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Imitating life – an interview with Assistant Professor Boaz Mizrahi

Imitating life – an interview with Assistant Professor Boaz Mizrahi

09 May 2018

Imitating life

April 26, 2018 | Write: Leo Lagos (ladiaria)

The Israeli Boaz Mizrahi gave a lecture on bio-inspired materials.

Science not only tries to explain the world around us, but also uses it as inspiration. Invited by the University Ort, yesterday Boaz Mizrahi, assistant professor of the Faculty of Biotechnology and Food Engineering of the Technion, Israel, gave the lecture “Bioinspired materials: fundamentals and applications”. Hours before, Mizrahi received us at the Biotechnology Laboratory that the Ort inaugurated at the end of last year and in which are the three responsible for his visit: two students of the Biotechnology career, who, with the help of the teacher Lorena Bentancor, were part of their thesis at the Technion laboratory located in Haifa. “They were excellent students,” says Mizrahi. His visit coincides with the thesis defense of the two students who passed through his laboratory and hopes to combine the science of the Uruguayan laboratory with his “to advance in new projects”. Of science, financing, inspiration from nature, and even of the future of the humanity, Mizrahi spoke, between laughter and a tone as affable as didactic.

In your laboratory you are interested in the development of biomaterials and chemical tools, and you say that they are inspired by nature. How is this engineering inspired by biology?

Engineering inspired by nature is a new scientific discipline. Nature is huge, and it took millions of years to develop solutions, so it has a lot of experience and it surpasses us. Its experiments take billions of years and they are made with millions of subjects. We can learn a lot from it and, by trying to imitate it, one can get very interesting materials.

When talking with experts in artificial intelligence, they almost always confess that although they are inspired by nature, they cannot imitate it. Does bioengineering do better?

No, we cannot imitate it either. Nature is far more intelligent than us and has more experience. It’s as if we put a Ferrari in a time machine and sent it 5,000 years ago. The people of that time would have no idea what it is, they would not imagine that they could drive it, and yet they could use their wheels or their mirrors. That is, more or less, the relationship between nature and us. We are very far from understanding everything, but we can take some small ideas and use them in applications. It is something conceptual. We take some concepts, we understand maybe 5%, but for us it is new. If you have reasonable goals you can achieve something, but if you try to imitate nature and be as good as it, it is going to fail.

In your laboratory you focus on bio-adhesives, tissue reconstruction and how to release drugs in the body. Are there any animals or organisms that helped you develop these lines of research?

When I was doing my Ph.D. I was inspired by the gecko. Based on the same principles that allow it to adhere to the walls, which consist of microvilli that generate weak forces, we develop a synthetic polymer that looks like a pompom, very condensed in the heart but looser in the periphery. Each small hair can generate a very weak union with the mucous layer, so we made a patch for canker sores, which are very painful. This tablet adheres to the ulcer and seals it, causing it to stop hurting immediately, and dissolves six hours later.

I guess that inspiration comes after reading the work in basic research of other colleagues.

In most cases I read works of other scientists. It is usually biologists who reveal structures and concepts, and I, as an engineer, try to imitate that. Actually … I say I read other people’s papers, but the best ideas come out of the cafes. You go to a café and talk to a colleague, and when you say you’re frustrated, it’s when you know there might be something. It is rare to say so, but many of my ideas came from the frustration of others. I mean the frustration of waiting for A and getting B. That frustration is science. I tell my students that research is really a search, to search again and again, to be frustrated and to search again.

Could the title of this article, then, be “Innovation is the daughter of frustration“?

Well, a happy scientist can also be a good start for engineering inspired by nature. When you buy a glue, the label usually says that you have to apply it on dry surfaces. But the mussels adhere strongly to any type of surface under water. A friend of mine worked with the mussels and was one of those who discovered this phenomenon of underwater adhesion. And for me it was magical, because we talked in a cafe and we collaborated. We took the molecules responsible for that adherence, conjugated them with a synthetic polymer and it turned out to be a great adhesive for tissues, since our body is basically water. The connection between scientists is important. On the one hand people who try to understand, who do basic science, and other engineers who take those findings and transform them into solutions and applications.

