Staff member

Zaida Álvarez Pinto

CV Summary
Zaida Alvarez is currently a Ramon y Cajal and Principal Investigator of the Biomaterials for Neural Regeneration Group at the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), Spain. She is also a Visiting Scientist at the Simpson Querrey Institute for Bionanotechnology at Northwestern University, Chicago, USA.

She obtained her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in 2014 under the supervision of Prof. Elisabeth Engel. In 2015, she joined the laboratory of Prof. Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University, Chicago, as a self-funded postdoctoral fellow to work on peptide amphiphiles for neural regeneration. In 2019, she was promoted to Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, Feinberg Medical School at Northwestern University, where she continues her research in spinal cord regeneration and in vitro platforms for IPS modeling. She is also a consulting engineer in two start-up companies in the USA. She has 4 patents assigned to AmphixBio Incorporation and has received numerous awards such as the Young Baxter Investigator Award in 2019, the Rafael Hervada Award in 2021 and the Women in Science Nanotechnology Award in 2022.
Staff member publications

Smith, CS, Alvarez, Z, Qiu, RM, Sasselli, IR, Clemons, T, Ortega, JA, Vilela-Picos, M, Wellman, H, Kiskinis, E, Stupp, SI, (2023). Enhanced Neuron Growth and Electrical Activity by a Supramolecular Netrin-1 Mimetic Nanofiber Acs Nano 17, 19887-19902

Neurotrophic factors are essential not only for guiding the organization of the developing nervous system but also for supporting the survival and growth of neurons after traumatic injury. In the central nervous system (CNS), inhibitory factors and the formation of a glial scar after injury hinder the functional recovery of neurons, requiring exogenous therapies to promote regeneration. Netrin-1, a neurotrophic factor, can initiate axon guidance, outgrowth, and branching, as well as synaptogenesis, through activation of deleted in colorectal cancer (DCC) receptors. We report here the development of a nanofiber-shaped supramolecular mimetic of netrin-1 with monomers that incorporate a cyclic peptide sequence as the bioactive component. The mimetic structure was found to activate the DCC receptor in primary cortical neurons using low molar ratios of the bioactive comonomer. The supramolecular nanofibers enhanced neurite outgrowth and upregulated maturation as well as pre- and postsynaptic markers over time, resulting in differences in electrical activity similar to neurons treated with the recombinant netrin-1 protein. The results suggest the possibility of using the supramolecular structure as a therapeutic to promote regenerative bioactivity in CNS injuries.

JTD Keywords: axon growth, axon guidance, cell-migration, colorectal-cancer, dcc, dopaminergic-neurons, force-field, functional recovery, netrin-1, neurite outgrowth, neuronal maturation, neurotrophic factor, neurotrophicfactor mimetic, synapsis, Axon growth, Coarse-grained model, Netrin-1, Neuronal maturation, Neurotrophic factor mimetic, Peptide amphiphile, Synapsis

Levy, N, Kiskinis, E, Ortega, JA, Alvarez, Z, (2023). Effect of Age-specific Decellularized Extracellular Matrix on Neuronal Physiology and Repair (PP‐455) Tissue Engineering Part a 29, PP-455

Álvarez Z, Ortega JA, Sato K, Sasselli IR, Kolberg-Edelbrock AN, Qiu R, Marshall KA, Nguyen TP, Smith CS, Quinlan KA, Papakis V, Syrgiannis Z, Sather NA, Musumeci C, Engel E, Stupp SI, Kiskinis E, (2023). Artificial extracellular matrix scaffolds of mobile molecules enhance maturation of human stem cell-derived neurons Cell Stem Cell 30, 219-+

Human induced pluripotent stem cell (hiPSC) technologies offer a unique resource for modeling neurological diseases. However, iPSC models are fraught with technical limitations including abnormal aggregation and inefficient maturation of differentiated neurons. These problems are in part due to the absence of synergistic cues of the native extracellular matrix (ECM). We report on the use of three artificial ECMs based on peptide amphiphile (PA) supramolecular nanofibers. All nanofibers display the laminin-derived IKVAV signal on their surface but differ in the nature of their non-bioactive domains. We find that nanofibers with greater intensity of internal supramolecular motion have enhanced bioactivity toward hiPSC-derived motor and cortical neurons. Proteomic, biochemical, and functional assays reveal that highly mobile PA scaffolds caused enhanced β1-integrin pathway activation, reduced aggregation, increased arborization, and matured electrophysiological activity of neurons. Our work highlights the importance of designing biomimetic ECMs to study the development, function, and dysfunction of human neurons.Copyright © 2022 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

