The Portuguese Medical Association and the BIAL Foundation deliver the 3rd edition of the Maria de Sousa Award

The Portuguese Medical Association and the BIAL Foundation deliver the 3rd edition of the Maria de Sousa Award

Young researchers awarded in the areas of Lupus, Stress Disorders, Fetal Growth, Gastric Cancer, and Alzheimer

The award ceremony for the third edition of the Maria de Sousa Award took place on November 16 at Teatro Thalia, in Lisbon, and was attended by the Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, Elvira Fortunato, who chaired the session, the Secretary of State of Health Promotion, Margarida Tavares, and the Secretary of State for Higher Education, Pedro Teixeira.

The five winners, all young researchers in health sciences, are Inês Alves (i3S, U.Porto), Nuno Dinis Alves (ICVS, U.Minho), Catarina Palma dos Reis (CHULC - Maternidade Dr. Alfredo da Costa, Lisboa), João Neto (i3S, U.Porto) and Sara Calafate (ICVS, U.Minho).

The award-winning projects in the 2023 edition were selected from 55 applications and focus on research in the areas of Lupus, Stress Disorders, Fetal Growth, Gastric Cancer, and Alzheimer.

In an exclusive partnership of the Portuguese Medical Association and the BIAL Foundation, this award pays tribute to the leading Portuguese immunologist and researcher Maria de Sousa, who will always be remembered as a unique personality in science worldwide.

In his speech, the president of the Portuguese Medical Association emphasised the importance of science, which "does not stand still, evolves permanently and helps us to have a better world". Carlos Cortes also stressed that "the Maria de Sousa Award is a sign of humility, it is named after a great researcher, a woman recognised in this field, and it represents what science is all about".

The chairman of the BIAL Foundation reminded those present that Maria de Sousa "was an intelligent woman with a great capacity for work, who strived for excellence and became a leading scientist". "Some of you should know the special affection she had for young researchers and how she valued their experience in international centres of excellence," said Luís Portela in his speech.

Following the official speeches, the ceremony featured the recitation of poems of Maria de Sousa by journalist and writer Anabela Mota Ribeiro, in a memorable moment of remembrance for the scientist who also had a talent for writing poetry. Anabela Mota Ribeiro began by reading an extract from her book "Este Ser e Não Ser - cinco conversas com Maria de Sousa" which had only just been distributed to the scientific community and was offered at this ceremony to the five award winners.

"The feeling I have is that I write, and above all, I write in some moments, to try to stop the moment," were Maria de Sousa's words in November 2014 about the importance of writing and memory. Poems were also recited from the books "Meu Dito, Meu Escrito", released in 2014, which brings together lectures and monologues by Maria de Sousa, and "A Hora e a Circunstância", by Maria de Sousa and Agostinho da Silva, published in 1988.

In his speech, the President of the Jury pointed out that "this award honours a special stage in the careers of young researchers in the field of health". "It is a development grant that supports researchers at a crucial stage in their career," said the neuroscientist.

Rui Costa, who has chaired the Jury since the first edition of the Award, also emphasised that "what Maria de Sousa and the BIAL Foundation have been building are human castles because, more than networks, human castles help people go further".

Closing the session, the Minister of Science, Technology, and Higher Education highlighted the importance of the Maria de Sousa Award. "It is extremely important for us to recognise, in this particular case, the excellent research that is being done in the area of health. Thank you very much for doing so", she concluded.

In addition to neuroscientist Rui Costa, the Jury is composed of researchers who were very close to Maria de Sousa: Maria do Carmo Fonseca, president of the Institute of Molecular Medicine (iMM) of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon, Graça Porto, group leader for research on the biology of iron at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health Sciences (i3S) of the University of Porto, Miguel Castelo-Branco, director of the Center for Biomedical Imaging and Translational Research (CIBIT) at the University of Coimbra, and Joana Palha, full professor at the School of Medicine of the University of Minho.

The award, which had its first edition in 2021, is awarded annually to five young researchers, worth up to €30,000 each, including a mandatory internship at an international center of excellence.

