Soft matter matters

What do bone cells, carrageenan, 3D printing, and the International Space Station have in common? 

Meet Dr. Rommel G. Bacabac, a full professor in USC whose research interests revolve around bone cell mechanosensitivity, microgravity, biopolymer mechanics, microrheology, microfluidics, artificial tissue constructs, and bone tissue engineering. After obtaining a degree in B.S. Physics at USC in 1993, Dr. Bacabac proceeded to take his master’s degree (1999) and doctorate (2006) from Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), followed by a post-doctoral stint (2007–2010) at the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter (FOM)-Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (Amsterdam).

Searching for solutions to important scientific questions, Dr. Bacabac’s Medical Biophysics Group also look for practical applications through engagement with local industries.

Dr. Bacabac’s works have been praised and acknowledged by research communities around the world. As a matter of fact, his experiments on bone mechanosensitivity were sent up to the International Space Station in 2004. Two years later, he was also honored by the European Society of Biomechanics with the S.M. Perren Research Award. By the year 2015, he was listed as the 20th top researcher in the Philippines. On top of this achievement, he is also considered as the most cited researcher in USC with close to 3,000 citations based on Google Scholar. 

Leading the Medical Biophysics Group (MBG), which he established in 2010, his works are inspired by his interest in the study of soft matter systems such as polymer mixtures, living cells, and biomimetic tissue models. One of his primary tools is an optical tweezer which uses lasers to manipulate the cells. According to him, “These experimental models may allow us to find surprising insights in the design of materials for industrial applications, relevant to the local community; and may even give us a peek into the processes of life, in pursuit of deeper scientific questions.”

Mammalian cell culture facility at the MGB Soft Matter Laboratory (top left), a living mammalian cell manipulated using an optically-trapped colloidal particle (bottom left), and the Holographic Optical Tweezers (HOTs) setup at the MGB Biophotonics Laboratory (right).

Just like other researchers in the country, Dr. Bacabac also has plans of further sharing his works not just to the scientific community but also to the general public. “In pursuit of breaking down important scientific questions, I do try to find practical directions that would allow my research to have relevant applications useful to my community, through engagement with local industries,” he added. 

Dr. Rommel’s current work focuses on developing technologies for 3D printing artificial bone tissue constructs using functionalized polysaccharides from seaweeds. “I think this is unique because it makes use of local material and is based on the accumulated expertise by my research group with the help of international collaborators,” he shared. 

He also noted that this research has been built from the ground up—that is, research that was built up slowly with published peer-reviewed papers on bone cells and tissue and carrageenan—before even looking for funding.

At the moment, Dr. Bacabac is working on two DOST-funded projects and one funded by the DOST-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (PCIEERD). Interested collaborators with common interests or who share the same enthusiasm for deeper scientific questions like that of Dr. Bacabac may contact him at the USC Department of Physics.

by Syrine Gladys Podadera

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