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ERC PoC Grant for Cristina Silva Pereira

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The project will focus on a plant derived biopolymer to improve encapsulation technologies

Oeiras, 18.01.2024

Cristina Silva Pereira, head of the Lab of Applied and Environmental Mycology at ITQB NOVA, and a researcher in the LS4Future Associate Laboratory, has just been awarded a Proof of Concept Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). The funding of €150K will allow the researcher and her team to develop their vision of improving encapsulating technologies with applications in food and therapeutics.

In her recently concluded ERC Consolidator Grant, MIMESIS, Cristina Silva Pereira and her team proposed suberin, a plant derived biopolymer, could be used in encapsulation technologies to protect functional ingredients, such as probiotics and proteins, incorporated in food products and drugs.

The incorporation of functional ingredients with health-benefits into products including bread, milk and fruit juices, is being actively pursued by the food industry. However, many of these ingredients are sensitive to the pH of acidic products, such as juices. Encapsulation technologies, particularly antibubbles, are a promising tool to protect ingredients incorporated in acidic products and, particularly, in the stomach. Yet, their most commonly used encapsulation material – silica – is not suitable for human consumption. “We think Suberin, a hydrophobic biopolymer that nature uses to prevent moisture transport, could be used as the shell of liquid droplets, avoiding leaking and ensuring a long shelf-life”, the researcher explains.

Suberin is present in the bark of cork trees and in the peel of potatoes, among multiple other sources. “The main use of cork is in making stoppers for wine bottles”, says James Yates, an expert in nanoparticle characterization who will control the size and homogeneity of the samples produced. “The material has been scrutinised for years to ensure it does not spoil wine”. Thus, its safety for human consumption has long been demonstrated. “The next step is the integration of the plant derived biopolymer into the multi-billion dollar markets for encapsulated functional food and drugs”, explains Manuel Melo, responsible for feeding the experimental data on suberin into predictive models of plant polyesters for a view of the organisation of these systems.

The project team, part of the LS4Future Associated Laboratory, will benefit from the support of an industry collaborator: Bether Encapsulates, the company that developed the patented antibubble technology. “Currently, there are no encapsulation technologies available that can protect sensitive healthy ingredients against low pH for the whole of the shelf-life of food products while still guaranteeing bioavailability of the ingredients”, explains the owner of the company, Albert Poortinga.

“It is exciting to see the fundamental results achieved by Cristina Silva Pereira in the MIMESIS ERC Grant gaining a translational component with the ERC PoC Grant”, says João Crespo, Dean of ITQB NOVA. “We are proud to see what the team has achieved so far, and looking forward to the next steps.” The SNAIL project, with the support of the InnOValley unit, will take suberin one step closer to the functional food industry.

The ERC Proof of Concept Grant, awarded exclusively to Principal Investigators who have previously won an ERC grant, is designed to support the commercial and social innovation potential of ERC-funded frontier research. Two other Portuguese researchers were awarded in this call: Albino Oliveira Maia, from Champalimaud Foundation, and Cecília Roque, from UCIBIO-NOVA FCT. Cecília Roque and Cristina Silva Pereira have already collaborated in a joint project.

Manuel Melo, Cristina Silva Pereira and James Yates.

About the awardee

Cristina Silva Pereira coordinates a team of 18 researchers in the Lab of Applied and Environmental Mycology at ITQB NOVA. She became a PI in 2008 – only four years after earning her PhD. Her team works on plant polyesters and they have several partnerships with industry. The researcher won her first ERC, a Consolidator Grant in 2015, with the project MIMESIS - Development of biomaterials through mimesis of plant defensive interfaces to fight wound infections. The research developed within this project will now come closer to market through the new ERC PoC grant. Silva Pereira studied Applied Chemistry - Biotechnology at the NOVA Science and Technology School, and started her research career at the Instituto de Biologia Experimental e Tecnológica (iBET). During her PhD, she worked at ITQB NOVA, and at the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research (UK). In the last five years, she has published more than 30 scientific articles in international journals. Currently, Silva Pereira is the co-coordinator of the Molecular Biosciences PhD Programme, and a member of the directive board of the postgraduate course StartUp Research Programme. She has also written and published poems and short stories as Cristina Maria da Costa – a hobby that strengthens her scientific creativity. She is the proud mother of an 11-year old boy.

In the news

Quatro cientistas portugueses recebem bolsas do Conselho Europeu de Investigação, in Público,  18.01.2024

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