Throughout our Skype call at the end of April, Vanesa Rocha Martin sipped her mate tea through a bombilla, or metal drinking straw, as she sat at her laptop. Due to COVID-19, she is also working from home, forced to interrupt her research in the lab. She is not particularly concerned, however. “As I understand it, I’ll soon be back in the lab on the odd occasion so there won’t be a significant delay in establishing our start-up.”
The 32-year-old biotechnologist is one of twelve young researchers at ETH who are transforming their scientific findings into a market-ready product as part of a Pioneer Fellowship. Rocha Martin’s idea is to develop a therapy to treat “three months’ colic” in newborns, which affects approximately 20 percent of infants.
In the first three months of life, babies with this condition cry for more than three hours on at least three days a week, which places tremendous strain on both the babies and their parents. To date, research has not been able to find an effective therapy. Gastroenterologists are frequently baffled. Rocha Martin aims to change this: with natural bacteria, similar to those occurring naturally in the human gut.
A veterinarian on her own farm
Rocha Martin originally trained as a vet. A series of coincidences led to her current area of research. She grew up in Bahía Blanca, a port on the South Atlantic, 650 kilometres south of Buenos Aires. Her father was a baker, her mother came from farming stock. When her grandfather died, the family inherited his estate, becoming owners of a dairy farm with 300 cows overnight.
With the intent of supporting her family on the farm, the young woman opted to study veterinary medicine on leaving school. To her astonishment, however, she learned almost as much about the human body as about animals. “The veterinary medicine textbooks that were available in Argentina were out of date. So we simply switched to human medicine reference works and applied the contents to animals.” She never dreamed that this roundabout approach would subsequently prove to be an advantage.
Something she learned in her very first microbiology lecture was to have a major impact on the course of her career: the human gut is colonised by innumerable microbes that are essential to our digestion and health. “It was a bit like exploring uncharted territory.” Shortly after, she learned by chance about a common disease, caused by E.coli bacteria from slaughtered cattle, that leads to kidney failure in young children.
Rocha Martin saw a way of using her knowledge to benefit public health. On completing her basic study programme, she convinced her professor to allow her to investigate the connections between gut microbes and this disease. She received her first one-year research grant for this project. From then on, she regularly brought faecal samples from the hospital in her home town, which was particularly afflicted by the disease, to the university lab for analysis – her first experience of clinical-university collaboration. Meanwhile, the time had come to tell her family that she would not be helping them look after the animals on the farm but was determined to go into research.
Culture shock in Uppsala
Rocha Martin’s passion for research did not go unnoticed at the university. A professor alerted her to the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus programme. Although some 800 students applied for 16 places, she was one of the lucky ones. Six months later, suitcase in hand, she stepped off the plane on her way to Uppsala in Sweden, more than 12,000 kilometres away from her home – to be greeted by a cold, rainy September.
Her accommodation was in a rural area, she had already covered the first part of her course back home and most Swedes were taken aback by her openness and temperament. “The first few weeks were awful; I wanted to go straight back to Argentina,” Rocha Martin recalls.
Her professor from Buenos Aires, who was taking a sabbatical at the same university, saved the day. He got Rocha Martin a position as a research assistant at the Swedish Livestock Research Centre, where she helped collect, process and analyse rumen, faeces and milk samples for microbiological tests. “Even though I was back working with animals, I was introduced to a method that was to prove extremely important for my later research,” she says.
A few years earlier, DNA sequencing had enabled microbiologists to detect gut microbes that were previously unknown. For a long time, microbial growth in the laboratory had been the only proof. But some types could not be cultivated in Petri dishes. The Argentinian researcher spent the second year of her Master’s degree in Denmark, working on a research project at the University of Copenhagen that studied the correlations between the level of fitness, muscle structure and gut microbes in the elderly.
The fascination of infant health
Once again, it was her own experiences that prompted Rocha Martin to then look for a doctoral post in the field of infant health. “I have two brothers, both much younger than me. As a result, I witnessed the miracle of their births and was actively involved in the first few months of their lives.”
To this day, she is fascinated by the fact that breast milk contains all the essential nutrients a child needs in the early months. That was when she decided to research the gut microbiology of infants. It is due to a Danish colleague, with whom she went hiking, that she moved to Switzerland to achieve her goal. Having confided in him, it turned out that a friend of his worked in the same research field – at the Laboratory of Food Biotechnology at ETH Zurich.
For years, Professor Christophe Lacroix’s group has been studying the gut microbiology of newborns, with a focus on its role in three months’ colic. His research suggests that an imbalance in the composition of the gut microbes produces painful abdominal bloating.
Expanding on two previous doctoral theses, Rocha Martin was able to identify strains of bacteria that are expected to restore the balance. To do so, she mainly worked with two models: a special in-vitro facility in Lacroix’s lab that simulates natural processes in the intestinal flora; and in-vivo tests using laboratory rats.
“I now firmly believe that we can develop a therapy for three months’ colic based on natural probiotics, such as those used in dairies,” Rocha Martin says. Since the beginning of the year, she has been collaborating with Professors Lacroix and Christian Braegger from the University Children’s Hospital Zurich to refine this idea.
The first patents are already pending and clinical trials on the most promising bacterial strains are due to start in 2022. The researchers are hoping to introduce the treatment as a food supplement and in the form of drops in the medium term. “I’m confident that we’ll be able to market a therapy with a proven effect within the next five years.”
Research as a cure for homesickness
The young researcher is delighted to be taking a step towards entrepreneurship during her 18-month Fellowship with her start-up “BactoKind”. By her own account, she is investing a great deal in this project; her passion for research goes some way towards compensating for usually only seeing her family in Bahía Blanca at Christmas.
Although it is so far away from her family, she would like to stay in Zurich permanently. ETH offers ideal conditions for her research. “What’s more, I love huge barbecues with friends,” she adds, “and Zurich has plenty of great places for me to indulge in my hobby.”