‘In vitro environments truly represent bodily events’

Three-dimensional microfluidic devices can very well mimic ‘in vivo’ micro-environments as actually present in the human body. This can be done by using well-designed device architectures and combine these with clever 3-D cell networks. In her PhD research, Nicole Zeijen added a microarchitecture of pillars, providing human mesenchymal stem cells with support, to form a cellular network. The stem cells can survive for up to three weeks in these devices.

In literature, Nicole Zeijen found that mostly collagen-based support materials were used in the type of microfluidic devices she investigated. ‘But my intuition told me a bone-like structure would be much better,’ Nicole states. ‘It was a nice surprise the big cells were covering the pillars right away when I started the experiments, from bottom to top, benefitting from the concentric and crystalline bone-like structure.’

Within her research group, Molecular NanoFabrication (MNF), her results were warmly welcomed. ‘Especially by coating the pillars with lipid bilayers - and vary between mobile and immobile binding types – ligands can be used to instruct culture cells more easily. This opens up new and more flexible research routes,’ Nicole says.


For the MNF Group - already specialized in fundamentally studying and exploring lipid bilayers, in various research and application fields - working with microfluidic devices was a new expertise area. Nicole closely cooperated with the Applied Stem Technology (AST) Group at Mesa+, which specialised in growing cells in organ-on-a-chip devices.

‘I was in a luxury position to find an expert helping me out on chip fabrication,’ Nicole says. ‘So, I could spend all my research time on growing and actually visualizing the functional pillars. I spent many hours at the BioImagingLab using the confocal microscope.’ It was worthwhile to combine the two areas of expertise and contribute to the future research of both groups, Nicole states. ‘In AST, the proliferation of specialized cardiac cells in these pillar environments opens up new ways to mimic cell defects such as those that occur from attacks or obstructions,’ she says. 


The type of research Nicole performed, combines physical and chemical cues in organic environments. ‘It is a multidisciplinary type of research,’ she says. ‘And at the same time very application-oriented. As an employee of Saxion University of Applied Sciences, I was allowed to take on the PhD research on the express condition: find a research theme that is broadly applicable. I am very glad I’ve been given this opportunity by Saxion.’ 


In the two years to come after her PhD Defense, Nicole will return to Saxion and enrich her lectures with her inspiring experiences as a PhD researcher, and perhaps find new themes of research and partners. After that, Nicole would like to continue combining research and lecture activities. ‘Working mainly in an industrial environment is not my ambition,’ she says.

‘My future work might very well be at the NanoBioInterface Group. Or perhaps I switch to another area of research. For example, Advanced Forensic Research would suit my forensic expertise. This is one of many Saxion research groups. On-chip technology, using small volumes, aimed at quick and robust test devices and protocols, are current and socially relevant. I can imagine making good and creative contributions in this field of research as well.’