensors for the screening and early diagnosis of different cancers. Biosensors based on this microring technology can lead to portable, multiplexed and easy-to-use point of care devices.

Keywords: Distributed feedback lasers, Effective refractive index, Laser coupling, Polarization maintaining fibers, Refractive index, Scanning electron microscopy

García-Lizarribar, Andrea, Fernández-Garibay, Xiomara, Velasco-Mallorquí, Ferran, Castaño, Albert G., Samitier, Josep, Ramon-Azcon, Javier, (2018). Composite biomaterials as long-lasting scaffolds for 3D bioprinting of highly aligned muscle tissue Macromolecular Bioscience 18, (10), 1800167

Abstract New biocompatible materials have enabled the direct 3D printing of complex functional living tissues, such as skeletal and cardiac muscle. Gelatinmethacryloyl (GelMA) is a photopolymerizable hydrogel composed of natural gelatin functionalized with methacrylic anhydride. However, it is difficult to obtain a single hydrogel that meets all the desirable properties for tissue engineering. In particular, GelMA hydrogels lack versatility in their mechanical properties and lasting 3D structures. In this work, a library of composite biomaterials to obtain versatile, lasting, and mechanically tunable scaffolds are presented. Two polysaccharides, alginate and carboxymethyl cellulose chemically functionalized with methacrylic anhydride, and a synthetic material, such as poly(ethylene glycol) diacrylate are combined with GelMA to obtain photopolymerizable hydrogel blends. Physical properties of the obtained composite hydrogels are screened and optimized for the growth and development of skeletal muscle fibers from C2C12 murine cells, and compared with pristine GelMA. All these composites show high resistance to degradation maintaining the 3D structure with high fidelity over several weeks. Altogether, in this study a library of biocompatible novel and totally versatile composite biomaterials are developed and characterized, with tunable mechanical properties that give structure and support myotube formation and alignment.

Ino, Kosuke, Nashimoto, Yuji, Taira, Noriko, Ramón-Azcon, Javier, Shiku, Hitoshi, (2018). Intracellular electrochemical sensing Electroanalysis 30, (10), 2195-2209

Observing biochemical processes within living cell is imperative for biological and medical research. Fluoresce imaging is widely used for intracellular sensing of cell membranes, nuclei, lysosomes, and pH. Electrochemical assays have been proposed as an alternative to fluorescence-based assays because of excellent analytical features of electrochemical devices. Notably, thanks to the rapid progress of micro/nanotechnologies and electrochemical techniques, intracellular electrochemical sensing is making rapid progress, leading to a successful detection of intracellular components. Such insight can provide a deep understanding of cellular biological processes and, ultimately, define the human healthy and diseased states. In this review, we present an overview of recent research progress in intracellular electrochemical sensing. We focus on two main topics, electrochemical extraction of cytosolic contents from cells and intracellular electrochemical sensing in situ.

Keywords: Micro/nanoelectrode, Analytical electrochemistry, Intracellular sensing, Cell analysis

de Goede, M., Chang, L., Dijkstra, M., Obregón, R., Ramón-Azcon, J., Martínez, Elena, Padilla, L., Adan, J., Mitjans, F., García-Blanco, S.M., (2018). Al2O3 Microresonator based passive and active biosensors ICTON 2018 20th International Conference on Transparent Optical Networks , IEEE Computer Society (Bucharest, Romania) , 8473820

Al2O3 microresonators were realized for sensing applications of both passive and active devices. Passive microring resonators exhibited quality factors up to 3.2×105 in air. A bulk refractive index sensitivity of 100 nm/RIU was demonstrated together with a limit of detection of 10-6 RIU. Functionalizing their surface allowed for the label-free detection of the biomarker rhS100A4 from urine with a limit of detection of 3 nM. Furthermore, single-mode Al2O3:Yb3+ microdisk lasers were realized that could operate in an aqueous environment. Upon varying the bulk refractive index their lasing wavelength could be tuned with a sensitivity of 20 nm/RIU and a LOD of 3×10-6 RIU.

