Henrique Veiga-Fernandes, principal investigator of the Immunophysiology Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU), is the first Portuguese (as well as the first scientist working in Portugal) ever to receive an Allen Distinguished Investigator award, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group announced. The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group is a body created by the late Paul Allen (1953-2018), co-founder with Bill Gates of the computer giant Microsoft. Veiga-Fernandes’ selection was motivated by his work on how the immune and nervous systems interact in our body to protect us from infections.
Veiga-Fernandes made pioneering studies which allowed him to identify, together with his team, “units of neuroimmune cells” in various parts of the body, including the gut, lungs, fat and skin. Neurons and immune cells gather in these specialized regions and communicate in order to influence how the organism responds to external threats such as viruses and bacteria.
The award – 1.5 million dollars (around 1.3 million euros) for a three-year project –, will fund the development by the CCU team of two new techniques that will enable them to measure how those cellular interactions and communications occur. One of them will entail the development of special fluorescent markers to see which neurons interact with certain types of immune cells. The other will involve the development of a specific label to follow the fate of certain immune cells and see what happens after these cells interact with neurons. Potentially, these techniques should provide new insights about how neurons directly influence the immune system.
The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a division of the Allen Institute (an independent medical research institution based in Seattle), defines itself as being dedicated to the exploration of the “scientific landscape” in order to identify and fund pioneers whose research “will advance knowledge and make the world better”. The aim of the Allen Distinguished Investigator awards, which are attributed yearly, is to fund research of “exceptional creativity and potential impact”, highlighting ideas and pioneering efforts in frontier fields with potential game-changing impact on biomedicine.
The awardees were selected by Paul Allen and a group of scientific advisors. Since 2010, 69 awards have been attributed. This year, 10 scientists working on nine projects will receive them (in Portugal, the US and Canada).