Awarded projects

Inês Alves | Glycan2B - Deciphering novel anti-glycan autoantibodies in autoimmunity: a novel call of biomarkers in Lupus

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a classical autoimmune disease with a higher prevalence in young women of working age (16 - 49 years). One of the most serious forms of the disease is Lupus Nephritis, which can progress to end-stage renal disease. Early diagnosis and clinical and therapeutic monitoring of these patients is still a major challenge in SLE, and there are no biomarkers capable of predicting which patients will progress to a complicated disease. With this work, the award-winner aims to create new ways of diagnosing and predicting how severe Lupus will be for each person, allowing us to optimise treatment strategies for these patients and avoid the aggressive symptoms that characterise this disease.

Nuno Dinis Alves | Prefrontal serotonin input in cognitive flexibility and its ability to revert impairments in stress related disorders

Since rigidity and cognitive inflexibility are one of the most difficult symptoms to treat in patients with psychiatric disorders associated with stressful experiences such as depression, it is essential to identify the mechanisms involved to improve therapeutic actions on these behavioural alterations. Recently, the award-winner discovered that the release of serotonin in a sub-region of the prefrontal cortex, the prelimbic cortex, plays a determining role in flexibility. This work will study the interaction between serotonergic innervations to the subregions of the prefrontal cortex, their action on the local circuit, and their dynamics during cognitive flexibility tasks. Furthermore, by modulating serotonergic signalling in the prefrontal cortex, the researcher aims to reverse stress-induced cognitive inflexibility.

Catarina Palma dos Reis | Syncyciotrophoblast derived extracellular vesicles in Fetal Growth Restriction

This project focuses on fetal growth restriction (FGR), a disease in which, due to a malfunctioning placenta, the fetus is unable to obtain the oxygen and nutrients it needs and is thus at risk of death in utero, insufficient growth, and significant neurological and cardiovascular sequelae. As RCF is the cause of more than 50 percent of fetal deaths, it is crucial to improve the ability to diagnose this disease. This project will look at the vesicles that the placenta releases into the maternal circulation and which act as circulating placental biopsies, making it possible to distinguish healthy placentas from diseased ones. It is hoped to first obtain the signature of vesicles from pregnancies with FGR, and then test the blood of pregnant women with FGR to see if there are differences between the proteins and nucleic acids contained in vesicles produced by healthy placentas and placentas with FGR, and whether these differences could be used as a diagnosis for this disease.

João Neto | Using genome-wide CRISPR genetic screens to dissect the molecular mechanisms underlying therapy resistance and sensitivity in HER2-positive gastric cancer

Gastric cancer (GC) is the fifth most common type of cancer and the fourth leading cause of cancer mortality worldwide. GC has a high mortality rate because it is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, where effective treatment options are scarce. One of the few treatments available at this stage is anti-HER2 therapy, but less than half of eligible patients benefit from this treatment or end up developing resistance. Currently, the mechanisms that prevent trastuzumab (a HER2 inhibitor) from being effective in HER2-positive patients are still not well known, preventing its optimal clinical implementation. This project will contribute to the development of new treatment options for HER2-positive GC patients who do not respond, or who acquire resistance, to treatment with HER2 inhibitors, making it possible to improve the prognosis of these patients and to identify patients who do not benefit from anti-HER2 therapy, saving unnecessary side effects.

Sara Calafate | Sleep-dependent modulation of microglia cell-state in Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer's disease is characterised by the progressive accumulation of toxic proteins in the brain. During the long period leading up to the appearance of symptoms such as cognitive decline, the brain undergoes physiological changes that result in the deregulation of its activity. In addition, sleep patterns also change during this period, and inflammatory levels in the brain increase. It is therefore important to understand how these initial changes occur, as they may explain the progression of the disease and the appearance of cognitive failures. In a recent study, the award-winner showed that the system responsible for producing Melanin Concentrating Hormone (MCH) is deregulated both in an animal model of the disease and in Alzheimer's patients. This project aims to study whether the MCH system regulates the response of microglia in physiological and disease contexts and thus understand the fundamental mechanisms of communication between neurons and microglia and subsequently the regulation of neuroinflammation.