JTD Keywords: differentiation, force-field, laminin, migration, nanostructures, peptide amphiphiles, spinal-cord, statistical-model, supramolecular materials, Coarse-grained model, Dynamics, Extracellular matrix, Ikvav, Ipsc-derived neurons, Laminin, Neuronal maturation, Peptide amphiphiles, Supramolecular motion, Supramolecular nanofibers

Mattotti, M., Alvarez, Z., Delgado, L., Mateos-Timoneda, M. A., Aparicio, C., Planell, J. A., Alcántara, S., Engel, E., (2017). Differential neuronal and glial behavior on flat and micro patterned chitosan films Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces 158, 569-577

Chitosan is a biodegradable natural polysaccharide that has been widely studied for regenerative purposes in the central nervous system. In this study we assessed the in vitro glial and neuronal cells response to chitosan either flat or patterned with grooves in the micrometric range. Chitosan demonstrated to be a good substrate for the attachment and growth of both neurons and glial cells. Chitosan micropatterns promoted glial cell maturation, suggesting astroglial activation. Nevertheless, those mature/reactive glial cells were permissive for axonal growth. Axons aligned and organized along the patterned grooves and the size of the linear topographic patterns is also affecting neurite and cell response. Patterns with 10 μm width induced fasciculation of axons, which can be useful for CNS tissue engineering substrates when precise orientation of the axonal outgrowth is desired.

JTD Keywords: Brain, Chitosan, Glia, Micropattern, Neuron

Álvarez, Zaida, Hyroššová, Petra, Perales, José Carlos, Alcántara, Soledad, (2016). Neuronal progenitor maintenance requires lactate metabolism and PEPCK-M-directed cataplerosis Cerebral Cortex , 26, (3), 1046-1058

This study investigated the metabolic requirements for neuronal progenitor maintenance in vitro and in vivo by examining the metabolic adaptations that support neuronal progenitors and neural stem cells (NSCs) in their undifferentiated state. We demonstrate that neuronal progenitors are strictly dependent on lactate metabolism, while glucose induces their neuronal differentiation. Lactate signaling is not by itself capable of maintaining the progenitor phenotype. The consequences of lactate metabolism include increased mitochondrial and oxidative metabolism, with a strict reliance on cataplerosis through the mitochondrial phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK-M) pathway to support anabolic functions, such as the production of extracellular matrix. In vivo, lactate maintains/induces populations of postnatal neuronal progenitors/NSCs in a PEPCK-M-dependent manner. Taken together, our data demonstrate that, lactate alone or together with other physical/biochemical cues maintain NSCs/progenitors with a metabolic signature that is classically found in tissues with high anabolic capacity.


Álvarez, Z., Castaño, O., Castells, A. A., Mateos-Timoneda, M. A., Planell, J. A., Engel, E., Alcántara, S., (2014). Neurogenesis and vascularization of the damaged brain using a lactate-releasing biomimetic scaffold Biomaterials 35, (17), 4769-4781

Regenerative medicine strategies to promote recovery following traumatic brain injuries are currently focused on the use of biomaterials as delivery systems for cells or bioactive molecules. This study shows that cell-free biomimetic scaffolds consisting of radially aligned electrospun poly-l/dl lactic acid (PLA70/30) nanofibers release l-lactate and reproduce the 3D organization and supportive function of radial glia embryonic neural stem cells. The topology of PLA nanofibers supports neuronal migration while l-lactate released during PLA degradation acts as an alternative fuel for neurons and is required for progenitor maintenance. Radial scaffolds implanted into cavities made in the postnatal mouse brain fostered complete implant vascularization, sustained neurogenesis, and allowed the long-term survival and integration of the newly generated neurons. Our results suggest that the endogenous central nervous system is capable of regeneration through the invivo dedifferentiation induced by biophysical and metabolic cues, with no need for exogenous cells, growth factors, or genetic manipulation.

JTD Keywords: Lactate, Nanofibers, Neural stem cells, Neurogenesis, Regeneration, Vascularization

Álvarez, Z., Sena, E., Mattotti, M., Engel, E., Alcántara, S., (2014). An efficient and reproducible method to culture Bergmann and cortical radial glia using textured PMMA Journal of Neuroscience Methods , 232, 93-101

