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Champalimaud scientists awarded one million euros by la Caixa Foundation

  1. 26.7.2018

    Carlos Ribeiro and Leopoldo Petreanu have been awarded Health Research la Caixa Grants of nearly 500,000 euros each to coordinate scientific projects. The grants are attributed to by the Foundation of la Caixa bank, Spain’s third largest financial institution. This is the first edition to include project coordinators working in Portugal.

    A third researcher, Mireia Castilho, has been awarded 25,000 euros to collaborate with another la Caixa-funded project, this one coordinated by a group based in Bilbao, Spain.

    Clockwise from top left: Carlos Ribeiro, Leopoldo Petreanu and Mireia Castilho.

    Ribeiro, the principal investigator of the Behavior and Metabolism Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, coordinate a three year project that aims to understand precisely how gut bacteria regulate our food choices.

    In their application the scientists write: “What we eat has a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. Proteins are important nutrients which regulate how fast animals age and how diseases affect organisms, including humans. What
    makes animals and humans decide which food to eat is not well understood. Over the last years, we have discovered that bacteria in our gut regulate how our body functions and even how our brain works. We have recently shown that two gut bacteria have a strong influence on the desire to eat proteins: when they are present in the animal they suppress protein cravings. How they do so is not understood.”

    Gut bacteria are thought to act on animals by transforming nutrients in the food into chemicals which influence the host, so-called metabolites. What the team now wants find out is which of the metabolites made by the gut bacteria influence protein cravings; which of these metabolites can alter protein cravings; and lastly, how these metabolites alter the way the brain processes taste information.

    “This is a game changer as it will allow us to use a state of the art technology called metabolomics to identify the signals that gut bacteria send to speak with the host to influence brain function and food choices”, says Ribeiro. Once we know which signals are used, we can see if they are also used in other organisms and can also modify them to influence or mimic the effects of gut bacteria in diseases.”

    Petreanu, the principal investigator of the Cortical Circuits Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, will coordinate a three year project that aims to find out where predictions about the world, based on previous experience, are stored in the brain, and how these learned predictions are combined with incoming sensory stimuli to allow us to make sense of our surroundings.

    “In previous work, we showed that connections linking different areas of the cerebral cortex could be storing visual predictions. Now we intend to test if connections linking areas of the mouse visual cortex do indeed reflect experience-learned predictions and how they are combined with sensory stimuli”, the scientists write in their application. Malfunctions of the brain’s predictive capabilities may underlie schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders. These proposed experiments will provide a framework for understanding their role during disease states.

    “The generous support from La Caixa will allow us to take our research program into new directions”, says Petreanu. “We plan to use the funds to develop novel optical approaches to measure the function and organization of brain circuits. This will allow us to ask novel and exciting questions that would be impossible to address otherwise.”

    Castilho, the principal investigator of the Molecular and Experimental Pathology Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unkown, will collaborate as a comparative and molecular pathologist, in a three year Portugal-Spain La Caixa-funded project coordinated by Arkaitz Carracedo, the principal investigator of the Cancer Cell Signaling and Metabolism Lab at CicBiogune, Bilbao (Spain).

    The overall project’s title is “Eradicating prostate cancer metastasis before clinical manifestation”. It aims to provide urologists with molecular markers which, based on primary tumor biopsies or positron emission tomography imaging, can serve as clinical criteria, following radiotherapy or surgery, to establish the chemotherapeutic regime most likely to be efficient in preventing metastasis in high-risk patients.

    “[Our lab] will generate a protein-based signature for implementation in the clinical practice to identify
    high-risk metastatogenic tumors at diagnosis”, says Castillo. They will also investigate the effectiveness of different therapeutic approaches in mouse models.

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