They were the four first edition winners of the InnOValley Proof of Concept Fund. Among the 14 applicants, these four stood out for their projects that include the development of a high-resolution microscope, a fungal treatment, a carotenoid production method and a project for the conversion of maritime residues from the canning industry into cosmetics or pharmaceutical products.
Simão Coelho, Ana Petronilho, Rita Abranches e Elin Moe — these are the names of the winners from the first edition of the InnOValley Proof of Concept Fund (IOV PoC), an initiative created by the City Council of Oeiras, in partnership with the Instituto Gulbenkian da Ciência (IGC) and the António Xavier Institute of Chemical and Biological Technology’s (ITQB Nova), which is designed to finance projects developed by IGC and ITQB investigators.
The first edition received a total of 14 applicants, from which four projects were chosen: the development of a high resolution microscope, led by Simão Pedro Pereira Coelho from IGC; the creation of a new antifungal treatment, where Ana Petronilho, from ITQB, is the lead researcher; a new carotenoid production method which will help improve the human diet, a project headed by Rita Abranches from ITQB; and the development of a project for the conversion of maritime residues from the canning industry into cosmetics or pharmaceutical products, led by Elin Moe from ITQB.
Each one of the winners will receive up to EUR 50,000 in funding to develop a proof-of-concept within the next twelve months, which could then be eventually explored by the industry.
Discover these four winning projects through the winners’ own words, the Faces of Science who developed groundbreaking scientific projects.
What practical advantages would a super-resolution microscope have for researchers and for their daily lives and work?
Simão Coelho: Microscopes are an essential part of research for they facilitate the visualization of reactions and changes in the cells we study. Super-resolution microscopes make it possible for researchers to witness fundamental cell interactions at a nano-scale, including interactions on a molecular level.
What is the purpose of this new antifungal treatment that you are developing?
Ana Petronilho: This work involves the development of a family of pharmaceuticals drugs which combines a caffeine by-product with a particular metal, nickel. Overcoming drug resistance in the treatment of Candida sp, a class of fungi, is one of the main challenges in this area. We aim to change that with these new compounds we are developing.
What are carotenoids and in what ways do they help improve the human diet?
Rita Abranches: The changes in the eating habits of consumers and the pursuit of healthy diets led to increased demand for food supplements and functional foods. Carotenoids are particularly important, high market value chemical compounds. They are produced by photosynthetic organisms and have multiple health and nutritional benefits. They are powerful antioxidants useful for a wide variety of purposes, from animal and human nutrition, to food supplements and additives, or even cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. Besides, carotenoids have anti-inflammatory properties and they can help protect against chronic diseases, like cancer and heart conditions. They can be naturally found in several types of plants, like red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. Adding foods rich in carotenoids to any diet can help improve overall health.
Your project predicts the conversion of maritime residues from the canning industry into cosmetics or pharmaceutical products. How is that possible?
Elin Moe: The industry’s residues from fish and seafood cannery (skin, bone and cartilage) are collagen-rich. Collagen is a substance which is currently being used as much in food supplements as in cosmetic products. The idea is to isolate collagen from fish waste, cut it into small chunks using enzymes I developed in the lab, and to use these products.
Where did the idea for this project come from?
Elin Moe: Nowadays, a big part of the fish waste that is left from the canning industry goes to landfill sites or is converted into fish meal. The idea emerged from the necessity to show that from these residues it is possible to create high value products, products which are noticeably sought after in the market.
Do you think that winning this grant will assist you to further your work in this area?
Simão Coelho: Without a doubt. This grant gives us the opportunity to improve technical aspects and to produce a prototype that will help pave the way for more competitive scientific research in Portugal on the European stage.
So far, what is your assessment of your experience in this research?
Ana Petronilho: So far, we have tried to broaden this family of compounds [pharmaceutical drugs which combine a caffeine by-product with a particular metal, nickel], to try and optimize their activity, and to understand their action mechanism. It’s the biological tests that will permit us to develop the most effective compound possible by letting us learn more about their action mechanism. This part of the work is being conducted by my colleague Catarina Pimentel, whom I’ve been working in partnership with. This interdisciplinarity is absolutely fundamental for the development of new drugs and it’s the financing we’re getting through InnOValley that makes it possible.
What goal do you hope to achieve in this research and how will this grant help you achieve it?
Rita Abranches: At present, natural production is not enough to meet market needs since carotenoid extraction and efficiency still require optimization. The production for animal feed is done through chemical synthesis, frequently using petrochemical industry precursor by-products due to the lack of adequate bioproducts. When it comes to the compound destined for human consumption there is a growing demand for carotenoids from natural sources. Thus, innovative methods which favor natural sources and sustainable production are necessary.
The objective of this project is to establish biological, economical, sustainable platforms for the production of carotenoids using plant cells in culture and resorting to metabolic engineering. These cell cultures grant low production costs, a large-scale production capacity in bioreactors, product consistency, containment and conformity with regulatory requirements. Aside from being groundbreaking and having the potential to create intellectual property, this project will contribute to the promotion of healthy diets in a time of demographic ageing and active lifestyles. The team is made up of biologists and chemists working closely together.
Winning this grant was important because the funds obtained allowed us to conduct applied research, funds which are not always easy to get through the national financing agency. It is also significant for the visibility of the municipality of Oeiras, which encourages the connection between research and enterprises.