Background: Radial glia cells comprise the principal population of neural stem cells (NSC) during development. Attempts to develop reproducible radial glia and NSC culture methods have met with variable results, yielding non-adherent cultures or requiring the addition of growth factors. Recent studies demonstrated that a 2-μm patterned poly-methyl methacrylate (ln2 PMMA) grooved scaffold, by mimicking the biophysical and microtopographic properties of the embryonic NSC niche, induces the de-differentiation of glial cells into functional radial glia cells. New method: Here we describe a method for obtaining cultures of adherent Bergmann radial glia (BRG) and cortical radial glia (CRG). The growth substrate is ln2 PMMA and the addition of growth factors is not required. Results: Postnatal glia obtained from mouse cerebellum or cerebral cortex and grown on ln2 PMMA adopted a BRG/CRG phenotype characterized by a bipolar shape, the up-regulation of progenitor markers such as nestin and Sox2, and the down-regulation of vimentin and GFAP. Neurons cultured over the BRG/CRG aligned their processes with those of the glial shafts, thus mimicking the behavior of migrating neuronal cells. Comparison with existing methods: The ln2 PMMA culture method offers an ideal system for analyzing both the biochemical factors controlling the neurogenic potential of BRG/CRG and neuronal migration. Conclusions: The ln2 PMMA method is a reproducible system to obtain immature BRG/CRG preparations in vitro. It can be used to study the properties of CNS progenitor cells as well as the interactions between radial glia and neurons, and supports cultured progenitors for use in different applications. © 2014 Elsevier B.V.

JTD Keywords: Astrocytes, Bergmann glia, Micro-patterning, Poly-methyl methacrylate (PMMA), Progenitors, Radial glia, Surface topography

Álvarez, Zaida, Mateos-Timoneda, Miguel A., Hyrossová, Petra, Castaño, Oscar, Planell, Josep A., Perales, José C., Engel, Elisabeth, Alcántara, Soledad, (2013). The effect of the composition of PLA films and lactate release on glial and neuronal maturation and the maintenance of the neuronal progenitor niche Biomaterials 34, (9), 2221-2233

To develop tissue engineering strategies useful for repairing damage in the central nervous system (CNS) it is essential to design scaffolds that emulate the NSC niche and its tight control of neural cell genesis, growth, and differentiation. In this study we tested two types of poly l/dl lactic acid (PLA95/5 and PLA70/30), a biodegradable material permissive for neural cell adhesion and growth, as materials for nerve regeneration. Both PLA were slightly hydrophobic and negatively charged but differed in crystallinity, stiffness and degradation rate. PLA95/5 films were highly crystalline, stiff (GPa), and did not degrade significantly in the one-month period analyzed in culture. In contrast, PLA70/30 films were more amorphous, softer (MPa) and degraded faster, releasing significant amounts of lactate into the culture medium. PLA70/30 performs better than PLA95/5 for primary cortical neural cell adhesion, proliferation and differentiation, maintaining the pools of neuronal and glial progenitor cells in vitro. l-lactate in the medium recapitulated PLA70/30's maintenance of neuronal restricted progenitors but did not sustain bipotential or glial restricted progenitors in the cultures, as occurred when neural cells were grown on PLA70/30. Our results suggest that PLA70/30 may mimic some of the physical and biochemical characteristics of the NSC niche. Its mechanical and surface properties may act synergistically in the modulation of bipotential and glial restricted progenitor phenotypes, while it is l-lactate, either added to the medium or released by the film that drives the maintenance of neuronal restricted progenitor cell phenotypes.

JTD Keywords: Polylactic acid, Degradation, Neurons, Progenitors, Lactate, Glial cells, NSC niche

Mattotti, Marta, Alvarez, Zaida, Ortega, Juan A., Planell, Josep A., Engel, Elisabeth, Alcántara, Soledad, (2012). Inducing functional radial glia-like progenitors from cortical astrocyte cultures using micropatterned PMMA Biomaterials 33, (6), 1759-1770

Radial glia cells (RGC) are multipotent progenitors that generate neurons and glia during CNS development, and which also served as substrate for neuronal migration. After a lesion, reactive glia are the main contributor to CNS regenerative blockage, although some reactive astrocytes are also able to de-differentiate in situ into radial glia-like cells (RGLC), providing beneficial effects in terms of CNS recovery. Thus, the identification of substrate properties that potentiate the ability of astrocytes to transform into RGLC in response to a lesion might help in the development of implantable devices that improve endogenous CNS regeneration. Here we demonstrate that functional RGLC can be induced from in vitro matured astrocytes by using a precisely-sized micropatterned PMMA grooved scaffold, without added soluble or substrate adsorbed biochemical factors. RGLC were extremely organized and aligned on 2 μm line patterned PMMA and, like their embryonic counterparts, express nestin, the neuron-glial progenitor marker Pax6, and also proliferate, generate different intermediate progenitors and support and direct axonal growth and neuronal migration. Our results suggest that the introduction of line patterns in the size range of the RGC processes in implantable scaffolds might mimic the topography of the embryonic neural stem cell niche, driving endogenous astrocytes into an RGLC phenotype, and thus favoring the regenerative response in situ.

JTD Keywords: Polymethylmethacrylate, Micropatterning, Surface topography, Astrocyte, Nerve guide, Co-culture