Marc Güell: “We must better exploit the talent and excellence that Barcelona has in terms of knowledge transfer”

Three groups from DCXES-UPF have obtained grants to promote the transfer of knowledge in their projects. We speak with Marc Güell, leader of one of them, about how they want to use the microbiome in our skin to treat us.

Marc Güell, head of the Translational Synthetic Biology group, has received 30,000€ from UPF INNOValora.

Three laboratories from the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, Pompeu Fabra University (DCEXS-UPF) have just received grants from the UPF INNOValora knowledge transfer promotion program.

The three projects awarded with € 30,000 and the advice of a specialized external mentor have been:

  • PepCann4pain: The NeuroPhar research group (DCEXS), led by Rafael Maldonado, is developing a compound capable of blocking the harmful sequelae of cannabinoids while preserving their therapeutic capacity.
  • Synflora: the Laboratory of Translational Synthetic Biology, led by Marc Güell, proposes to use genetically modified natural microbes from human skin so that they are able to release beneficial compounds that serve as dermatological treatments.

We spoke to Marc Güell, principal investigator of this latest project.

Marc, congratulations on the help you just received from UPF INNOValora for Synflora. Can you tell us what this project consists of?

Our laboratory is dedicated, among other things, to the microbiome of the skin, the set of microbes that live in our skin.

What we are trying to do is genetically modify these bacteria to use as sensors or to treat dermatological conditions. In the case of the Synflora project, the bacterium itself is not so important, because it is used only as a chassis, as a container for a genetic circuit capable of listening to our body or the environment, or controlling the secretion of sebum, for example.

What do you mean, to ‘listen’ to our body and environment?

One of the circuits we are generating is able to detect radiation, but they could be made to detect pollution, for example. As for our body, even though these bacteria are external and do not enter beyond the skin, they are able to ‘read’ what is happening inside the body from the substances we secrete. After all, the skin is the body’s second secretory organ – we secrete a lot of things that give information about what’s going on inside us and these bacteria, which have been living with us for thousands of years, somehow know how to interpret them.

“The skin is the body’s second secretory organ – we secrete a lot of things that give information about what’s going on inside us”
Marc Güell (DCEXS-UPF)

And isn’t it dangerous to put modified bacteria on our skin?

If you’re referring to whether it’s dangerous to the environment or to humans, obviously clinical trials and studies need to be done to rule out harmful effects, but these systems are being used more and more and we know them better. There are several trials underway, some for more than a decade, that use modified bacteria, for example for immuno-oncology treatments. And to avoid the possible environmental problems caused by these bacteria in nature, they are built in such a way that it is impossible for them to live in natural environments, because they lack essential elements. But it is true that almost all of these studies have been conducted in the United States. Even for the work we do here, we have received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Here in Europe it is not easy to find funding for this type of projects, I have the feeling that it is seen as very risky.

The use of the skin microbiome is also the focus of the S-Biomedic company of which you are a part … what does the company do and what is your role?

I am its co-founder together with Bernhard Pätzold, and Veronika Oudova. I’ve been on the board and part of the scientific advisory committee … my contribution has always been more on the scientific side, in fact right now we have a joint project with my lab. While for example Veronika, the CEO, is the expert in business development.

What S-Biomedic does is using the very bacteria we naturally have on our skin to treat conditions like acne or aging, which are the two lines of action we have right now. We don’t modify them. Rather the idea is based on the fact that there are bacteria that are more or less associated with certain diseases or conditions. What we have done is to isolate those which are associated with positive biomarkers, with healthier skin. The aim is to create creams or similar that contain these bacteria in higher concentrations. We could say it’s a kind of probiotic yogurt for the skin!

“At S-bBiomedic we use the bacteria that we naturally have on our skin to treat conditions such as acne or aging, as a kind of a probiotic yogurt for the skin.”

The origins of this company are closely linked to the PRBB… can you tell us how it came about?

Berni and I did our PhD in the same laboratory, with Luis Serrano, at the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG). Veronika did not work directly in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB), but she also belonged to this international environment that surrounds the PRBB … and to the volleyball championship that is organized there every summer!

I then moved to the US, where I stayed for 7 years, but came back from time to time. Bernie had the idea to use the skin’s own microbes to treat it and we threw ourselves into it. As I told you before, it was difficult to get funding initially here, so we ended up applying for grants from the Chilean government, the “Start up Chile” program. It was in the Andean country where we did our first studies. Then we came back to Barcelona, from there to Germany (thanks to the support of an expert acne researcher) and the company is currently based in Belgium, on the Janssen campus, which is now one of our partners through J&J.

How was the experience of starting this business? What are the biggest challenges?

There is no denying that there have been difficult times, especially at the beginning, when it comes to raising funds and find financial support and space … Now we are in a very sweet time for biotech, investment levels are increasing, but in the US and Asia for example they have a great competitive advantage, because for a long time they have been investing in technology, and in large quantities. For example in Boston, where I lived for 7 years, it is much easier to get private capital. Here in Barcelona, in Catalonia, in terms of basic science we are pretty good, we have groups that are number 1 in their field, and that is a great merit. We must learn to make better use of this talent and excellence that Barcelona also has in terms of knowledge transfer. Although investment in biotechnology is increasing every year, we still have a long way to go.

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