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Professor Maria de Sousa passed away

Immunologist Maria de Sousa did not resist COVID-19 and passed earlier this Tuesday, April 14th, after a week in ICU at Hospital de São José, Lisboa.

An Emeritus Professor of the University of Porto and of Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas Abel Salazar (ICBAS), and an i3S Honorary Researcher, Maria de Sousa was a pioneer in science and, in particular, in the field of Immunology. She was one of the first internationally acclaimed Portuguese scientists, whose scientific discoveries of the immune system made her name and ushered a new school of thought in immunology in Portugal. Many of her former students, of disciples, are all around the world in the research frontlines against this virus. It could not be a better homage to an immunologist.

“Prof Maria de Sousa was an outstanding woman, a great scientist, with a legacy of excellence and rigor throughout a successful career”, Claudio Sunkel, President of the Board, declares. “For me personally Maria de Sousa has always been a source of inspiration and friendship all through my career in Portugal. I met Maria when I first arrived in the country and I was struck by her intelligence, bluntness, loyalty, and dedication to the cause of science.”, Sunkel adds.

Maria de Sousa was born in Lisboa, in 1939, and earned her medical degree in 1963, but she quickly decided to leave our country to pursue her academic and scientific career. At Glasgow University (Scotland) she was an Assistant Professor and that is also where she completed her doctorate degree in Immunology. She then moved on to New York, to Cornell Medical College, where she was an Associate Professor at the School of Postgraduate Studies; at the same time, she was an associate member and head of the Cell Ecology Lab at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also in New York.

It was around this time that Maria de Sousa got international acknowledgment for penning several seminal scientific papers, essential for the determination of the structural functions of the immune system’s organs, particularly the paper settling the discovery of the thymus-dependent area (1966), now widely known as T area. Furthermore, in 1971, Maria de Sousa, found and described a phenomenon she entitled ecotaxis. This process encompasses the capacity of cells of different origins to migrate and to organize among themselves in very specific areas of peripheral lymphoid organs. A later paper (1978) already supposed that the immune system played a role in the protection from iron toxicity, which led to studies focused on the immune system of patients ailing from an iron overload genetic illness, hereditary hemochromatosis.

In 1985, it was this line of research in hereditary hemochromatosis that brought Maria de Sousa back to Portugal, to ICBAS, where she founded the Master’s in Immunology. Now a professor and researcher at the University of Porto, she was also behind the constitution of a new researcher team in the field of hemochromatosis, working at ICBAS, Hospital Geral de Santo António and Instituto de Biologia Celular e Molecular (IBMC), recently established at the time.

Over a decade passed when, in 1996, she spearheaded the creation of a Graduate Program in Basic and Applied Biology (GABBA), a pioneering program in Portugal, which resulted from a collaboration between ICBAS, the Faculty of Sciences (FCUP), the Medical School (FMUP), IBMC, and Instituto de Patologia e Imunologia Molecular (IPATIMUP) of the University of Porto.

In 2016, the President of the Portuguese Republic granted her the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint James of the Sword, one of the highest distinctions of this insignia intended to award literary, scientific merit, but Maria de Sousa won many other national and international distinctions. Among the most notable are the Bial Merit Award in Medical Sciences (1994); the Stimulus to Excellence, awarded by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education (2004); the Universidade de Coimbra Award (2011), the Universidade de Lisboa Award (2017) and the Mina Bissel award (2018). Maria de Souse retired in October 2009 with her Last Class at Salão Nobre of the University of Porto where, a year later, she would be named Emeritus Professor of the University of Porto.