Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Nanotech NYC sits down with researchers, faculty, and students from across the city to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotech scene. Today we sit down with Giuseppe Maria de Peppo, NYSCF – Ralph Lauren Senior Principal Investigator at the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) Research Institute, where he leads the Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering Lab. His research focuses mainly on tissue engineering and cell replacement therapies. Kudos to our ambassador Alessandra Zanut for her help in drawing up the questions.
1) Tell us a little bit about where you are from.
I was born in Lucera, a small town in the Province of Foggia in the region of Puglia, which is located in the southern peninsular section of Italy. Puglia is sometimes called the “heel” of Italy, considering the country has got the shape of a “boot”. Life in Puglia is very simple: the weather is mild, food is delicious, and there are miles and miles of beautiful coastline. I guess the combination of these things makes people quite happy and cheerful. I had an awesome time living there when I was a kid.
2) What about your professional journey so far?
After high school, at the age of 18, I moved to Rome to get a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology at La Sapienza University. I remember the first years were quite challenging because I had so many classes and exams and, coming from a school focused on classical studies, I had to catch up with all the science subjects. But I felt very determined and did very well. Living in Rome was an incredible experience. I enjoyed the city as well as the campus life with my new friends and classmates. After graduating in Biotechnology with a thesis on gene silencing in Neurospora Crassa, I moved to Milan to pursue a Master’s in Medical Biotechnology at Bicocca University. Milan is a vibrant, wealthy city in the north of Italy, with strengths in many fields including scientific research. It was during this period that I heard about the possibility to engineer human tissues in the laboratory using stem cells and biomaterials. I loved the engineering fields since I was a kid, so I decided to become a tissue engineer and work in the field of regenerative medicine. To gain experience in the field, in the framework of my Master’s experimental experience, I worked on a project in collaboration with La Stazione Sperimentale per la Seta, focused on the engineering of a new biomaterial by piecing together two natural polymers - chitosan and silk. After graduating, I was given the opportunity to join the International School of Bioinformatics in Valencia, Spain where I learned a lot about sequence assembly, genome annotation, protein modeling, and protein interaction networks.
That was an incredible experience, which allowed me to explore the international research scene and meet many talented students coming from all over Europe. Certainly, this experience gave a significant boost to my career, which led my first to Sweden for my Ph.D. and eventually to NYC.
3) You earned your Ph.D. degree in the framework of the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Program. What was the focus of your doctoral research and what opportunities did this program allow you to experience?
In 2007, I was awarded the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship for international doctorate in tissue engineering. So, I moved to Sweden to pursue a Ph.D. degree under the supervision of Prof. Thomsen at the University of Gothenburg. The award was granted to nine European students, each conducting research in a different country but on a common project, which focused on using a tissue engineering approach to treat conditions affecting human bones and joints. In particular, I explored the use of human embryonic stem cells for bone regeneration, prospective that is very appealing as embryonic stem cells can be produced in very large numbers and can be turned into all types of cells that make up our body. In order to grow bone in the laboratory, one must combine the cells with specific biomaterial scaffolds that act as frameworks for the cells to grow new bone. So, I tested the potential of different materials to work as a scaffold and engineered the candidate materials using different methods.
One of the key strengths of the Curie’s fellowship program is the opportunity for students to complete research turnovers around European laboratories. Leveraging this option, after about 2 years I moved to Paris, France where I learned how to use bioreactors to support the growth of clinical size bone grafts for replacement therapies. But not everything during my Ph.D. was about tissue engineering. In collaboration with researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, I explored the nanotechnology field while using colloidal lithography to pattern the surface of metallic implants for enhancing their therapeutic potential. I must say that the international breadth of experiences provided by the Curie fellowship helped me to build a solid and competitive work ethic, which I think is very important to succeed in research today.
4) What drove you to start working on tissue engineering?
During high school, besides the idea of becoming a biotechnologist, I was intrigued by other fields, including engineering, design, astrophysics, robotics, etc. Tissue engineering is a multidisciplinary field, which requires combining principles of biology, material science, engineering, automation, and so forth. I am a very curious person and working in tissue engineering gives me the opportunity to learn always new things. I feel I can do something different every day I go to the lab. This keeps fueling my enthusiasm. Tissue engineering holds the potential to revolutionize medicine by growing replacement tissues and organs on-demand, and thus to improve the health status and quality of life of millions of people worldwide. The idea that I can shape a meaningful and tangible impact with my research makes a huge difference. I have an extra drive to go to the lab every morning!
5) What brought you to work at NYSCF? What is your role now at NYSCF and what are some of the specific projects you are working on at the moment?
