The Gulbenkian Institute of Science enjoys a global reach. For more than 60 years it has contributed to research in the area of biology and biomedicine. Amongst many other projects, it has developed a system for the prevention of flu epidemics.
Ana Domingos discovered that our fat is controlled by various parts of the body which talk to each other and that communication between the adipose, nervous and immune systems controls weight loss or gain, paving the way for new drugs to help control obesity. Luís Teixeira’s research group discovered that benign bacteria exist which generate immunity to malaria, that fruit flies produce their own probiotics, and that it’s possible to replace dengue or malaria carrying mosquitoes with healthy ones. Meanwhile, in Miguel Ferreira’s laboratory, it was discovered that some organs age more quickly than others, with work now being done to determine whether ageing is communicated between cells and if so, how it could be prevented.
These are just three of the most recent examples of what has been happening for more than 60 years at the Gulbenkian Institute of Science (IGC) in Oeiras (about 30 kilometres outside of Lisbon). The research conducted here is focused purely on biology and biomedicine and it has raised Portugal’s profile within some of the world’s most renowned scientific circles. Mónica Bettencourt Dias, biochemist, cell biologist and IGC director for the last year, explains that there are variables which allow the institute’s success to be measured: the number of policymakers and researchers that it has produced, discoveries published in the foremost scientific journals and the funding that its scientists raise for Portugal.
Through these tree-surrounded buildings, constructed in 1967 next to the Marquês de Pombal Palace, have passed names such as Maria do Rosário Sambo (Angolan Science Minister) and Maria de Jesus Trovoada (Former São Tomé and Príncipe Health Minister), as well as the directors of the Institute of Molecular Medicine, the director of the centre for chronic diseases at the Faculty of Medical Sciences and the director of communication at CERN, in Switzerland. The IGC was also home to the Champalimaud Foundation, the Centre for Chronic Diseases and the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB). “We also incubate institutions”; the Champalimaud Foundation, for example, spent four years in Oeiras while its headquarters were being completed in Algés. In the last 20 years, the IGC has received a total of 88 research groups, of which 44 are now at other research centres, including 28 in Portugal.
Promoting an open-space working environment, with laboratories in large rooms divided by work stations, the IGC encourages communication and exchange between its different groups. “The real benefit of this is the many projects which arise from this interaction. It’s very common to have doctoral students shared by different groups.” Such is the case of the president herself, who has shared students with those who only conduct theoretical work. “I do lab experiments and, sometimes, we need theoretical models to be able to get a better understanding of the research. They’re people who are more from the area of maths or computing.”
The whole world
Success can also be measured by the number of researchers interested in working at the IGC. Last time round “220 applied, 70% of whom were foreign, and 16 people were invited to interview”. It’s not always an easy process, particularly because of the irregularity of state funding in Portugal. “That’s one of the factors which complicates the negotiation stage, because these are people who have received very competitive offers from elsewhere”. This is a situation IGC tries to get around through the patronage of the Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation, which provides around 40% of an annual budget totalling €14.2 million. “Although it’s generous, and we’re lucky that we have the Gulbenkian behind us, it’s a relatively small budget when compared to other foreign institutes. We have to be really creative and, above all, attract lots of external funding”. In the last five years, they’ve managed to achieve more than 120 funding deals, both national and international, totalling €22 million. To this figure can be added the prizes and grants awarded by international organisations ranging from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, as well as the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Molecular Biology Organisation. The latter recently awarded an annual grant of €50 thousand to Claudia Bank, head of the laboratory for evolutionary dynamics. In 2017, Ana Domingos and Luís Teixeira won grants from the ERC totalling over €4 million, while the current director of the IGC has raised around €5 million since she began in 2006.
The quality of the technological facilities, developed in part through this funding, is still used by around 30 other national and international institutions. There are various research facilities and networks here, such as BioData.pt-Rede Portuguesa de Dados Biológicos and Plataforma Portuguesa de BioImagem, in addition to laboratories equipped with cutting-edge technology. These include: a transgenic laboratory (where genetically-modified mice and flies are bred for research); a vivarium for rodents, fish, flies and frogs; a bioinformatics and computational biology unit, as well as an advanced imaging centre which is considered an international benchmark. It was here in 2014 that Gabriel Martins (Advanced Imaging coordinator) filmed a quail embryo still inside the egg with a OPenT microscope he’d put together himself. It’s increasingly common for researchers and the technical-scientific support team to develop their own equipment internally, thereby reducing the levels of investment required. “It’s new to us, but we really want to move into the area of equipment development, or otherwise use equipment that has already been developed elsewhere, but is cheaper.” The aim is to help develop the local facilities of researchers from Portuguese-Speaking African countries who spend time in Oeiras and want to return home. Part of this work will be funded by the Merck Family Foundation, which has awarded the IGC with €350 million to promote the teaching of science in Africa.
Mónica argues that the IGC can do even more for science in Portugal through internationalisation, “building a centre to host more conferences, courses and researchers on sabbaticals”. Currently on sabbatical in Oeiras are two American researchers and a Mexican, with one apiece from Japan and France due to arrive shortly. Growth also means that the knowledge flowing out of its labs finds its way into the market. It’s with this in mind that the IGC is working with ITQB and the Oeiras Municipal Council.
In fact there are already numerous links to the community which bring the institute a more obvious visibility, such as their presence at music festivals, with speed dates between scientists and the member of the public, or Open Day, which reveals what goes on at the campus. The IGC, through their Science and Policy group, is also a partner of the Citizens’ Forum project. A survey system known as Gripenet has also been launched, which is capable of anticipating a flu epidemic. “That’s a project that has been taken up by the National Health System. Just the act of people googling flu symptoms helps to predict an epidemic earlier.”. These are just some of the activities that benefit from their link to the Gulbenkian Foundation.
On the main building, there’s a picture on display depicting the cellular structure of wild flowers by Briton Rob Kesseler, who was resident artist in 2010. He was followed by soprano Camille Van Lunen, who worked here for a year to create new musical projects. “We’re different from most institutions because we’ve got the Gulbenkian Foundation, which invests in several areas, and new projects can come out of that interaction between science and art, science and development, science and education”.
by Hermínia Saraiva /// photo Sandra Ribeiro
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