de Goede, M., Chang, L., Dijkstra, M., Obregón, R., Ramón-Azcon, J., Martínez, Elena, Padilla, L., Adan, J., Mitjans, F., García-Blanco, S.M., (2018). Al2O3 Mmicroresonators for passive and active sensing applications Sensors 2018 Optical Sensors , OSA - The Optical Society (Zurich, Switzerland) Part F110, 1-2

The Al2O3 waveguide technology was explored for sensing applications. Passive microring resonators with a quality factor in air of 3.2×105 were developed with a bulk refractive index sensitivity of ~100 nm/RIU and limit of detection of ~10-6 RIU. These were functionalized to detect the biomarker rhS100A4 from urine down to concentrations of 3 nM. Furthermore, Al2O3:Yb3+ microdisk lasers were realized that exhibited single mode lasing operation in water. Their lasing wavelength was tuned by varying the bulk refractive index and a bulk refractive index sensitivity of ~20 nm/RIU with a LOD of ~3×10-6 was achieved.

Mohammadi, M. H., Obregón, R., Ahadian, S., Ramón-Azcón, J., Radisic, M., (2017). Engineered muscle tissues for disease modeling and drug screening applications Current Pharmaceutical Design , 23, (20), 2991-3004

Animal models have been the main resources for drug discovery and prediction of drugs’ pharmacokinetic responses in the body. However, noticeable drawbacks associated with animal models include high cost, low reproducibility, low physiological similarity to humans, and ethical problems. Engineered tissue models have recently emerged as an alternative or substitute for animal models in drug discovery and testing and disease modeling. In this review, we focus on skeletal muscle and cardiac muscle tissues by first describing their characterization and physiology. Major fabrication technologies (i.e., electrospinning, bioprinting, dielectrophoresis, textile technology, and microfluidics) to make functional muscle tissues are then described. Finally, currently used muscle tissue models in drug screening are reviewed and discussed.

Keywords: Cardiac muscle, Drug screening, Engineering muscle, Human pharmacological response, Physiological similarity, Skeletal muscle

Obregón, R., Ramón-Azcón, J., Ahadian, S., (2017). Nanofiber composites in blood vessel tissue engineering Nanofiber Composites for Biomedical Applications (ed. Ramalingam, M., Ramakrishna, S.), Elsevier (Duxford, UK) Woodhead Publishing Series in Biomaterials, 483-506

Tissue engineering (TE) aims to restore function or replace damaged tissue through biological principles and engineering. Nanofibers are attractive substrates for tissue regeneration applications because they structurally mimic the native extracellular matrix. Composite nanofibers, which are hybrid nanofibers blended from natural and synthetic polymers, represent a major advancement in TE and regenerative medicine, since they take advantage of the physical properties of the synthetic polymer and the bioactivity of the natural polymer while minimizing the disadvantages of both. Although various nanofibrous matrices have been applied to almost all the areas of TE, in this chapter we will focus on nanofiber composites scaffolds for vascular TE.

Keywords: Blood vessels, Nanofiber composite, Tissue engineering, Vascularized tissue

(See full publication list in ORCID)


Micro and nanofabrication techniques:

  • 3D microstructures on hydrogel materials
  • Mini-bioreactor for 3D cell culture
  • Microelectrodes fabrication
  • Synthesis and chemical modification of polymers and surfaces
  • Dielectrophoretic cells and micro particles manipulation

Characterization techniques:

  • Optical Microscopes (white light/epifluorescence)
  • Electrochemical techniques (Potentiometric/Amperometric/Impedance spectroscopy)
  • Immunosensing techniques (Fluorescence ELISA/Colorimetric ELISA/magneto ELISA)


  • Microfluidic systems (High precision syringe pumps/Peristaltic pumps/Micro valves)
  • Biological safety cabinet (class II)
  • Epifluorescence microscope for live-cell imaging
  • Pulsar – a high-resolution, 60MHz benchtop NMR spectrometer from Oxford Instruments

