Vici grant to help Patricia Dankers turn dreams into reality

Eindhoven University of Technology

“I have a dream; the synthesis of an artificial extracellular matrix.” The opening line of Patricia Dankers’ presentation pitch for a prestigious NWO Vici grant worth 1.5 million euros to synthesize an artificial version of the material that surrounds cells in the human body. Well, that dream is on its way to becoming a reality, as Dankers has just been awarded the NWO Vici grant to carry out the research in her new project known as SupReMa.

The cells in our body are surrounded by the extracellular matrix (ECM), a material that provides support and structure. In addition, the ECM directs signals to cells – in much the same way that a conductor provides playing instructions to an orchestra.

“The cells, or musicians, respond to these instructions from the ECM and as a result, a harmonic interplay between the cells and the ECM results,” says Patricia Dankers, professor at the department of Biomedical Engineering and Institute for Complex Molecular Systems (ICMS) at TU/e.

The ECM instructions contain two important types of signals: mechanical and biochemical. The mechanical signals contain information about the ECM softness or stiffness, while the biochemical signals instruct cells via ligands in proteins, small molecules, and carbohydrate polymers. And Dankers’ goal in the project known as ‘SupReMa’ is to make a synthetic ECM.

Supramolecular hydrogel network with ligands. Source: Patricia Dankers/ICMS Animation Studio.

Why go synthetic?

But why aim for a synthetic ECM? Dankers explains: “A material typically used in the lab to approximate the ECM is Matrigel, which is derived from a mouse tumor. The growth of this material is difficult to control given that its cancerous nature. This means that it is not possible to safely use such material in a clinical setting. Therefore, a synthetic alternative is needed that can be used in humans, e.g., in stem cell therapies.”

The design and synthesis of a large library of supramolecular compounds assembled into complex synthetic hydrogels mimicking a range of biomolecules found in the ECM will form part of the basis of Dankers’ approach, but the greatest challenge for Dankers is the synthesis of an interactive material. “The ECM is a dynamic environment, constantly changing while also sending out various biochemical signals. And it is the replication of these molecular conformational changes, thereby displaying different biochemical signals in a time dependent way, that represents the biggest puzzle to be solved in this project,” says Dankers.

Sustainable solution

To crack this puzzle, Dankers will turn to supramolecular chemistry, a field that explores the chemistry of molecular structures (so-called assemblies) made from smaller molecular building blocks. “The plan is to build adaptive structures with these molecules, and then introduce ways for the supramolecular-based hydrogels to communicate with cells,” says Dankers. “In addition, an extensive library of different molecular assemblies will be created, and extracellular communication will be extensively studied.”

Dankers predicts that the research will lead to the development of hydrogels for use with animal cells, but she also aims to develop more sustainable solutions. “Given the world’s sustainability issues, it’s pertinent to consider synthetic materials for plant cells too.”

Supramolecular fibre. Image: Patricia Dankers/ICMS Animation Studio.

Starting a new orchestra

For Dankers personally the NWO Vici grant represents a fantastic opportunity to control synthetic materials at the natural cell membrane. In this way, Dankers hopes that the boundary between natural and synthetic materials can vanish, thus allowing for synthetic options to replace some of the natural, less sustainable ECM options in the future.

And to achieve the goals of the SupReMa project, Dankers will need an orchestra of researchers, five in fact, and as a former musician herself, Dankers is excited by the prospect of conducting a new scientific orchestra. “I cannot wait to work with the young researchers who will be part of the SupReMa project, and together we’ll aim to ‘orchestrate’ molecular interactions between the ECM and cells.”

The Vici laureates 2022

Facts and figures

The Vici is awarded annually by NWO. Of the 266 applications, 167 (63%) were submitted by men and 99 (37%) by women. A total of 34 Vici grants were awarded: 18 to male applicants and 16 to female applicants. The award percentages for the Vici round 2022 (awarded in 2023) are thus 11% and 16%, respectively.

NWO Talent Scheme

NWO’s Talent Scheme consists of the Vici, Veni, and Vidi grants. The Vici grant targets senior researchers who have successfully demonstrated the ability to develop their own innovative lines of research. In doing so, they have also supervised young researchers. Researchers who receive a Vici grant have the opportunity to further develop their research group, often in anticipation of a tenured professorship, if they do not already have one. ZonMw runs the NWO Talent Programme for the Health Research and Development domain.

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