Three IBEC researchers granted with “La Caixa Foundation” fellowships for young scientific leaders

Veronika Magdanz, of the Nano Intelligent Devices Group led by Samuel Sánchez, as well as Iris Batalha and Mohit Kumar of the Molecular Bionics group led by Giuseppe Battaglia, have been selected among more than 700 candidates for a fellowship within the competitive postdoctoral call for young scientific leaders of “La Caixa Foundation”. Thanks to these grants, researchers will work on innovative micro and nano systems that seek to contribute to better understanding and to find solutions to health problems.

Winners of the fellowship “La Caixa” Foundation

“La Caixa” Foundation has revealed the winners of a fellowship within the competitive postdoctoral call for young scientific leaders

This call has been presented with over 700 people to opt for one of the fellowships. Of the 45 selected researchers, 3 belong to the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). Veronika Magdanz, of the Nano Intelligent Biological Devices Group, led by Samuel Sánchez, as well as Iris Batalha and Mohit Kumar of the Molecular Bionics group led by Giuseppe Battaglia, will work the next three years in researching micro and nano systems that can contribute finding solutions to health problems. 

Veronika Magdanz: nature-inspired microrobots for biomedical applications 

Born in Rathenow, Germany in 1985, she studied biotechnology at the TU Braunschweig between 2004 and 2010, and chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo, Canada, between 2007 and 2008 as an ISAP exchange student. She obtained her PhD in biology in 2016 at TU Dresden after doing a pioneering work on biohibrid microrobots at the Institute of Integrative Nanociencies of the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research at Dresden (IFW). From 2017 to 2020, she conducted metabolic and kinetic studies in spermatozoa of various species as an open-theme postdoctoral research at the TU Dresden applied zoology chair, as well as continuing her research on sperm hybrid microrobots. In 2020, she received a Feodor-Lynen Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to join the Intelligent Nano Biodevices group of IBEC. 

I will take inspiration from nature to create microrobots that are driven by magnetic fields.

Veronika Magdanz 

The creation and control of intelligent and autonomous microrobots is one of the fascinating goals of her current research. This field of microrobotics is often inspired by nature. During the Junior Leader project of the “La Caixa Foundation”, Veronika Magdanz will investigate the cooperative behaviour of sperm, which helps them swim faster and more effectively by forming groups than by doing so as individual cells. In addition, she will apply this knowledge to the design of flagellate swimmers that are flexible and multifunctional and are boosted by the effect of oscillating magnetic fields. Finally, she will explore the biomedical applications of these flexible robots for the administration of cells, drugs and tissues. This field of research feeds on engineering knowledge as well as biology, materials science, chemistry and biophysics. 

Mohit Kumar: materials similar to living systems to generate nanodrugs 

He was born in Munger, India, in 1986 where he obtained a master’s degree in chemistry. He received a prestigious PhD fellowship from the Indian government and performed his research with Prof. Subi George at the Jawaharlal Nehru Advanced Scientific Research Center. In 2014 he received the award for best doctoral thesis (equivalent to cum laude). In 2015, he moved to City University in New York (USA) to pursue a postdoc with Prof. Rein Ulijn. He also received a research fellowship from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation. He is the author of 22 publications (> than 1000 citations and h index = 14) and holds an American patent. He is the principal author of several articles published in journals such as Nature Chemistry and Nature Communications, including three articles as author for correspondence. He has lectured at international conferences and mentored master and PhD students. In short, he is an internationally experienced and recognized chemist who has created a scientific niche to address social challenges in health and energy. 

I will design an adaptable organic material to help us to administrate drugs more efficiently.

Mohit Kumar

Live systems are very dynamic, and their self-coupled structures are constantly formed and decomposed through chemical energy consumption. This gives rise to unique functions such as adaptation and motility, among others. Biological functioning is clearly different from most synthetic materials, which do not have the ability to change to adapt. This creates a mismatch between living systems and synthetic materials, so it is difficult to develop synthetic biointerfaces for nanomedicine. This proposal will incorporate the principles of nature functioning into the design of human-made materials to acquire adaptability and reconfiguration functions. In his project, Dr. Kumar will design an organic material capable of adapting through a continuous process of formation/degradation and chemical energy consumption. In this way, he will create 1) lipid vesicles as an adaptable cellular interface for targeted administration of drugs to cancer cells, and 2) a reconfigurable device for detection and multianalyte diagnosis on demand. So, he will make a material with functions similar to those of life for the next generation of nanodrugs. 

Iris Batalha: multivalent and superselective nanobiotics against tuberculosis 

She was born in Évora, Portugal, in 1984. She is graduated in applied chemistry and holds a master’s degree in biotechnology from the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the New University of Lisbon (FCT NOVA), as well as a PhD in bioengineering systems from the MIT-Portugal Program. From 2014 to 2017, she was a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge and in the biopharmaceutical company MedImmune/Astrazeneca. From 2017 to 2020, she was an associate researcher in a joint research project between the Engineering Department Nanoscience Center and the Molecular Immunity Unit of the University of Cambridge at the Department of Medicine. She is currently the director of a course on nanotherapies at the Institute of Continental Education of the University of Cambridge, a senior freelance consultant on innovation strategies in Inspiralia, Spain and USA, co-founder, director and editor-in-chief of the nonprofit organization Women Ahead of Their Time (WATT), and a member of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. 

My ambition is to discover new molecular mechanisms of bacterial infection and the development of drug resistance, and to create bio-inspired and targeted therapeutic nanoparticles specifically against infected human cells.

Iris Batalha

Three people die every minute from infection of M. tuberculosis. Current treatments require the administration of high concentrations of an antibiotic cocktail, and only a small amount arrives at the destination site in the body. This causes a series of adverse effects on patients, who stop taking medication halfway through treatment and ultimately lead to the development of resistance to antibiotics. My work focuses on the development of nanodrugs made up of antibiotic conjugates and polymers for targeted drug administration specifically at sites of infection. My goal is to act directly on infected human cells by designing peptide ligands through the Phage display technique. These ligands selectively recognize and bind to surface receptors on the “host cells” that exhibit notable alterations during infection. 

In particular, I intend to act on the antigen presentation system related to the major complex of class I histocompatibility (MR1 or MHC1-related), which is highly conserved among species. MR1 resides inside the host human cell and is transported to the surface when it binds to bacterial metabolites found within the human cell, so it functions as a molecular switch and performs sampling of the infected host’s intracellular environment. 

About the Junior Leader postdoctoral program 

Co-financed by the European Commission through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action CO-found within the framework of Horizon 2020, this programme is aimed at recruiting outstanding researchers of any nationality who wish to continue their research career in Spanish or Portuguese territory in the areas of health and life sciences, technology, physics, engineering and mathematics. 

This call has been presented with over 700 people to opt for one of the fellowships. Of the 45 selected researchers, 20 are Spanish (from 14 different provinces) and 25 foreigners (from 14 countries). 

Each one of these three years postdoctoral grants, will receive EUR 305,100, and include a complementary training programme aimed at consolidating research skills and promoting independent scientific career as an option for the future of professional life, dealing with issues such as leadership, conflict resolution or communication.