A bioengineer by heart, Ana Pêgo has a fulfilling career in the field, both nationally and internationally. After a visit to UT Austin, Ana started a collaboration with Laura Suggs, which culminated in the 2017 Exploratory Research Project MECHANO. This project was so successful that its legacy lives on, even after its completion, through other Projects. Since we were able to develop this topic further on this interesting long feature, we were curious to know something else: Ana Pêgo’s story. We could walk a few minutes from our Headquarters, at INESC TEC, to the Institute for Research & Innovation in Health (i3S), where she is the NanoBiomaterials for Targeted Therapies Group Leader, and just ask her about it. However, her story is so fascinating it deserves to be shared with all of our community instead. Curious to find out? Enjoy the reading!
You went from having a degree in Food Engineering to being a doctorate in Polymer Chemistry and Biomaterials. What drove you to choose Food Engineering in the first place? When did you realize that you would like to do research in nanotechnology and health?
I am a bioengineer at heart. When searching for the right place to conduct my undergraduate studies, I quickly realized that, at that time, there was no degree offered in Portugal that could train me in the topics of bioengineering. After thoughtful consideration, I decided to enroll in the Food Engineering course of the Escola Superior de Biotecnologia – Universidade Católica Portuguesa. This was a newly created course that brought together a group of experts in the field, who graduated from the top Universities in the world. In addition, the vast and top-notch facilities of the school, in association with the reduced number of students that enrolled each year, assured that we were given the privilege to have a very unique hands-on training. This was key for my education. Already during my studies, I started a traineeship in the team of Prof. João Paulo Ferreira that was conducting drug delivery studies. That was when my love for biomedical engineering and nanomedicine started.
After completing your degree in Porto at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa, you moved to the Netherlands to do your PhD at the University of Twente. How did this experience of studying abroad shape your career? What recollections do you keep from those times?
In my final year of the engineering degree, I spent 6 months in the US conducting research at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. At that time, I decided that I wanted to prolong such an experience abroad. Conducting my PhD in the Netherlands was very important as I was in a very active group in the field of Biomaterials, which allowed me to be exposed to many projects in the field and allowed me to meet the top experts in the area. Furthermore, at that time there were already in the Netherlands a lot of companies working in the field of Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering. This contact with the industrial sector was an eye-opening experience for me.
You came back to Porto after your PhD to do research at Instituto Nacional de Engenharia Biomédica (INEB) – now a part of the Institute for Research & Innovation in Health (i3S) – where you have stayed ever since. How did this opportunity to return to Porto come about? As a NanoBiomaterials for Targeted Therapies Group Leader, can you explain more about the research your team is partaking?
When I finished my PhD, the Associate Laboratory (AL) IBMC-INEB was starting and the interactions between biomedical engineering and the fundamental biology groups were buzzing. I got enthusiastic with the project and applied to a PostDoc grant to work with Prof. Maria João Saraiva (IBMC-neurosciences) and Prof. Mário Barbosa (INEB- biomaterials). After a few months I applied to an AL position as Assistant Researcher and was selected. Since then, I started developing my team and in 2014 my group – the nanoBiomaterials for Targeted Therapies (nBTT) group – was established. The main aim of nBTT, now part of the i3S, is to develop “smart” biomaterials, designed at the nanoscale with controlled architectures and functionalities to provide, in situ and in a targeted manner, the required signals to promote nervous tissue repair and restoration of function. We cover topics that range from nucleic acid delivery to the nervous system to the development of new tissue-engineered models of the brain tissue to be used for drug screening and fundamental biology studies.
Your research involved using nanotechnologies to understand more about how our brain works at a cellular level, even when disorders are involved. What discovery has fascinated you the most? What do you think is the most challenging thing about your field?
I am fascinated by the capacity of adaptation of the neural cells. These are much more resistant than one can initially imagine. That is why I believe that in time we will manage to find new therapeutic strategies that can help these cells to recover from an injury or insult. One of the biggest challenges is to grasp the complexity of the system, especially in pathological conditions. It is important to understand what is happening to design better therapies. That is why we are investing so much in creating new models in vitro to dissect the behavior of neural cells in homeostasis and disease conditions.
When was your first contact with the UT Austin Portugal Program?
I became aware of the Program via a regular information email. I immediately became interested as I already knew the excellent work being done at UT Austin in the Biomaterials field. After applying for a grant to support my visit to UT Austin with a group of other Portuguese researchers, I had the opportunity to present my work there. Professor Nicholas Peppas advised me then to get in touch with Laura Suggs, as the complementarity between our groups was noticeable. That’s when the idea of the project we got granted appeared.
You got the chance to work with Laura Suggs (Professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering) in the 2017 Exploratory Research Project MECHANO. What was it like to work with Laura?
Formally, the project only started at the end of 2018, so in the end we were one of the teams affected by the COVID pandemic. Nevertheless, it was a great experience, as we managed to exchange expertise and one of my students was able to visit Laura’s lab. We keep in contact and hopefully, in the future, we will get funding to expand our collaboration. Laura is also very engaged with education in bioengineering and I have also had the opportunity to learn more about the UT Austin teaching experience in this field.
In September 2021, you were appointed the President of the European Society for Biomaterials (ESB), a position you still hold. How has been the experience of leading such an organization? What are your thoughts on the future of the Biomaterials field?
I am a Council member since 2015. It has been a very rewarding experience as by contributing to the ESB I have learned so much about the community and have been able to expand a lot my network of contacts. Being the President of the ESB has given me the opportunity to further implement my vision of the importance of such organizations. These should serve as a privileged platform for all to showcase their research, build new connections and expand their network, as well as establish opportunities for collaboration. So, my efforts have been channeled towards the involvement of all members of our community in our activities, as well as giving voice to the younger researchers. For me, the future of the Biomaterials field is very exciting, as there are more and more situations where biomaterials will be key players in the technologies of the future, as for example when we think about intelligent medical devices that can actuate on a tissue and/or sense its performance. We are also seeing a revolution in the food industry with tissue-engineered meat. Once again biomaterials will have a role. Finally, it will be very interesting to find the results of the synergy between our field and other current developments, like artificial intelligence.
Do you think we will ever be able to use nanotechnologies to treat or reverse disorders that are currently irreversible, such as Multiple Sclerosis or Spinal Cord Injuries?
I certainly do! In fact, there are already medical devices that are in the market for application in the field of nerve lesions and neurologic disorders that explore nanotechnology, and that have had a fundamental role in the improvement of the patients’ quality of life. I am referring to electrodes for deep brain stimulation or neural stimulation, for example. This being said, there is still a very long way we need to cover to fully treat such conditions. Due to the complexity of the nervous system, in my view, such therapeutic approaches will require a combination of strategies. Therefore, nanotechnology will play a key role either in making some of these medical devices more multivalent, less invasive, or allowing drugs to reach the brain in an efficient way.