UCSB Researchers in Cell Development Awarded Prestigious Grant


Tara Ahi
Staff Writer

Otger Campàs, an associate professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, along with his team, has received a prestigious research grant from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization. Campàs has partnered with Jérome Gros at the Institut Pasteur in Paris to study how unspecialized cells are shaped for muscle and tissue development, including limb formation in utero and organ growth.

Over 1000 proposals were submitted with 10 teams and 21 program grants selected to receive the funding. Each team member receives about $110,000 to $125,000 a year for three years. This will allow them to continue to work on a problem that has plagued scientists for decades.

“We are very lucky,” Campàs said. “The difficult part of this process is that there are so many people with great proposals who deserve the grants, but there just isn’t enough funding.”

Campàs studied physics at the University of Barcelona and received his Ph.D in biophysics at the Institut Curie in Paris and the University of Barcelona. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and came to UCSB in 2012. He is an assistant professor and Mellichamp Chair in Systems Biology. He has found the “scientific system” here harsher while afflicted with problems like lack of funding and opportunities for newcomers. He appreciates UCSB’s position in the scientific community in terms of impact of research (where it places number two after MIT by the Leiden Ranking), particularly with articles cited.

“What has been invaluable here [in the U.S.] has been the enthusiasm people have for their work. There is a spirit of collaboration and passion that makes new ideas for projects possible,” he said.

He became acquainted with Gros, who works in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology at the Institut Pasteur. They were post-doctoral students at Harvard, with Gros studying applied mathematics and Campàs in biological development, and they wanted to delve into the question of cell specialization. Campàs focuses on the role of biochemical signals and their influence. Furthermore, he has developed a technique that allows the opportunity to measure the forces between cells—a solution to a long-standing problem.

Campàs had attempted to go about the problem at hand in various ways according to his theoretical training, but hit a point where he realized he needed the practical application. He put an oil droplet (“Just kitchen oil!”) in a substrate to model a cell, as he knows how the material behaves. After only one day of incubation, growth was observed. This was the beginning of the research that allows them to map the forces on cells and at what point the forces get differentiated into signals to guide cell growth.

In a happy coincidence, around this time researchers at University of Pennsylvania had discovered that the substance in the dish mimics the properties of the substrate—an astounding realization. It revealed how much of an effect mechanics have in this process. Moreover, it gives the precious potential for cell manipulation and controlled development, which has significant implications for regenerative medicine and treatment.

The breakthrough has significant implications in the treatment and prevention of defects involving cell growth. This could range from structural congenital disorders to oncology, and more. Because the influential role of mechanical forces has been exposed, there is great new insight into the role of physics in biological development. Campàs tries to keep this “bigger picture” perspective a constant for his team and in the lab. He remarked that the interdisciplinary partnership proved instrumental.

“The best collaborations, in my opinion, come from friends with shared interests,” he said.