Ayla Kwant

Take a breath: Development of a novel lung adhesive sealant for severe COPD patients

After finishing my master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences, I started my HTRIC PhD project in September 2022. The main focus of my research is developing and testing a ‘glue’, which is intended to seal the damaged parts of the lungs of COPD patients and thus improve the capacity of the functional parts. With this research, I hope to contribute to an improved quality of life for COPD patients.

This project is applied for by Prof. Dr. Marleen Kamperman (FSE) and Dr. Simon D. Pouwels (UMCG), together with Prof. Dr. Dirk-Jan Slebos and Prof. Dr. Janette Burgess.

Project start: September 2022

The unexpected challenges of a biomedical engineer in a chemistry lab


A year has already gone by since the start of my PhD project. So far it has been a lot of fun to be working on such an interdisciplinary project. To give a bit of context: I work on developing a medical adhesive for the treatment of a severe lung disease, COPD.

In my previous blog, I wrote about my adventures at the slaughterhouse. Working with biological materials and cells is what I do for the UMCG-side of my job. But as a mentioned, this is an interdisciplinary project, which means there are many sides to it. For example, I also spend quite some time in the lab of prof. dr. Marleen Kamperman. This is a chemistry lab and I have a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences, so I’m definitely no chemist.

I noticed there are a lot of differences between the two labs I work in. No offense to the chemists, but biological labs are definitely a lot cleaner and more organized. When I first started working in fume hoods in the chemistry lab, I kept thinking I was working in a flow cabinet. I stressed out when others suddenly put their hands in the hood. Where are your gloves? This is not sterile! Also working with safety glasses is not something I am used to, so my brain kept thinking they were sunglasses. Whenever I couldn’t see something because there was not enough light, I would automatically take the glasses off.

There are a lot of differences and it definitely took some time for me to get used to everything. But now that I’m used to it all, I can enjoy all the advantages. Two groups means twice as many fun people around me, it means more birthday cakes, and twice the knowledge! I’m very excited to be able to learn much more from this diverse group of people around me.

Retrieving porcine lung tissue for medical adhesive testing


To start with a quick bit of background before I tell you all about my morning – I am developing a new medical adhesive, which is supposed to glue the lungs. And obviously, this glue needs to be tested, because we want it to stick well to lung tissue. In order to do this, I am currently using porcine lung tissue. You know, in those research papers it always sounds so nice and easy. “Lung tissue was retrieved from pigs and further processed”. I never put any thought into how the lung tissue was actually retrieved; I kind of just assumed it was delivered to the lab or something.

And oh my – was I wrong. Here is how my morning actually goes. I make sure to get to the lab at 8am. I fill a big styrofoam box with ice, and put it in my large IKEA bag, you know, one of those big blue ones. I then set off on the first half of my adventurous journey. I walk through the hospital with this big mysterious box, and get some weird stares. I then grab my bike and cycle for about 15 minutes to the slaughterhouse. Obviously, this is the Netherlands, so this is never easy. It is either raining, snowing or storming… And biking with one arm (because I need to other to hold the huge bag) also takes quite some effort.

The smell of the slaughterhouse welcomes me from afar. As a vegetarian, you can imagine this is certainly not one of my favorite places. A kind man greets me and asks me if I want to cut out the lung myself. I have no idea whether this is normal to do or not, but I decline politely. After a few minutes he comes back with what looks like a bag full of meat and blood. Lovely. It is still warm and it gives me the chills, but I gather myself – anything for science.

My IKEA bag is now a lot heavier, filled with lung. I make my way back to the lab. On the way back, I imagine what it would look like if I got into an accident. Blood and organs splattered all over the asphalt, it would look like I’m some kind of serial killer. If you ever see me on the news, being arrested for murder, please remember I am innocent and was just doing my job. Luckily I once again make it back without getting in trouble, and I am welcomed back into the hospital with some more weird stares.

And just like that, before 9am I have already seen so much blood, had an intense workout and got many weird stares. And the actual work hasn’t even begun yet…

The importance of translating science


Worldwide, trust in scientists and the view on science is declining. And while this is a sad fact, to me it is very understandable. Scientists tend to speak a completely different language, but we easily forget this because we only speak to each other! To someone who is not in the field, or even not in research at all, the science that is communicated through publications and presentations can sound like a foreign language. If people don’t understand what’s happening, how are they supposed to maintain trust?

To me, it’s a very exciting challenge to try to translate this ‘scientific language’ to more easily understandable information. In the past year I came across some amazing opportunities to practice this skill. One of them was a science communication project called the Hoe?Zo! (literally: How?So!) show. The project teaches children aged 9-11 basic scientific skills, like how to ask a good question, and where to find and judge information. After the lessons they follow at their school, they get to visit their local theater and visit our show!

In the show, the kids can ask a team of PhDs (including me!) from a broad range of disciplines any question that they may have. We would come up with a creative answer, and visualize the answers too using a collection of props. This was such a cool experience for me! Kids come up with the most brilliant questions (‘What would happen if the Earth started spinning the other way around?’), and some that left us a bit confused ourselves (‘How do ideas arise in your head?’). I performed in Roosendaal, Almere and Assen, and found it so fun to see some of the children being very excited about science.

To improve the image of scientific research, we have to close the gap between science and society, and what better place to start with the future of our society!