Curiosity is the driving force of Claudia Contini, who uses her skills to reinvent biology. At Queen Mary University of London, she is currently setting up her own research group on synthetic cells capable of dynamic behaviors. Originally from Sardinia, Italy, she moved to the UK after her Master’s degree. During her PhD at University College London, she started synthesizing polymers and making vesicles from them, before designing vesicles with autonomous movement in solution. She is now applying all her skills to synthetic cell research.
She tells us more about her group’s expertise, collaborations, and expectations for bridging the gap between research and technology.
I am fascinated by dynamic behaviors like motility. They are one of the characteristics of life. With my research group, we are trying to create minimal systems from the bottom up, what I also call artificial cells, that have dynamic behaviors similar to those of cells such as the ability to move autonomously in a specific direction, fuse together, and change shape or morphology.
Real cells are complex, made of millions of components, and difficult to understand, decode, and use as a technological tool. I use artificial cells as a model system to better understand real cells. For example, to study the membrane and how cells interact with inorganic materials or proteins.
My group is also focusing on the potential applications of these motile systems. For example, in biomedical applications. Drugs often have side effects. So our goal is to create a drug delivery system that could reach a specific location in the body without causing side effects to the patient. We would also like to develop systems that move through the water and clean the water of pollutants and toxic molecules.
We achieve our goals better and faster through collaboration. We created FabriCELL as a networking platform for all UK researchers working on artificial cells using top-down and bottom-up approaches. We are in the process of setting up events that will bring the community together.
I have worked at Imperial College London, so I have strong collaborations with the research community there.
My collaborations are not limited to Europe. Through a UK/Australia exchange grant, I have developed close links with an Australian team that is studying how the membrane can interface with different objects.
And one of my longest collaborations is with an American team working on active matter science. It all started at a conference during my PhD. I exchanged ideas with one of the pioneers of motile behavior induced by chemical gradients created by enzymes and we have maintained a strong collaboration ever since.
I am proud to have both a baby and a scientific career. I have always underestimated the work involved in being a mother and having a career at the same time. Now that I am a mother, I am doubly proud of each accomplishment because I know all the hidden efforts it required. Most mothers and also most researchers have the same fault: we always talk about the good things. But that’s not the whole story. What goes on behind the scenes can sometimes be very valuable.
First, we need to be ready for artificial cells. If we create systems that can behave like real cells, researchers must work together to establish regulatory limits, which is also why the research network is important.
Second, if we want to move to applications, we need more interaction with people working on real projects. I would like to see more scientific events where we also invite companies and clinicians to explain their challenges to researchers.