Where Ideas Grow

Institute receives two Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowships

Over the next two years, researchers Vijay Pal and Juliana Viegas will combine and develop their research projects at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health of the University of Porto (i3S) within the scope of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowships (MSCA-PF) awarded by the European Union. Funding is around 160,000 euros for each researcher.

These grants are highly competitive (1235 of 7044 submissions were funded in the 2022 call) and aim to support the creative and innovative potential of postdoctoral researchers who present excellent and high-impact research projects and who wish to acquire new skills through advanced training, international, interdisciplinary, and intersectoral mobility. In this 2022/23 edition, the European Commission awarded MSCA-PF funding to 25 proposals from Portuguese institutions, including the project by Vijay Pal. In addition, through the ERA Fellowships programme, 14 projects were awarded to national institutions, including that of Juliana Viegas. 

Entitled “TRAIN - Regulation of tumors through immunity and nanotechnology”, the project led by Vijay Pal, a doctoral researcher of Indian nationality who is currently at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMC) in Strasbourg, France, will be developed in the research group Molecular Biomaterials under the supervision of the group leader Helena Azevedo and with co-supervision of the researcher Maria José Oliveira (leader of the Tumour and Microenvironment Interactions group).

“I got to know the work of Prof. Helena Azevedo during my PhD at the Institute of Nano Science and Technology, Mohali, India and, when I finished, I contacted her to express my interest in working in her laboratory. She told me about the Marie Curie Fellowships and I thought it would be a great opportunity to build my academic career”, explains Vijay Pal. “I chose Prof Helena Azevedo’s laboratory at the i3S due to its specialization in the field of molecular bionanomaterials and the excellence and focus of I3S in basic, applied, and translational research for the development of a better future for society. For me it will be a unique opportunity to benefit from a diverse and dynamic scientific community and will give my CV a huge boost”.

The objective of the TRAIN project is to treat patients with advanced cancer with innovative therapies that are more effective and accessible to a greater number of cancer patients. For this, explains Vijay Pal, “we will use the enzymatic activity existing in the tumor microenvironment and peptide molecules to modulate the metabolism of tumors and promote the effectiveness of immunotherapy, but also to release chemotherapeutic drugs”.

The team will focus on pancreatic adenocarcinoma (PAAD) and develop three-dimensional biomimetic models of PAAD to test different combinations of chemo and immunotherapy. To fulfill this objective, adds the researcher, “we will take a multidisciplinary approach that will use concepts of nanotechnology based on peptides, enzymology, immunology, and oncobiology, together with state-of-the-art methods in the areas of materials science, proteomics and cell biology”.

The TRAIN project is aligned with Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, which aims to reduce the negative impact of cancer on patients, their families and health systems, as well as reduce disparities between countries related to cancer treatment. cancer, while offering opportunities for training and international career development to a young and creative researcher at the intersection of the areas of peptide nanotechnology and cancer immunobiology.

Developing nanoparticle therapies to treat melanoma

The project proposed by Juliana Viegas is called SkinModelOMA and aims to create a multicompartmental model of cutaneous melanoma for the evaluation of nanostructured systems. This model, explains the Brazilian researcher, “will allow the cultivation of human skin together with a 3D melanoma tumor model. We are going to carry out a study of different forms of insertion of the tumor in the cutaneous tissue and conduct studies of viability, growth and enzymatic activity”.

The main objective of the work, adds Juliana Viegas, “is that this model can become an efficient platform for screening nanotherapies, enabling the application of treatments via topical, intratumoral and simulating applications that reach the skin tissue via the dermis”.

The work, which will be developed in the Nanomedicines & Translational Drug Delivery group under the supervision of the researcher Bruno Sarmento “includes gender studies and the model will be developed in different types of skin, from white skin to black skin, and also in different ages of skin, as there is a variation in elasticity”.

With a degree in Pharmacy, Juliana Viegas started out working in the pharmaceutical industry and later completed her Master’s and PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences in the field of nanotechnology at the University of São Paulo, in Brazil. “I have been working with the production and optimization of nanoparticles since 2012 and in 2017 I produced a pharmaceutical patent on Liposomes; My master’s and doctoral projects were based on the development of nanoparticles containing antitumor and siRNAs for the treatment of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer. Later, I deepened my knowledge of skin cancer and other skin diseases and started working with ex vivo tissue culture. Now having my SkinModelOMA project funded with a Marie Curie grant is a great privilege and will allow me to build the foundation of my career as a researcher”.