“With the 3D bioprinter, we will manufacture artificial tissue to help cure currently incurable illnesses”

We interview Dr Josep Maria Canals, Director of Creatio UB and full professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Barcelona.

In a few words, what is Creatio UB?
Creatio is the University of Barcelona’s centre for validation and production of advanced therapies, whose mission is to provide biomedical solutions based on advanced therapies. We are dedicated to enhancing innovation and development of new therapies and transferring research projects to clinical production. We aim to reduce the gap between research and patients to improve both the healthcare system and quality of life in general. At Creatio, we provide solutions and services to the public and private sectors to take your product from the development stage to the clinical production stage, undertaking all necessary preclinical studies for authorisation from regulatory agencies. Ultimately, we provide services and support throughout the entire drug development.

What do we mean when we talk about advanced therapies?
Advanced therapies are defined in three branches: gene therapy, cell therapy and tissue engineering. Gene therapy involves making genetic modifications to patients. We also prepare a virus or systems to give directly to the patient, and we make modifications to the cells to then transfer them into the patients. Cell therapy allows us to put living cells into patients. As they are living cells, their behaviour can vary when reaching the patient, so quality control must be rigorous.

And what does tissue engineering involve?
The third branch of advanced therapies is tissue engineering or regenerative medicine. In this case, we develop a tissue in a laboratory to then transfer it into a patient. We can also transplant cells into the patients that allow tissue degenerated by a specific condition to regenerate.

What are the standout projects that Creatio UB currently has on the table?
We have quite a few. In Europe, we are coordinating a project to 3D print small-scale brains. We are creating a mechanism to transplant them into patients with neurodegenerative diseases. As it is such an innovative project, it involves a high degree of risk. We also have a project called AlterNED (Alternative in vitro human methods for studying neurodegenerative disease), funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation. In this project, we are making in vitro models with human cells to reduce animal testing in research. As the models are based on human cells, they are closer to humans than testing animals, making drugs safer and more efficient for human use.

You also have the CT4HD project on the therapeutic approach for Huntington’s disease based on neural progenitor transplantation.
Yes, it’s a project funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation that translates our research over the last ten years. One of the project’s tasks is to develop a cell therapy strategy to treat Huntington’s disease, in which we would like to carry out clinical trials in the future.

One of your areas of expertise is Huntington’s disease, a hereditary disease that causes certain nerve cells in the brain to decay. Managing Creatio, do you still have time to do research?
We love to do research. In fact, all we do is research, which only ends when the drug enters the market. Luckily, I have a great team of very capable postdoctoral researchers, engineers and PhD students who carry out the research while I manage and supervise it. We have been involved with Huntington’s patients for many years, as it is a devastating neurodegenerative disease for which there is currently no cure. We feel very close to it because we have been working with this disease for over 30 years and we are aware of what both the patients and their families suffer.

What stage is your research at now? Are you close to a cure, or still far away?
In research, you never know. We are carrying out many clinical trials and we hope that one of them works. I think we’re quite close, but we also thought that in 1993, when we discovered the mutation of this genetic disease. It is a complicated disease, and so is the cure, but we have high hopes. We recently created an international consortium called Stem Cells for Huntington’s Disease (SC4HD), in which we join forces to boost cell therapy and discover how to replace degenerated neurons in patient’s brains.

Going back to Creatio, what challenges are you facing in the near future?
Our greatest challenge is being useful to society. I believe we are helping clinical trials move forward. In many leading hospitals in Spain, we are producing the part of the drug necessary for clinical trials. This is encouraging because we have seen that, thanks to our contribution, we are helping to cure patients who previously had a very limited life expectancy. Helping patients and those suffering is something that really motivates us. Obviously, we can’t do everything and our focus is on advanced therapies.

You recently received a grant from the Ministry of Science and Innovation to purchase a 3D bioprinter.
Yes, it’s the only bioprinter in the world with these technological features. What’s more, it is GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certified to produce tissues and organs for clinical practice. The disruptive technology allows us to manufacture artificial human tissues to help cure or treat diseases that currently have no cure. This project represents a future challenge as it is so new, and it is the first time it’s being carried out in Spain. With this bioprinter, we will begin a public-private collaboration project called 4D-Bioskin which, together with other public and private partners, will allow us to produce an artificial skin to treat burns in a clinical trial.

Some months ago, the University of Barcelona, through the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, acquired UTOX, the experimental toxicology platform from the Barcelona Science Park. Creatio has integrated this platform. What does this acquisition allow you to do?
It has been a hugely significant acquisition for Creatio. It allows us to retain the knowledge of the professionals working here for over twenty years. We carry out research and produce drugs, but we lack the necessary regulatory part to validate these drugs before they reach the patient. Now, with the acquisition of the UTOX platform, we have opened the area of preclinical studies. This way, we can provide support throughout drug development. This area provides the entire preclinical regulation for toxicology and biodistribution, among others, necessary for drug development. And not only does it help us in advanced therapies, it also allows us to look at the toxicology of chemical products and microplastics, among others, and see how they affect the human physiological system.

More about Josep Maria Canals

The best invention in history?
Cell reprogramming.

What would you like to see in the future?
I would love to see a society that doesn’t suffer tragic illnesses like neurodegenerative diseases.

A future breakthrough that scares you?
The use of artificial intelligence.

Someone you admire?
I was really struck when I read The Double Helix by James Watson, which described DNA.

What can be done to achieve gender equality?
I think we must make normal and reasonable policies, such as equal pay, and make policies that promise to help and consolidate gender equality.

Transfer is important for…
Transfer is critical. It’s what gives value to research, and, sooner or later, it must help society to improve its wellbeing.


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