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Enhancing Research in Ageing at the University of Coimbra

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ERAatUC (Enhancing Research in Ageing at the University of Coimbra)

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2018-06-30

ERA@UC (Enhancing Research in Ageing at the University of Coimbra) is a monobeneficiary project of the University of Coimbra (Faculty of Medicine) that aims to leverage the quality of its fundamental research on ageing to the world-leading standards, thus reducing disparities across Europe, between low-performing (such as Portugal) and high performing EU Member States.
ERA@UC has provided the recruitment of an internationally renowned scientist in the field of “Biology of Ageing”, integrated in the University of Coimbra, and of a research team composed by highly specialised researchers. Together they will develop world-leading research, advanced teaching and foster institutional governance changes towards excellence and sustainability. Based on induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, the research will allow outstanding discoveries in ageing mechanisms and in therapies for age-related diseases.
In Coimbra and “Centro” Region of Portugal, science and technology are major drivers of socioeconomics development and the essential instruments to tackle the societal challenge related with population ageing (> 22% of +65 old people in the “Centro” Region). The Smart Specialization Strategy of “Centro” Region of Portugal states that “Health and Wellbeing” and “Active and Healthy Ageing” are considered regional priorities to tackle.
The University of Coimbra is a founder member of Ageing@Coimbra, a European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing (EIP-AHA) Reference Site, and an EIT Health InnoStars member of the Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) in healthy living and active ageing. This strategic alignment, combined with the excellent resources of the University of Coimbra, in terms of biomedical research, advanced teaching, healthcare and innovation, especially in Ageing, Neuroscience and Vision scientific domains, will continue to play major driving forces to the success and positive outcomes of the ERA@UC project.
Since the beginning of ERA@UC, the project accomplished twelve deliverables, five milestones and progressed significantly on its main objectives.
The current reporting period focused on strengthening, integrating and adding new members to the ERA Chair team; performing the research proposed planned in the research plan; advancing on innovative teaching programmes; disseminating the project; building up institutional and public support; and securing funding for sustainability of the project.
Accordingly, the following activities have been performed:

The team of the ERA Chair project has been successfully constituted and is developing the planned research, under the supervision of the ERA Chair holder. The research program has concentrated on developing the ageing models such as cardiac and vascular cell models derived from induced Pluripotent Stem Cell (iPSCs). The new models have been critical to better understand mechanisms of age-related diseases and the development of advanced synthetic and natural vectors designed to release molecular therapeutics (miRNAs and CRISPR system) with spatio-temporal control. Accordingly, progress had been done in accomplishing most of the research specific aims: (i) Aim 1: engineering aged cardiac tissue (completion: 35%); (ii) Aim 2: therapeutics for vascular ageing (completion: 70%): (iii) Aim 3: therapeutics for the aged heart (completion: 40%); Aim 4: therapeutics for the aged brain (completion: 40%).
The overall research efforts resulted in publishing eleven articles, two of which were with impact factor (IF), higher than 10. Six articles were published in journals with IF higher than 6 (lower than 10). Three articles were published in journals with IF lower than 6. Currently 2 more articles have been submitted (October 2018).
With regards to innovative advanced teaching programs for young researchers at PhD and postdoctoral levels, the ERA Chair team: (i) participated in 17 events including international conferences, and training schools, (ii) organised 12 seminars in the context of ageing and related topics; (iii) was involved in organising educational modules for three PhD programs at University of Coimbra (MIT-Portugal Bioengineering; Ageing and Chronic Diseases; Experimental Biology and Biomedicine), (iv) proposed an educational module for a MSc program.
The ERA Chair project secured high level of competitive funding through: (i) attracting 2.5 million euro; (ii) applying for 7 million euro, and (iii) pending for decision regarding 1.6 million euro funds.
Following the project objective of fostering institutional changes towards a more competitive and sustainable research environment the ERA Chair holder has been nominated as a thematic research coordinator of the Center for Innovative Biomedicine and Biotechnology (CIBB), considered to be the most important in the “Centro” Region of Portugal. The interactions resulted in the involvement of the ERA Chair team in seven collaborative projects with high international visibility.
Additionally, the ERA Chair holder organized advocacy meetings at the board of the Faculty of Medicine and Rectorate of the University of Coimbra to engage the decision makers with the ERA Chair project, and to foster initiatives to support the area of ageing.
The ERA Chair team has also been actively engaged in promoting the project to stakeholders and public. This was assured on the occasion of following activities: (i) performing trainings at the Institute for Education and Citizenship (IEC), (ii) participating in the public events like science festivals (“Noite dos Investigadores”, “Oliveira do Bairro science festival”, “Paisagens Neurológicas”, (iii) publishing didactic materials in regional/national press, and (iv) developed an informative video about cardiovascular ageing publicly available through you tube channel (vi gave lectures to high-school students about ageing.
ERA@UC project aims to reinforce and consolidate the scientific quality and performance of University of Coimbra, by leveraging world-leading fundamental research in biology of ageing using simpler research models, such as the induced Pluripotent Stem Cells used by the ERA Chair Team. The ERA Chair group has been implementing innovative advanced teaching programs to attract motivated and high-quality students, researchers and professors to the field of ageing research. Furthermore, the ERA Chair has been promoting translational research and innovation, with economic or societal added-value, based on the high level fundamental research performed by the intimate partnership with innovators and entrepreneurs, business incubators in the region (IPN and others) and SME’s.
It is expected that the ERA Chair team research will contribute to strongly increase the international visibility of ageing research at the University of Coimbra and to secure significant competitive funds, targeted to infrastructures acquisition and research development that should guarantee the sustainability of this research area, spanning beyond the five years duration of the project. This will be done in close interaction with the society, engaging the public with research by organizing awareness events to the societal challenge of an ageing society and by offering media communication tools to produce press releases broadcasted by newspapers, radio/tv media.