Konichiwa, Riccardo! - A new collaboration between RMU and Japan

Dr. Riccardo Levato from RMCU recently travelled to Japan for one week. The aim was to kick-off a new collaboration with Dr. Michiya Matsusaki, Osaka University. Both researchers are working on the creation of cartilage tissue in the lab, but they work with different technologies, and even on different dimensions. Together, they want to synergize technologies to make cartilage tissue that resembles native tissue on all levels: nano-, micro- and macroscale. I met Riccardo to find out more about their vision.

Dr. Riccardo Levato from RMCU (left) and Dr. Michiya Matsusaki from Osaka University (right).
Dr. Riccardo Levato from RMCU (left) and Dr. Michiya Matsusaki from Osaka University (right).

Hello Riccardo! Please introduce yourself to the readers that don’t know you yet.

My name is Riccardo Levato, I am working as assistant professor at the department of Orthopedics, here at RMCU, focusing on bioprinting and biofabrication. I use these methods to recreate human tissue by patterning cells into a 3D space using hydrogels. My particular focus lies on articular joints, including cartilage, bone, and other parts of the joint. During my career as biomedical engineer, I mostly studied how cells interact with materials. This field is a nice combination of different skills and disciplines within biomedical sciences.

Which makes you a perfect fit for RMCU! How does Japan come into play?

The story started a bit more than a year ago. I earned a grant from the International Cartilage Repair Society and the Orthoregeneration Network Foundation, which enabled me to visit 3 labs across Asia. In Osaka, I visited Michiya Matsusaki for 2 days. Michiya’s group has developed a technology to create nano-environments for cells. They create different coatings around the cells, solely based on affinities. There are no chemical reactions involved! They are able to make multilayer coatings of different types of collagens, laminins, etc., depending on what tissue you want to make, and these nanoscale coatings facilitate cell assembly into tissues. Their technology also enables the inclusion of vascularization. Their nano-environments result in relatively thin tissues though, the maximum thickness is 1 mm. At RMCU, on the other hand, we do a lot of research on 3D printing, which enables us to create structure from the micro- to the centimeter scale.

So, your idea is to bring both technologies together?

Exactly! This way, we can bring both technologies one step forward, by printing cells with a defined nano-environment and better adhesion properties. We will start with cartilage, but we are talking about a very versatile technique, especially due to the possibility of vascularization, which is important for all other tissues.

So, the goal of your visit was to learn their technology and to bring the knowledge to RMCU.

Yes. The discussions around this project have started one year ago already, but you need supportive people and funding to make it happen. Luckily, RMCU and the Hofvijverkring granted me the opportunity to get this exchange going. During my one week stay, I started some first proof-of-concept experiments, also to pave the way for a PhD student, Margo Terpstra, who will go for a longer period. Also a student from Osaka will come to RMCU for a month. This will give us more time to exchange know-how and to combine our expertise.

In your view, what is the value of an intercontinental collaboration like this?

It is not so much about the place; it is simply a matter of where the center of knowledge is. Michiya’s group has developed this unique technology, and they happen to be located in Osaka. Of course, the distance does not make things easier, but the funds for research exchanges help overcome these challenges and bring new expertise to RMCU. However, intercontinental collaborations are certainly nice for your personal development! By going to the other side of the world, we are getting the chance to experience a different way of doing research.

Dr. Riccardo Levato tweeted this picture of himself, Dr. Michiya Matsusaki, and his research group at Osaka University.
Dr. Riccardo Levato tweeted this picture of himself (front, second right), Dr. Michiya Matsusaki (front, left), and his research group at Osaka University.

Indeed, you look very happy on the group picture that you took back in Japan. What was your personal highlight of this journey?

It was definitely that I could get hands-on experience. You can have great ideas, but you also need to see how processes work to get a better idea of the possibilities and limitations. We could discuss this project in more detail, but also other opportunities arose during my stay. I talked with many creative people, and we developed many new ideas. I already know which colleagues from RMCU I could couple to these people. It will be nice to see where all this can go.

So, did the week in Japan meet your expectations?

Yes! I also got surprisingly good results for such a short time.

And how is Japan compared to the Netherlands? Did you encounter any cultural differences?

When it comes to research, not many. They are a very young and motivated research group, and the team members are open and well-connected with each other. Research in Japan is only different in the sense they make longer working days in the lab. Here, we have a different sensibility towards work-life balance.

We have already discussed a bit what the next steps will be. Are you confident that this collaboration will work out on the long term as well?

For sure, yes! Michiya Matsusaki will come here as speaker for our Biofabrication Summer School, and we will organize more events during his stay. As mentioned, our PhD student will go there, one of their students will come here. The grant from RMCU and the Hofvijverkring gives us the chance to transfer technologies and expertise, but this is only the start of a solid collaboration!

Is there anything else you want to share?

First, I am very grateful to everyone who helped me to realize this project, it will be very valuable for us. Maybe on a side note, it is worth mentioning that I could also talk with the director of their Center of Medical Innovation and Translational Research. Its purpose is purely to foster translation of basic research towards the clinics. In Japan, they already have multiple clinical trials with iPS cells ongoing, two of them starting this year in Osaka (on cardiac and corneal regeneration, respectively). I got lots of new insights from their organization, which we can use to strengthen our own bridges between fundamental research and the clinics.

Which is a big aim of RMCU!

It surely is!

I see, you came back with new insights on several levels. Thank you for sharing your story, Riccardo!


This blog is written by Katja Jansen (RMU communications officer (2019-2020) and PhD candidate in Drug Innovation (2016-2020)).