On June 30, Biotechnet visited HES-SO's Institute of Life Technologies at its brand new Energypolis campus in Sion. A few steps from the train station, the state-of-the art offices and labs were officially inaugurated in spring 2022. HES-SO's experts took us backstage, giving us unique insights into their research.
The tour started with the Diagnostic Systems group, led by Marc Pfeifer and supported by Denis Prim. Working with industry, their goal is to develop tests that pinpoint biomarkers, which can be indicators of disease, a person's condition, an aspect of their genetic profile, or whether they'll respond to particular medicines.
They first develop assays using larger, specialized equipment, and then miniaturize them so they can be used outside of a lab setting, for example in the ambulance, on the sports field, or at home. One of their recent projects focuses on identifying a biomarker correlated with traumatic brain injury.
We hope our new test could enable experts in sports medicine to determine if players who have taken a hit are fit to continue playing, or should be taken out of the game, says Denis Prim.
Next, Wilfried Andlauer took us through the Analytical Chemistry and Bioanalytical Platform. This ISO certified service centre allows clients in the pharmaceutical, food and environmental biotech industries to characterize their molecules and answer complex questions. He spoke not only of his impressive fleet of analysers, but also of the opportunity for HES-SO students to gain hands-on experience operating them.
We trust our students at the Bachelor’s level to use top-of-the line equipment right from the start, which means they’re extremely well prepared to work in industry after their time with us, says Wilfried Andlauer.
The experiment running during our visit demonstrated the relevance of the platform to the Valais region, which is famous for its Heida and other indigenous wine varietals. Vials of white wine were undergoing gas chromatography testing to measure a molecule that indicates whether the taste of cork will be present in the wine. Cheers to analytics!
The third stop on the tour was a visit to the Sustainable Food Systems Group. Leader Michael Beyrer took us into their pantry, where huge bags of different food stocks await to be mixed, dried, melted, frozen, electrocuted, and crushed in experiments designed to uncover the limits of their physical and biological properties. This information helps companies better understand the effects of food processing and retain or maximize its nutritional content.
Students inside the Food pilot plant were working on an extrusion process. Here, a powder of dried, crushed beans was being fed into the extruder along with water, salt and a few other ingredients, in order to create a protein extract.
Protein extracts tend to be flaky and often do not hold together well. Here we have succeeded in creating elasticity and achieving a chewier texture, says Michael Beyrer.
Texture, colour, smell, temperature, size, presentation and other factors influence our perception and enjoyment of food. In the nearby test kitchens and sensory labs, human taste testers help scientists uncover our physical and psychological perceptions of food innovations.
The visit concluded with a look into HES-SO’s upstream and downstream bioprocessing facilities. Associate professor Mathias Rüdt described how process analytical technologies are used to better understand exactly what is happening during production processes inside bioreactors. Here we observed a Bachelor student’s final project – a microbial fermentation process that produces biodegradable biopolymers.
Biopolymers offer a broad array of applications, explained Manfred Zinn, who leads the Biotechnology and Sustainable Chemistry group. This ranges from microbeads for the beauty industry to PVC-like products for packaging as well as viscous gels.
Another aspect of the group’s work deals with exploiting the nutritional potential of microalgae, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids. They have scaled up a microalgae production process from smaller shake flasks up to large stainless steel tanks used in the beverage industry.
In the Valais region, we produce a lot of wine using stainless steel fermenters. We thought, why not develop a process that leverages these standard tanks during the off-season and use them to produce microalgae, says expert Julien Pott.
From applications in health, food, energy, biomaterials and more, our visit to HES-SO’s Institute of Life Technologies demonstrated that biotechnology can provide elegant solutions to contemporary challenges and needs.