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Flamingo for Annie

by Saša Novak

My friend Annie is among those struggling with Rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune disease commonly known as RA that affects countless people across the globe. Occasionally, we get together in the city for a brief chat over coffee. Annie, who is still fairly young, has a teenage daughter who is enthusiastic about sports. Annie’s major sorrow is that she is unfortunately no longer able to join her daughter. Living with RA is challenging and painful.

Despite trying various medications, Annie has yet to find lasting relief from the persistent pain and discomfort it causes. That is why I mentioned to her last time that over the previous two years, I have been participating in an EU project that offers a personalized care solution for those living with RA.

Annie sometimes complains that she often wakes up with joint stiffness, which makes it difficult to move and perform daily activities like dressing or brushing her teeth. She also feels tired and sometimes experiences fevers without any obvious reason. RA damaged her finger joints over time, leading to many difficulties in her everyday life.

Once, she mentioned that it took quite a long time for her to get a diagnosis. She suspects that too much time has been lost for the progression of the disease to slow down. Since then, she has been reading a lot about RA. Today she understands that RA is a disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the joints, causing inflammation, pain, and swelling. Unfortunately, the RA didn’t just affect Annie’s joints but also harmed her heart. Therefore, she often rejects even my invitation for a walk. Since I know more about this disease, I can understand her better, so we enjoy our long chats sitting in pleasant places in the city.  

Last week she was all ears while drinking decaf in a small bar beside the Ljubljanica river. I’m not an expert in this field, as my main task in the project is related to outreach, but I tried to simply explain to her the Flamin-go project, where scientists are working on a new way to help people like her. They want to create a small organ-on-chip device, a kind of a twin to the patient’s joint. This will allow doctors to give personalized care to each patient. The device will comprise different compartments that can mimic the tissues in the joints affected by the disease. By studying how these tissues respond to various drugs, doctors will be able to choose the best treatment for an individual patient. They will use small sensors to monitor how the tissues are doing and how they are responding to treatment.

What does all this mean for my friend Annie (and others with rheumatoid arthritis)? Well, the best part is that she could avoid the unwanted side effects of the drugs, which at the end of the day, are not even efficient for her. So, most of the troubles will remain within the organ-on-chip device. And the chance to quickly find the best drug specifically effective for her will be much higher. As proposed by the Flamin-go project, doctors and researchers will get a chance to better understand the disease and develop more targeted treatments by using an organ-on-chip solution. Plus, continuous monitoring of drug response can lead to more effective and efficient treatments. In short, the project gives hope to those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, including Annie.

I will probably remember this chat by the Ljubljanica for a long time. You should see that hopeful and optimistic look from Annie! And, you know what! She paid for our coffee, hugged me and suggested a walk along the river and on the Ljubljana castle hill! Wow! Difficulties are easier to bear if you see a better tomorrow ahead of you, right?

prof. Saša Novak is a scientist at the “Jožef Stefan” Institute, holding a full professorship and serving as a science communication consultant at the Jožef Stefan International Postgraduate School. She is also a co-founder, former director and project leader in the Science at the Street Institute. Her expertise lies in the research and development of advanced materials for biomedicine and future fusion power plants. Her bibliography includes 130 scientific and professional articles and seven book chapters. Furthermore, she has contributed to three international and five national patents.

In recent years, she has dedicated herself to science promotion, adding 34 popular science articles to her bibliography. Dr. Novak has been recognized with two state awards for her significant contributions to the materials field and earned the title of Science Communicator of the Year 2022 from the Slovenian Science Foundation.

As part of the Flamin-go project, she leads dissemination and outreach efforts.