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8M€ to prepare for the next pandemics

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The European project coordinated by ITQB NOVA will establish a platform to produce antiviral biopharmaceuticals, putting Europe at the forefront of the response to emerging threats

Oeiras, 22 January 2024

An international team led by Cláudio Soares, from Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier da Universidade NOVA de Lisboa (ITQB NOVA), just received 8M€ in funding from Horizon Europe to discover and produce new antiviral therapeutics. This is the only project with national coordination selected in the 2023 Health Cluster call.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ITQB NOVA’s Protein Modeling Lab, led by Cláudio Soares, has focused on developing and testing innovative molecules against new threats. Although this topic has long been part of the team’s agenda – the researchers have been studying the flu virus for years now -, the need to accelerate the development of new biopharmaceutical products against pathogens in pandemic scenarios became even more real and urgent with COVID-19. “The current antivirals act against a very small number of viruses”, explains Diana Lousa, one of the project leaders. “Since we cannot predict the virus(es) that will cause the next pandemics, we need antivirals that act against a large spectrum of pathogens and which can easily and quickly be adapted in emergencies.”

This was the idea behind EvaMobs, the project selected in Horizon Europe’s highly competitive Health Cluster call. “In 2022 we won the BioPlaTTar project, from la Fundación La Caixa, a funding of 1M€ to create a platform to fight COVID-19 and the flu”, Diana Lousa recalls. “This new funding will allow us to work on other viruses and pharmaceuticals and take our research to clinical trials”, she explains.

Using artificial intelligence and physics-based models, the team proposes to design new proteins that bind to viral targets. “It is as if the viruses’ components were the locks and we are looking for the keys that fit best”, explains Cláudio Soares. Starting with millions of computer designed molecules, in collaboration with ITQB NOVA’s lab led by Manuel Melo, the researchers will select a few hundred, which will then be produced by Isabel Abreu’s and João Vicente’s teams, at the institute, and tested in viral infection assays at Instituto de Medicina Molecular (iMM), in Miguel Castanho’s lab, and Centro de Investigação Biomédica da Universidade Católica Portuguesa (CBR-UCP), in Maria João Amorim’s lab.

“In pandemic scenarios, this platform will allow us to be quicker in finding the keys that best fit the locks, contrasting with current methods, which are expensive, complex, and take longer”, explains Cláudio Soares. “These small proteins have a fixed core and tailor-made edges which can quickly and easily be adapted to any virus. When we find this key, we can shut the door to infection”, he adds.

Comprised by 11 partners from Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, Belgium, Croatia, Germany and The Netherlands, the consortium brings together experts from different areas to strengthen our preparedness to tackle future pandemics, avoiding outbreaks, deaths, disruptions in healthcare and the economic impact. “The project, an example of interdisciplinary collaboration, will put the country at the forefront of one of the pillars of European Union’s Research & Innovation framework programme”, says João Crespo, ITQB NOVA Dean.

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