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A new generation of Petri dishes

Biochemist Margaret Magdesian developed an alternative device for growing cells and started her own company in Canada to manufacture it

Personal archiveIn 2008, while researching how neurons react to lesions and how they can be reconnected, biochemist Margaret Magdesian, from São Paulo, realized that it was almost impossible to study them in a Petri dish, the apparatus that has been used for more than a century for research into microorganisms and cell cultures. “The neurons were not organized the same way they are in the brain,” says the researcher, who was at the time working at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, Canada. She decided to create a model that would allow the organized growth of cells in an environment similar to the human body. The device proved to be a real innovation, and ultimately led the biochemist to leave the university and set up her own company.

Magdesian graduated in pharmacy and biochemistry from the University of São Paulo (USP). For her master’s degree, which she started in 1996 at the university’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-USP), she investigated receptors in mammalian cells that facilitate infection by Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease. Her research presented interesting results, and she was able to convert her master’s degree directly into a doctorate at the same institution. Shortly before graduating, Magdesian traveled to Boston, USA, to attend the Gordon Research Conference.

The event presents pioneering research in the biological, chemical, and physical sciences. “I met David Colman there, who at the time was director of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City,” she says. “He was interested in my research and invited me to work with him, but I declined the offer.”

Margaret continued onto a postdoctoral fellowship at IQ-USP before moving to Rio de Janeiro in 2002, where she worked as an associate professor at the Medical Biochemistry Department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). In late 2007, her husband received a job offer in Canada. “I looked up some of the laboratories in Canada and discovered that Colman had become director of the Montreal Neurological Institute.” She wrote to him, and he invited her to join his laboratory.

Personal archive Device developed by biochemist allows cell cultures to be organized and standardized in an environment similar to the human bodyPersonal archive

Magdesian moved to Montreal in February 2008. That was when she began to notice the disadvantages of Petri dishes. “When you remove the neurons from the body to grow them on one of these dishes, they lose their shape, producing a different circuit each time they are grown in a different dish,” she explains. She created a silicone device biocompatible with 3D structures so that she could organize and standardize cell cultures. She was thus able to study the neurons in isolation, with more reliable and reproducible results.

Over time, other researchers began to show an interest in the mold she had developed. As demand grew, she began running her own laboratory developing and producing cell culture devices. “One day, a company called me and said they would like to buy 10,000 units,” she says. Magdesian decided to leave the university to establish Ananda Devices, a startup that produces devices designed to speed up cell research in laboratories.

Her innovative product has received several awards, and was a finalist in global startup competition Hello Tomorrow, held in France. Her business plan was also honored by the Dobson Cup Innovation Competition in Canada. Today, the company sells devices to scientists in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Brazil.