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    For a bolder science

    November, 29th 2023

    Pioneer Science initiative promotes advanced training for Brazilian researchers and the development of research in promising but still underexplored areas in Brazil

    In May 2022, a few weeks after defending his doctoral thesis at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro, molecular biologist Thyago Leal received a message from his former advisor, biologist Milton Ozório Moraes, about a postdoctoral internship opportunity abroad. “I had no intention of leaving Brazil, but I changed my mind when I learned that I would have the chance to work with the American biochemist Jennifer Doudna,” says Leal, referring to one of the most well known figures behind the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique. In 2012, alongside French geneticist Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna demonstrated that the Cas9 enzyme could be guided by a single strand of synthetic RNA to edit cells’ DNA. In 2020, they shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

    Doudna currently leads the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), linked to the University of California at Berkeley, in the United States, where she works as a researcher. The IGI has recently forged a partnership with Pioneer Science, a non-profit initiative launched in 2022 with funding from the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) aiming to support advanced training for young Brazilian scientists and foster research in promising yet underexplored areas in Brazil, through scholarships and collaborations with national and international institutions, such as the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, the Stanford University, in the United States, the King’s College London, in the United Kingdom, and the federal universities of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and Minas Gerais (UFMG).

    At least 31 scientists and young researchers, including doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows, have already benefited from the initiative, which aims to invest over R$ 500 million (around US$ 100 million) over the next ten years. One of them is Thyago Leal, who has been at IGI since the beginning of the year carrying out studies on the potential use of the Crispr technique in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. His research is based on the work of Fernanda De Felice, a biochemist at UFRJ, who coordinates one of the research lines supported by Pioneer Science in the field of neurodegenerative diseases.

    The project is in the in vitro testing phase, but the plan is to advance to in vivo studies with animal models of Alzheimer’s disease in 2024. The research could pave the way for new forms of treatment for this illness, for which there is currently no effective medication. For Leal, it has also been an opportunity to learn a new and still underutilized technique in developing countries. “This kind of advanced training is important because it connects Brazil with new technologies and cutting-edge knowledge,” says the molecular biologist, who is expected to stay in the United States until early 2025.

    Another Brazilian researcher at IGI is the physician Bruno Solano, who is studying ways to use Crispr in the treatment of sickle cell anemia, a disease caused by a genetic mutation that leads to the deformation of red blood cells. The goal is to develop more accessible and cost-effective alternatives, as current Crispr treatments for sickle cell anemia can reach up to US$2 million per patient.

    The expectation is that Leal and Solano, as well as other scholars supported by Pioneer Science, return to Brazil, establish themselves as researchers, and contribute to accelerating the development of innovative science in the country, with the initiative support. “One of our goals is to create competitive conditions for researchers to return to the country and continue their research along with national and international institutions, creating and intensifying new collaboration networks, through which they can produce original and high-impact studies,” says Jorge Moll Neto, one of the Pioneer Science developers.

    Some will have the opportunity to be part of the laboratories that Pioneer Science is setting up in partnership with IDOR. It should allow them to develop their projects with ease and establish scientific agendas based on cutting-edge knowledge, while looking for new sources of funding for their research and solidify their careers.

    In addition to funding research in underexplored areas that could lead to significant advancements, Pioneer Science also aims to support studies in conventional fields with the goal of expanding understanding of the biological world and health issues affecting humanity.

    At the Weizmann Institute of Science, physical educator Paulo Cesar Rocha dos Santos is studying how the communication between the brain and muscles controls walk in individuals with Parkinson, a disease characterized by the progressive death of neurons responsible for the production of an important chemical substance, the neurotransmitter dopamine.

    “We are using virtual reality environments to understand how the brain controls the movements of patients with the disease,” says the researcher, who is conducting his postdoctoral research in partnership with the Center of Advanced Technologies in Rehabilitation at the Sheba Medical Center, in Tel Aviv. “The expectation is that the research will pave the way for us to use this technology in the therapy and rehabilitation of these individuals, slowing the progression of the disease and improving their motor symptoms.”

    He says that Pioneer Science has been crucial in this regard, expanding our funding perspectives. “I hope that similar initiatives will emerge in Brazil in the coming years,” he concludes,” he points out.

    Pioneer Science also aims to attract foreign researchers to join excellent research groups in Brazilian institutions, conduct impactful studies, establish new fields of investigation, and contribute to the training of new researchers, thereby enhancing the local critical mass — the arrival of foreign researchers is often appreciated by Brazilian scientists as it promotes the exchange of knowledge and exposure to new research perspectives.

    Biologist Teresa Puig Pijuan is one of the Pioneer Science fellows. In the laboratory of neuroscientists Stevens Rehen and Marília Zaluar Guimarães, both professors at UFRJ and researchers associated with IDOR, she works on the development of cellular models of psychological and physiological tolerance and dependence on opioids. “The goal is to use them to test new therapeutic strategies to treat addiction to these substances,” says Pijuan, who spent six months in the United States, funded by Pioneer Science, enhancing her professional skills at the biotechnology company Promega and the Usona Institute, while studying how psychedelic substances can be useful in this context.

    Private institutions supporting science are still rare in Brazil. One of the few existing examples is the Serrapilheira Institute, which supports research in life and physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics. But Pioneer Science stands out for its interest in research guided by the intellectual curiosity of researchers and with disruptive potential. “Major scientific advancements arise from bold visions that open up entirely new and unexpected areas,” says Moll Neto. “Research guided by curiosity has the power to generate a truly novel type of knowledge, a knowledge capable of surpassing the initial expectations of the scientists, funding agencies, and society as a whole.”

    This contrasts with the planned steps that make up the majority of the solid structure of scientific progress, he says. “It is important to maintain a balanced funding ecosystem, in which projects tailored to generate new products and technologies are considered, as well as those focused on unknown or emerging issues.”

    “It is admirable, and strategically very apt, that IDOR has taken on the creation of an initiative to support more risky projects, as it is this type of science that can truly make a difference in the long term,” emphasizes Hugo Aguilaniu, CEO of the Serrapilheira Institute.

    He says that riskier research in frontier areas or based on researchers’ intellectual curiosity tends to have less chance of success in the short term and, therefore, faces more difficulty in obtaining support from public funding agencies. “Private resources can fill this gap, taking on greater risk and helping Brazil develop a modern, productive, balanced, and diversified scientific funding system, based on projects with varying degrees of risk, similar to countries such as the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom,” he says.


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