Access to the Nanotechnology Platform (IBEC Core Facilities): equipment for hot embossing lithography, polymer processing and photolithography, chemical wet etching, e-beam evaporation and surface characterization (TOF-SIMS)
Access to the Scientific and Technological Centers (University of Barcelona): equipment for surface analysis (XPS, AFM, XRD), organic structures characterization (NMR) and microscopy techniques (SEM, TEM, confocal)


  • Prof. Josep Samitier
  • Dr. Elena Martinez
  • Dr. Anna Novials
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomediques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS)
  • Dr. Ramon Gomís
    Institut d’Investigacions Biomediques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS)
  • Dr. Eduard Montanya
    The Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL)
  • Prof. Enric Bertran
    Physics and Engineering of Amorphous Materials and Nanostructures (FEMAN), Department of Applied Physics, University of Barcelona
  • Dr. Montserrat Costa
    2020, Director Plasma Proteins Research, Bioscience Industrial Group, Grifols, Barcelona Spain
    Collaborative project 
  • Tryfon Antonakakis
    2019, Co-Founder & CEO Multiwave Technologies AG 3 Chemin du
    Pré Fleuri 1228, Geneva Switzerland
    FET-open project 
  • Robert Hardy
    2019,  Project Manager Oxford Instruments plc Abingdon, Oxfordshire, EnglandFET-open project 
  • Dr. Carlos Villaescusa
    2018, Principal Scientist/Specialist, Project Leader, Department of Stem Cell Discovery, Novo Nordisk Denmark
    Collaborative project 

Clinical collaborations

  • Project “TATAMI” funded by Fundación Bancaria “La Caixa” – CaixaHealth program. In this project, we are developing a platform to perform drug screening analysis in human engineered microtissues in close collaboration with Professor Ruben Artero from Instituto de Investigaciones Clínicas de Valencia (INCLIVA) and medical doctor Vilchez from Hospital de la Fe (Valencia) 
  • We are also collaborating with Hospital de Sant Pau (Barcelona), with the group of senior professor Isabel Illa Sendra we are developing human microtissues to study the myasthenia gravis neuromuscular rare disease. 
  • In a Smart Specialization Project (RIS3CAT, ADVANCECAT project), I am working with senior professor Eduard Montanya from Hospital de Bellvitge (Barcelona) to develop transplantable patches of human pancreatic islets. 
  • Finally, we are collaborating with Doctor Jesus Castro from Hospital de la Vall de Hebron (Barcelona) to study chronic fatigue. 


Innovative bioengineered spheres might help treating diabetes

Researchers from IBEC, in collaboration with IDIBAPS in Barcelona, have developed nontoxic small spheres able to respond to variations in glucose levels, and producing insulin in vitro. These biomimetic spheroids containing pancreatic β-cells were prepared based on 3D bioprinting. This approach might help in the future improving clinical outcomes of β-cell transplantation strategies for diabetes treatment, as well as for in vitro drug screening platforms.

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New biosensor detects inflammatory marker in muscle with high sensitivity

In a recent publication in the journal Nanophotonics, IBEC researchers present a new biosensor for the direct and sensitive detection of the protein interleukin-6 in muscle, an indicator of inflammation and potential disease, proving the high performance of the device on bioengineered 3D skeletal muscles. This new approach may result in a promising tool for measuring the efficacy of drug candidates for diseases where inflammation is present such as muscular dystrophy.

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Towards a treatment for myotonic dystrophy: the first 3D model with patient cells

IBEC researchers led by Javier Ramón and Juan M. Fernández develop the first three-dimensional model for myotonic dystrophy, a rare disease that currently has no cure. The model combines patient cells and bioengineering techniques and represents a major advance over the use of animals and cell cultures. This new model will help in the design of personalized and more effective treatments, and for drug testing in a much more efficient way.

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