Zita Jessop has two professional passions – surgery and research. And as a senior lecturer at Swansea University and a registrar at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital she is delighted to be able to do both.
After graduating from Cambridge University and completing early surgical training in London, Zita joined Swansea’s Reconstructive Surgery & Regenerative Medicine Research Group (ReconRegen) in 2014 to undertake doctoral research on 3D bioprinting and cartilage tissue engineering. The research, supervised by ReconRegen director Professor Iain Whitaker, focused on finding the ideal bio-ink to print tissues for surgical reconstruction.
This led to her becoming a Royal College of Surgeons Research Fellow and a Medical Research Council Clinical Research Training Fellow – the first award of its kind in Swansea University and was also recognised with the University’s Outstanding Contribution to Research Award.
She said: “The majority of reconstructive plastic surgery involves wound closure, wound management and reconstruction of tissue defects following cancer excision, trauma and burns.
“Wounds and tissue defects are often debilitating for patients and pose a significant health and economic burden, costing the NHS an estimated £5.3 billion annually. My goal is to develop natural bio-inks for bioprinting a variety of tissue types.
Her research was awarded the RCS Cutler’s Surgical Medal for innovation, the Burnand Basic Science Prize by the Society of Academic and Research Surgery and is being taken towards clinical translation following significant funding for ReconRegen from the Scar Free Foundation and Health & Care Research Wales.
Zita obtained a Fulbright Scholarship in 2018 to undertake postdoctoral training at Harvard University, as well as completing an Ethicon Travelling Fellowship to Melbourne and the Norman Capener Travelling Fellowship to Utrecht.
Now a member of the editorial boards of journals 3D Printing in Medicine and Bioprinting, Zita co-edited textbook 3D Bioprinting for Reconstructive Surgery with Professor Whitaker.
She says one of her career highlights was presenting on tissue engineering at the House of Lords during a celebration of Seven Decades of Innovation in the NHS in 2019. Most recently, she was awarded the prestigious RCS Hunterian Professorship for her work in the 3D bioprinting field.
“Academic surgery is an incredibly challenging but also rewarding career path – the idea of bioprinting functional tissue in the lab has the potential to shift the paradigm in reconstructive surgery and transform patient care.
During the pandemic Zita co-authored research and also spearheaded a high-profile clinical trial in collaboration with the Swansea Trials Unit and the Joint Clinical Research Facility to help find a way of protecting colleagues from Covid using over-the-counter nasal sprays.
Zita says the support she has received has made her eager to encourage junior colleagues and peers and she has also maintained her keen clinical interest in reconstructive microsurgery leading to her being named BEST Senior Trainee by the health board in recognition of her ability to balance both surgical training and research.
She said: “I consider myself to be very fortunate to have had some incredible mentors throughout my career and to work in a supportive environment with colleagues and patients who inspire me daily. I hope to have the opportunity to help others who aspire to a similar career path.”