The new research lab leader at UCIBIO-NOVA, Hartmut Luecke, is the coordinator of the CryoEM@NOVA project that has been awarded 2.5 M€ by the European Commission, under the European Research Area (ERA) Chairs program of Horizon Europe. The grant will allow the establishment of the first research group in Portugal in the area of Cryo Electron Microscopy (CryoEM) for Structural Biology and Drug Discovery, and over the next five years, to implement and train researchers in CryoEM, an area of enormous impact in biological sciences.
ERA Chairs stand for bringing excellence to institutions, aiming to attract and maintain high-quality human resources under the direction of an outstanding researcher (the 'ERA Chair holder') while at the same time implementing structural changes necessary to achieve excellence on a sustainable basis. The constitution of the new UCIBIO-NOVA research lab team will be led by Hartmut Luecke, Research Coordinator at UCIBIO-NOVA. The CryoEM@NOVA project was developed in close collaboration with Maria João Romão, UCIBIO director and leader of the Macromolecular Crystallography Lab, who coordinates the implementation of the project, together with Eurico Cabrita, leader of the (Bio)molecular Structure and Interactions by NMR Lab and Ana Luísa Carvalho, researcher in the Macromolecular Crystallography Lab. “This funding is very important not only for our research unit (UCIBIO) and the Associate Laboratory i4HB, but also for Portugal, as it will allow the creation of the first specialized research group in CryoEM dedicated to research and training in this cutting-edge technique for Structural Biology. Complemented with our expertise in X-Ray Crystallography and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, it will be an excellent opportunity to train new national and foreign researchers in Structural Biology”, highlights Maria João Romão.
Structural Biology is essential for understanding, at the atomic level, the structure-function relationship in biological systems and essential for the discovery of new drugs, with a transversal impact in multiple areas, from health to the environment. The traditional methods of Structural Biology have been X-Ray Crystallography and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance but, in recent years, the effort devoted to improving the speed and efficiency in the determination of 3D structures of biological macromolecules, has led to an exponential growth in the use of Cryo-Electron Microscopy. CryoEM is a technique for obtaining images of biological samples at very low temperatures (typically -196 ºC) which allows researchers to obtain structural and functional information of large protein complexes in a state close to native, which other structural biology techniques do not allow. CryoEM has been used to determine the high-resolution structures of several viruses, including the SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. This structural information allows scientists to understand the mechanism by which viruses infect cells and is the basis for developing more effective treatments. Other applications include the determination of the structure of protein complexes involved in Alzheimer's disease, cancer or cystic fibrosis, contributing to the understanding of the molecular mechanism of these pathologies and to the identification of possible targets for the development of new drugs. This enormous potential was recognized with the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2017 and has been accompanied by a large growth in the number of CryoEM infrastructures worldwide.
The new research team will constitute the FCT NOVA pole of the CryoEM-PT consortium, of the current National Roadmap for Research Infrastructures of the Foundation for Science and Technology. Integrated in the CryoEM-PT network, the FCT NOVA pole will support the preparation, dispatching and processing of CryoEM data from samples of users of the first Cryo-Electronic Microscope in Portuguese territory, installed at the INL International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory located in Braga, which will have its official launching in February 2023.
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