Uruguay is a small country, so you have to see well where you put the money, especially when you say you cannot spend more. In this framework, it is common for some people to think that basic science, since it does not yield “results”, should not be supported as much as applied science. As you have just demonstrated, without basic science, without understanding the mussel, there would not be a marketable tissue adhesive. Is there also that tension between basic science and applied science in Israel?

That how it is, without basic research there is no applied science. Israel is a very small country, it is surrounded by giant countries, and we have limited natural resources. In that sense, Uruguay and Israel are similar. The government of Israel understood 25 years ago that the economy could not be based on agriculture and tourism. In addition, we have shortage of water; we had exported oranges and vegetables to Europe, and we understood that we were actually exporting water, which did not make sense. So we started investing in science, engineering and education. Today we have an excellent institute of basic science, the Weizmann institute, and four or five universities that are among the 100 best in the world, in which we focus on both basic and applied science.     I think collaboration with the industry helps a lot, because it’s another way of obtaining funds.

Let’s go back to inspiration in nature. There are adhesives inspired by geckos and mussels. Are some of your biomaterials for tissue reconstruction also inspired by nature?

Take the case of tissue engineering. When I studied pharmacy, I remember that the most important thing was that the polymers were inert, that they would not harm the body. Today we want the materials to be anything but inert. If we turn off the lights, our pupils will dilate immediately. If it’s cold, our skin will change immediately. So we want that, materials that feel the body, that if the pH changes, that if they feel that there are cancer cells, they release the drugs. So the new generation of biomaterials will be reactive to stimuli. And that is, again, inspired by nature.

You also participated in an investigation with materials with gold nanoparticles that would help to supply drugs to fight cancer in a more effective way than in today’s chemotherapy.

Yes, we developed a biomaterial that contains drugs approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration, the United States body that regulates, among other things, medicines] that, once you turns on a light, it melts. Then one injects it into the patient’s blood, as it does now, and circulates throughout the body. By directing a concentrated light from the outside on the tumor, a light with a precise wavelength that can penetrate the tissues without damaging them, the material melts and the drug is released only there. This prevents a lot of adverse reactions, such as damage to the gastrointestinal tract, hair loss and pain, since anti-cancer drugs are very toxic. We published this work last month.

How does it feel to develop a material that can change the way cancer is treated?

We have to be realist. I will be happy when I receive the first letter from a patient, but we are not close to that yet. One of the problems with science is that great papers are published every month, and that can deceive many people. This has not yet been tested in humans. I am an optimist, but one of my greatest fears is that when reading these things you think that this is something that can be accessed immediately. When the mouth ulcer patch went on sale, I began to receive letters from patients who felt relieved, told that they could sleep and eat, and that, to me, is the greatest recognition a scientist can get.

So you do not want a Nobel: you want letters from people.

Obviously I want a Nobel, but they will never give it to me. The Nobel is for those who open doors to new fields, and that is not what I do.

You co-inventor of 12 patents, aren’t you afraid that nature will make you a trial?

If one day nature knocks on my door, I will see it. But as it usually said, nature can always publish in “Nature” without the need for peer review, without giving the data, so it has a lot of advantage over us. Nature is like the Bible, nobody gets money from the Bible.

Humans have been failing with great success in preventing the loss of biodiversity. Can bioengineering helps take stronger actions to protect life, even for a question of patents and new solutions for problems?

It is as if we had here, with us, a person and I said that he is very intelligent and that he inspires me. But if in this room there is someone who only wants to take what he has, I can continue talking about how inspiring that person is, but it will not work. I wish I could say yes, that many people like me could inspire others to think about nature in a more positive way, but something in my gut-feeling tells me that humans are human. It is true that both humans and nature surprise us. So, eventually, something good will happen; the issue is when and what will be the price that we will pay before that happens. Nature has already begun to counterattack.

Translated from spanish to english.

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