Jose Maria Ayuso Dominguez: A Man of Many Names and Talents

If there were two words that described Jose Ayuso they would be: radiating enthusiasm. It’s easy to see his incredible passion and positivity for his research and life.

Jose Maria Ayuso Dominguez came to the Morgridge Institute for Research from Spain because he is passionate about changing the way cancer is studied. As a Morgridge Postdoctoral Fellow, Ayuso works with three mentors — Melissa SkalaDave Beebe, and Dr. Kari Wisinski— to further understand how to stop cancer tumor growth.

Melissa Skala is a Morgridge Medical Engineering investigator focusing on pancreatic cancer research, Dave Beebe is a professor in the Biomedical Engineering department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Kari Wisinski is a medical oncologist at the UW Carbone Cancer Center (UWCCC) and a member of the UW Health Breast Center. Together they provide expertise ranging from engineering and tumor biology to patient treatment.

Growing up in Spain, Ayuso attended the University of Madrid as an undergraduate, where he studied biochemistry. Although he enjoyed his biochemistry work, Ayuso decided to move to the University of Saragosa to complete his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering.

After completing his Ph.D. and four years of work at the University of Saragosa, Ayuso decided to apply to be a Morgridge Institute Postdoctoral Fellow.

“I’m a very curious person,” Ayuso says. “I’m the type of person who enjoys puzzle games because I always need to know the answer. Working here at Morgridge and UW–Madison is a big deal and has definitely been my biggest success so far.”

When asked what his biggest influence was on deciding to move to Madison, Ayuso explained that, “the research in the United States is much better than in Spain. Also, I get to work with Dave Beebe, and he’s one of the top people in the field of microfluidics.”

As a Morgridge Fellow, Ayuso works with Beebe and the Microtechnology, Medicine and Biology (MMB) lab, a collaborative group working across disciplines and disease boundaries to create solutions that can be translated into widespread use. The lab is focused on the novel and simple use of microscale physics to create tools and methods that further biological and medical goals, particularly in regards to cancer and global health.

Most relevant to Ayuso’s work are the microfluidics tools used to reproduce cancer microenvironments. The environment surrounding cancer tumor cells—including blood vessels and other tissues—are as important to study as the cancer cells themselves.

I’m the type of person who enjoys puzzle games because I always need to know the answer. Working here at Morgridge and UW–Madison is a big deal and has definitely been my biggest success so far.

Jose Maria Ayuso Ayuso

These organotypic models, tissue microchips, recreate the same structure and functional relations present in the body, thus, increasing the likelihood that the model will be representative of what happens in the human body. Such models could reduce the need for animal models as well as increase our basic understanding of cancer by allowing improved control over experimental parameters.

Ayuso has begun to explore and merge our ability to create organotypic micro scale models of breast cancer with Skala’s state of the art metabolic imaging capabilities.

Dr. Skala’s lab develops new methods to understand and combat cancer using photonics-based technologies. These technologies are used to enable personalized cancer treatment, and to develop more effective cancer therapies. Ayuso’s project will integrate novel optical imaging with the microfluidic technologies to understand cell-level communication in cancer initiation and progression.

The beginning of Ayuso’s work uses commercial breast cancer cell lines to set-up the initial system, but in later stages he will use patient-derived samples. Samples gathered from patients allows for the development of models for individualized treatment decisions. Dr. Wisinski is an expert on diagnosis, treatment and clinical trial design for breast cancer and will manage all the aspects related to the generation of patient-derived samples. Moreover, she will be involved in the patient follow-up to compare the lab results with the actual patient outcomes.

Ayuso’s research aims to understand how cancer works and spreads in order to find a therapeutic opportunity to target cancer. Ayuso analogizes his research to understanding the functionality of a vehicle; to better understand how a car works you might drive it or study the engine.

“You don’t want to just disassemble the car or look at one wheel because it is a complex system that you need to see as a complete structure,” says Ayuso. “Studying cancer is exactly the same. You have the tumor cells, but you also have the immune cells, which are trying to stop the tumor. You have the blood vessels that tumor cells can use to spread.”

Ayuso and his collaborators are trying to generate these complex structures—including the immune cells, the blood vessels, and the 3-D tumor—so they can study them and ideally find a mechanism to stop the tumor growth.

Beyond his research at the Morgridge Institute and UW–Madison, Ayuso says that his biggest challenge so far in the United States is getting used to a new culture. Ayuso explains the one big difference he’s noticed thus far has been the United States’ use of the metric system.

“Learning about square feet, gallons; that’s what I need to look into right now. That and American football.”