"Curiosity is what drives me"
Francesca Santoro from Forschungszentrum Jülich is trying to use intelligent computer chips to influence human nerve cells in such a way that they can be used to correct disorders and errors such as those that occur in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. She has now received this year's Early Career Award from the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina for her work.
The causes of diseases can almost always be traced back to the cellular level. To correct errors at this level or to achieve certain cellular effects, corresponding drugs are given to the cells. Francescas Santoro from Forschungszentrum Jülich, on the other hand, takes a completely different approach: She tries to influence cells and cell assemblies with the help of electrical signals sent by computer chips, which in turn are capable of learning with the help of artificial intelligence. In this way, she is not only combining several groundbreaking technologies of the future, she is also building a basis for completely new treatment methods for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
Her innovative approach and related research success has given Santoro what is now a breathtaking scientific career for someone under the age of 40. Since 2022, she has been conducting research and teaching at the Jülich Institute for Bioelectronics, based at Forschungszentrum Jülich, and at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology at RWTH Aachen University. She has already received numerous prizes for her research, and recently she received a particularly prestigious award: This year's Early Career Award of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, which is endowed with 30,000 euros.
"Of course, the big vision is that my research will one day help people," says Francesca Santoro. Her work lays the foundation for this: She does not conduct research on patients, but in vitro, i.e., on cells in the laboratory. Basic research. "Sure, sometimes I think about what other scientists might make of my findings, what applications they will develop based on them. But in day-to-day research, there is another force, as simple as it is powerful, that drives me: Curiosity," Santoro says with a smile.
Curiosity has also led her to where she is today. As early as her master's thesis at the University of Naples in Italy, she was looking at how computer chips and the electrical signals they emit can influence the functions of body cells. It is not surprising that electrical signals can, for example, trigger the release of messenger substances or generate new signals in the target cells. Human nerve cells, which are interconnected via synapses, communicate in exactly the same way: via electrical signals. "From the very beginning, I was interested in the question of whether and how we could use computer chips to tap into these cellular communication pathways, so to speak, and thus correct and compensate for deficiencies and errors. The interest in this and the search for answers has remained to this day," says Santoro.
In 2014, she went to Stanford University, and in 2017 she returned to Naples to head a junior research group at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologie there, with which she developed an ultrathin and skin-compatible material capable of electrically stimulating injured skin cells. The ultrathin material has photovoltaic properties, meaning it draws electricity from sunlight and does not require a battery. Santoro and her team were able to show that with the help of the stimulations, healing of damaged tissue improved significantly.
But for Santoro, the skin has proven to be only a stop on her journey. Since the beginning of the year, Santoro has been living in Germany, in Jülich, and is networked with the world. Here, she is researching and developing biohybrid synapses. Put simply, these are learning microchips that attach to clusters of nerve cells and send out electrical impulses that can trigger certain effects, depending on the extent and frequency with which they stimulate the other "real" nerve cells. "The beauty of microchips is that they have what are called deep neural networks, which are capable of learning: Initially we still need to tell them what to do, but the longer they 'cooperate' with human neurons, the better they fit in," Sanotoro says.
On the one hand, this is promising for the prospect of one day implanting artificial joints and organs that also integrate better in terms of the nervous system. But the approach of Santoro's research also holds enormous potential for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, where the interconnection of nerve cells and the transmission of stimuli are disturbed.
Accordingly, there is not only a great deal of funding, but also interest from other researchers. Currently, Santoro is involved in several projects in parallel; she supervises her research groups in Naples and Germany, and collaborates with colleagues at Stanford and elsewhere in the world. "Sure, it's a bit of juggling sometimes, even across time zones. When colleagues in Europe call it a day, concerns in the U.S. kick in." Santoro laughs. "But I've since learned to manage that so that no one has to wait too long and that at the same time I don't get bogged down in stress." Santoro is always impressed by the young researchers in particular; their enthusiasm and energy being a source of joy and strength. "I don't just shape my teams, my teams shape me, in a positive sense," says Santoro.
Does Germany shape them, too? Santoro grins. "I see how much I've changed when I'm in Naples: Then everyone is amazed that I miss the rain or that instead of espresso I now suddenly drink coffee with cream." Santoro also has an effect on her environment in Germany, however. "I think, especially compared to my German colleagues, the cliché that I, the Italian, have a distinct temperament is true," Santoro says. "I sometimes feel that rubs off on my team as well: Whenever something is discussed in my research groups, things always get a little louder, if only because we're very happy about a success!"
Santoro herself is hardly ever in the lab anymore, rather, she coordinates, supports and advises on numerous research projects in Italy, Germany and the USA. And she likes it that way as it offers her even greater possibility to pursue her curiosity.