Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia scientist wins new Portuguese award Simbiontes for cancer research

December 15, 2010

The Simbiontes ("Symbionts" in English) Project brought together children, their families, artists and scientists in a first of its kind fundraising project in Portugal. A true symbiosis was established between several groups in society, leading to this award for scientific research.

Miguel Godinho Ferreira, group leader at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, just outside Lisbon, is the first scientist to win the 10,000 euros Simbiontes Award, for his proposal to investigate the cellular changes that cause cancer in adults. Over 80% of cancers appear in adults over 50, making age one of the main risk factors for this disease. Miguel Godinho Ferreira's research promises crucial insights into understanding the causes of cancer, and, potentially, into developing approaches to fight the disease.

Miguel's research interests lie in understanding why the incidence of cancer increases with age. He believes he has a clue as to what may underlie this phenomenon: "Chromosome ends have on them protective structures, made up of DNA, called telomeres. As we age, telomeres become shorter, thus acting like molecular clocks that convey the age of a cell."

Telomeres undergo lifelong wear and tear because the enzyme that builds them is not active in human cells. Indeed, telomerase - as this enzyme is called - is active only in the embryo, and becomes inactive at birth. Miguel and his team are looking for the signals associated to telomerase in young cells, that are absent in old cells. They hope to harness these molecular signals to stop cancer developing in older cells. Says Miguel, "If we could manipulate telomerase so that old cells could be tricked into believing they are younger than they really are, it might just be possible to stop cancer from developing. In this project we will try to prove this hypothesis, using first a model organism (yeast), then extending our findings into human cells, and, potentially, paving the way for new therapies.

Miguel Godinho Ferreira's project was chosen amongst 26 proposals that were submitted to an international panel of cancer research experts. The award marks the endpoint of the first edition of the Simbiontes project, put in place by the Associação Viver a Ciência, in collaboration with the Portuguese Institute of Oncology in Lisbon and the arts school Ar.Co. The aim of the project is to raise funds for research, through the engagement of several groups in society. A series of art workshops were run with children at the Institute of Oncology, based on the book "A Menina do Mar" by Sophia de Mello Breyner. The children made several paintings and drawings, that were auctioned in 2009. Furthermore, an illustrated children's book, titled "Os Amigos da Menina do Mar", by Raquel Gaspar (a biologist) and Ângelo Encarnação (an artist), was published. The funds raised from the auction of the paintings and drawings, the sales of the book and other activities make up the Simbiontes award.

Miguel adds, "It is an honour to receive the Simbiontes award, for it's spirit as the public's contribution to scientific research. The value of the award is a small contribution to the project, since scientific research is very expensive, but it will allow us to be bolder in our research".
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The award ceremony will take place on 16th December, at the Sociedade das Ciências Médicas de Lisboa (Lisbon Medial Sciences Society), with Mercedes Balsemão (wife of former Portuguese prime minister Francisco Balsemão), patron of the Simbiontes project. The ceremony shall be an occasion for the children who took part in the project and their families to meet and informally talk to Miguel Godinho Ferreira.

Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciencia

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