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Three ITQB NOVA researchers awarded 50,000€ by the InnOValley Proof of Concept Fund

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The ITQB NOVA projects are three of the four winners of the third edition of the InnOValley Innovation Unit that rewards promising research projects to solve challenges in society

In this year’s edition of the InnOValley Proof of Concept Fund (InnOValley PoC), three proposals led by ITQB NOVA researchers have been awarded the 50,000€ prize by the ITQB NOVA, IGC and Oeiras Municipality initiative. Carlos Moreira, Catarina Pimentel and Sofia Ferreira, of ITQB NOVA, as well as Teresa Pais, from IGC, were awarded for their projects, which aim to guarantee food security, fight fungi infections, optimize dopamine production and fight cerebral malaria. 

The prizes were awarded on Thursday, 20th June, at the WTC - World Trade Center, in Lisbon. The four winning projects of the third edition of this initiative were selected from 21 proposals. The juri composed by an international panel of top-level professionals in innovation, awarded a total prize of 200,000€ to support the best translational projects in life sciences.

The proposals were submitted by researchers from two scientific institutions in Oeiras: the Gulbenkian Institute of Science of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (FCG-IGC) and the António Xavier Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology of NOVA University of Lisbon (ITQB NOVA). They aim to develop solutions to challenges that affect society. This scope requires researchers to focus on the impact on people's lives, as well as a possible commercial application through the creation of new intellectual property.

The evaluation of the projects was done by a panel of eleven members, professionals with decades of international experience in innovation and leading organisations of six different countries: Alexandre Esteban (Spain, Programme manager at Fundación Bancaria “la Caixa”), Anji Miller (United Kingdom, Senior Business Manager, LifeARC), Anabel Sanz (Spain, Head of Technology Transfer at CRG), Claas Junghans (Germany, Partner at Mittepatent), Neelan Patel (UK, CEO at MedCity), Nuno Arantes-Oliveira (Portugal, Entrepreneur, Investor, Academic), Jan Demolder (Belgium, Head of Intelectual Property at Flanders Institute for Biotechnology), Silke Meyns (Switzerland, Head of IP Group ETH transfer), Anabela Carvalho (Portugal, European and Portuguese Patent Attorney, Patentree), Ana Rita Santos (Belgium, Expert Scientist at VfB Discovery Sciences, Innovation and Business) and Pamela Tranter (United Kingdom, Head of Translational Research Office at UCL).

The InnOValley PoC was launched in 2021 and has awarded so far 650,000€ in its three editions. The winners of previous editions have also secured €250,000 in international funding from the "la Caixa" Foundation and the European Research Council and have led to 3 registered patents.

The InnOValley Proof of Concept Fund is an initiative of the InnOValley Innovation Unit, of ITQB NOVA and FCG-IGC, and is a result of a partnership between these scientific institutions and the Municipality of Oeiras within the scope of one of the three pillars of the Oeiras Science and Technology Strategy.



COPE – Cutin Oligomeric Plant Immune Elicitors to Improve Plant Protection

Lead applicant: Carlos Moreira - ITQB NOVA


Plant diseases have a negative impact on food security and greatly reduce the productivity of agricultural crops, culminating in heavy economic losses. Current treatments for these diseases constantly threaten biodiversity and soil quality, and can affect the quality of agricultural products. The most promising alternative exploits the plant's outermost defensive barrier - the cuticle, the interface between the plant and the environment and the first line of defence against external aggressions. The team recently demonstrated that oligomers derived from the cuticle's polymeric matrix - cutin - activate plant immunity. These oligomers were produced from agricultural waste, namely tomato pomace; an abundant industrial by-product. COPE will be a pioneer in the design of safe and sustainable formulations of immune inducers for direct application to agricultural crops as a prophylactic treatment, generating new chains for the recovery of agricultural waste and supporting the circular economy.

Image: Carlos Moreira receiving the award from Isabel Rocha, Vice-Rector of NOVA University Lisbon  


PONTUSIN: A first-in-class antifungal drug

Lead applicant: Catarina Pimentel - ITQB NOVA

Human Health and Disease

Invasive fungal infections, associated with high mortality and morbidity rates, have been on the rise, partly due to the scarcity or low effectiveness of the antifungal drugs available. Recognizing this problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) has prioritized investment in the research and development of these drugs. Our team recently discovered that a compound isolated from a marine organism, pontusin, has excellent antifungal potential against fungal species that cause serious infectious diseases in immunocompromised patients or very serious patients with multi-organ failure. Pontusin is able to act effectively on multidrug-resistant fungi and appears to have a mechanism of action distinct from current antifungal drugs. With this project, we intend to determine the physicochemical properties of pontusin, establish its chemical synthesis, making its production more sustainable, and develop similar compounds that are even more effective.

Image: Oscar Rojas (left), member of the team, receiving the award in name of Catarina Pimentel (in the back) from Pedro Patacho, councilmember of Oeiras Municipality 


NOVADopaStream: Accelerating Precise Dopamine Fermentation

Lead applicant: Sofia Ferreira


Dopamine, which is crucial for the treatment of circulatory disorders, also has applications in advanced carbon materials. Thus, market opportunities have arisen, driven by the immaturity of the market and dependence on chemical synthesis. Precision fermentation has emerged as a sustainable alternative, using modified microorganisms. In the ShikiFactory100 project, dopamine was considered a priority compound, reaching 1.2g/L in a reactor, but presenting difficulties such as the oxidation of the L-DOPA intermediate. A new production route was discovered and validated with the potential to generate intellectual property. This promising alternative does not depend on L-DOPA, but has shown accumulation of the intermediate compound. To overcome the metabolic limitation identified, our plan proposes gene discovery, protein engineering, pathway optimization and bioreactor validation to increase dopamine productivity, aiming for a concentration of 2 g/L in one year. This approach targets production.

​Image: Sofia Ferreira receiving the award from Isaltino Morais, president of Oeiras Municipality


Harnessing Extracellular Vesicles from Human Cells for Targeted Delivery of Anti-inflammatory Drugs to Brain Endothelial Cells in Cerebral Malaria

Lead applicant: Teresa Pais

Human Health and Disease

Use of human cell extracellular vesicles to target anti-inflammatory drugs to brain endothelial cells during cerebral malaria. Adjuvant therapies are desperately needed in the treatment of cerebral malaria (CM), a serious and lethal disease for more than 150,000 children each year. The intense inflammation associated with CM is predominantly triggered by brain endothelial cells (BECs). The aim of our project is to demonstrate the feasibility of using extracellular vesicles (EVs) from human cells as carriers of anti-inflammatory substances targeted at BECs and with the ability to inhibit molecular pathways essential to the development of MC in experimental models. This project will develop methods to load specific antagonists of innate immunity receptors into EVs of human origin. The efficiency of drug-loaded LVs in suppressing inflammatory pathways will be evaluated using an in vitro system that mimics the interaction between SCCs and LVs. The results obtained in this project will be fundamental for future pre-clinical studies aimed at developing new pharmacological platforms for the treatment of CM.

​Image: Teresa Pais receiving the award from António Cruz Serra, executive administrator of FCG



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