I became aware of the NYSCF in 2009 while attending a conference on stem cells in San Francisco, California. NYSCF is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate cures for the major diseases of our time through stem cell research. I soon came to appreciate NYSCF diverse research on all types of stem cells, including human embryonic stem cells (the same I studied during my Ph.D.) and human-induced pluripotent stem cells. The latter are derived via reprogramming of somatic cells, such as skin or blood cells, by inducing the expression of specific factors that are active in embryonic stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem cells can be derived from each patient in a cost-effective fashion and lack the ethical implications associated with the isolation of stem cells from human embryos. At NYSCF, researchers are using these cells to create tissue models in Petri dishes to study diseases and identify potential treatments. Believing the NYSCF to be the perfect place for engineering more complex tissues for personalized applications in patients, I decided to join the Foundation as a postdoctoral fellow and move to New York City, the city I always loved. At NYSCF I found the perfect environment and freedom to conduct high-risk/high-reward research. We were the first to demonstrate that patient-specific bone could be engineered from skin cells. Given the potential medical and social impact of my work, I was appointed leader of the Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering team, which focuses on the use of stem cells to develop research models and therapies for aiding patients suffering from musculoskeletal conditions.
6) What is the major, broader goal of your research?
In simple words, I do orthopedic research with the help of stem cells. Stem cells are the building blocks of our body and thus are very powerful for both research and therapy. For example, one can use stem cells to create models of development and disease, to test drugs and implant materials, and to engineer tissues for replacement therapies. We try to do a bit of all these things in my lab. It is so much fun and there is always so much to learn. We also work a lot with orthopedic implants and biomaterials, to improve their properties for clinical applications. For example, we use stem cells to functionalize the surface of orthopedic devices with coatings of high biological relevance that could enhance their reception into the human body. Other projects are focused on developing strategies and tools that can facilitate the transition of stem cell-based and tissue-engineered products from bench to bedside.
7) Your research includes manufacturing and testing biomaterial scaffolds, design and validation of bioreactors, intelligent monitoring of the culture environment, prosthetics and implantology research, etc. What is your opinion on multidisciplinary research?
Personally, I did not experience any cons in doing multidisciplinary research. Actually, I do not think there are any. Science is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary. There is not just one solution to problems. Problems can be approached from many different perspectives. Only by looking at problems holistically, one can find better solutions, faster. Having a multidisciplinary education gives one the confidence to take on complex problems and find smarter solutions, which eventually could lead to breakthrough innovations with high social impact and commercial potential. A multidisciplinary approach allows one to redefine problems beyond normal boundaries and reach solutions based on a more profound understanding of complex situations. It is well established that a multidisciplinary approach can effectively promote creativity. Stay curious, stay creative.
8) What do you think the future holds for bone tissue engineering?
Someday, the use of bone transplants and alloplastic materials for bone reconstructions might become an obsolete practice. We will instead be able to grow patient-specific bone on-demand, and thus circumvent the complications associated with current treatments. This could save the lives of millions of patients, especially kids suffering from devastating bone cancers whose bones are still growing and cannot be treated with alloplastic materials. Besides their potential in reconstructive therapies, tissue-engineered bone grafts will be increasingly used as qualified models to study development and disease as well as test drugs and biomaterials within a context that better reflects the native bone environment.
9) What do you do for fun outside of the lab? How is your work-life balance?
I read, cook, watch documentaries, bike, swim, play music, dance, and travel. I have to say that traveling is my favorite leisure. It gives me the possibility to learn facts about the world one cannot learn at school or in books. It really boosts my creativity. I also love adventure and visiting amazing places around the world keeps me happy. All these activities are very well balanced with my work. Actually, they are essential to elaborate on all the observations I make when doing experiments in the lab. I always get my best ideas when having fun. I am also interested in all kinds of art, so I visit museums very often.
10) What suggestions would you give to early-career scientists in the biotechnology field?
This is a very important question. There are so many things that a young scientist should keep in mind. The biotech field is very competitive so one must be always informed about new scientific discoveries and developments. Also, one must interact with as broad a research community as possible in order to build a network of peers with similar interests. One must stay enthusiastic and have a strong curiosity in order to build an authentic passion for science and technology. This means also being able to use the time wisely. I would also suggest to always keep an open mind and believe in your ideas, especially the more unconventional ones, but always weigh the risk and benefits of doing risky science. Be persistent and ready to cope with failure and rejections. Be optimistic. Most importantly, do science with integrity and honesty. Do it with joy!
11) And what about yourself? If you could go back in time, what advice will you give to your younger self?
Well, if I could go back in time, I would tell myself to do all the things that I actually did. I have been always very determined and passionate about science and technology, and I have had always clear ideas about what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to become a scientist and an inventor. Perhaps I would warn my young self to stay strong because, you know, in science you have to deal with failure over and over again. Oh well, maybe that is the real fun of it!