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Leveraging the unique organismic approach to health and disease of the Champalimaud Foundation through the inception of a quantitative biomedicine research programme focused on cancer

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - QuantOCancer (Leveraging the unique organismic approach to health and disease of the Champalimaud Foundation through the inception of a quantitative biomedicine research programme focused on cancer)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-09-30

QuantOCancer will cement the reputation of the Champalimaud Foundation (CF) as a world-leading fundamental and translational research centre where scientific discoveries illuminate healthy-living systems and major ageing-related pathologies with significant social and economic burden: brain disorders and cancer.

The primary pillar of QuantOCancer - attracting and retaining an outstanding researcher and research manager (the “ERA Chair”) to incept a quantitative biomedicine research programme focused on cancer - will bridge and transform the three main research operations at CCU (Neurosciences, Physiology and Cancer and Experimental Clinical Research) and root an effective bridge between research excellence and clinical practice.

The second pillar of QuantOCancer will fully unlock the potential of the institute, the Lisbon region and Portugal through the implementation of an additional set of measures, geared towards:
-Capacity building (expansion of the research programme, advanced training opportunities)
-Institutional development and structural change (further exploration of the installed research and technology capacity, HR strategy)
-Intersectoral and international partnership activities, bolstering a Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) culture.

Where possible, activities supported through QuantOCancer will be open to external stakeholders, amplifying efforts towards a truly open and international Research and Innovation ecosystem, beyond academia.
The ERA Chair - Adriana Sánchez-Danés - remains in position. During this period, her research - combining genetic, modelling, imaging and quantitative systems to understand the mechanisms involved in tumor progression, resistance and relapse – was awarded 250K EUR of competitive funding from the primary national public funding body (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, FCT) and the Maratona da Saúde Prize for Cancer Research (public/private, 20K EUR) demonstrating a keen reception of her work by national scientific structures. She recruited an experienced research team of postdocs, technicians and graduate students (Doctoral and Masters), training junior scientists and overcoming the major potential risks associated with this action. Her research programme has been showcased by major media outlets (including primetime national TV channel RTP 1).

Further expansion of the Physiology and Cancer programme was achieved through the launch of two calls for Group Leaders and significant allocation of resources, increasing the number of Group Leaders to 6 (up from 4 in 2018, prior to project initiation, and now with gender parity). An innovative MD-PhD sandwich programme to train forward-thinking physician-scientists was designed in collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of the Algarve and submitted to the national body for formal accreditation (A3ES). A postdoctoral programme is under development with a view to part-fund through a COFUND-FP application.

The implementation of structural changes is underway, with investment in new RI networks including CorEuStem newly funded COST network, expert personnel and installation of new technologies (RNAscope; Multiphoton and Confocal Microscopy). Drawing on international best practices, “HR Excellence in Research” status was successfully awarded in 2020, making CF the third of only six institutes awarded nationally to date. The action plan, including steps towards improving biosafety, recruitment and mentorship, is now in the implementation phase.

A highlight of this period is the continuation of a strong Responsible Research and Innovation programme, in particular the science education pilot Ciência di Noz Manera (Science Our Way), bringing researchers closer to underserved high school students and on which an international consortium MSCA-Citizens application was based. Several workshops were organised in collaboration with RIs (CONGENTO, Biodata.pt) European reference laboratory ECVAM, of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), international publisher EMBO Journal and independent experts, with corporate sponsors (including Fisher Scientific) attracted. The timely workshop “Justifying your Research Design: Sex and Gender Dimensions” highlighted key considerations in research design for Horizon Europe and beyond.

Regarding project management, KPIs and IAMs have been monitored and responsibilities shifted where required. A further 6 deliverables were submitted and 2 milestones achieved. The project Scientific Advisory Board and Independent Ethics Advisor have been consulted to monitor progress and ethics through the project’s duration, respectively.
Increased research excellence; competitiveness for international research funding, attractiveness of Champalimaud Foundation, the Lisbon region and Portugal: The recruited team has already significantly increased visibility and research capacity. Sustainability measures are being implemented, including the appointment of the ERA Chair holder beyond the project terminus and training of the next generation of fundamental-clinical researchers equipped to face societal challenges. Competitive advantage for research funding and innovation potential will be increased via developed strategy (the ERA Chair has already attracted 550K+ external competitive funding, as PI or co-PI). Complementary structural changes will ensure implementation of ERA priorities: an open labour market for researchers (building on the internal four-fold increase in MSCA participation, to date), gender equality and open access.

Impacts through added value to existing regional, national and international Initiatives: QuantOCancer collaborates with the regional life sciences hub CoLife, regional and national RIs launched through European Structural Investment (ESI) funds CONGENTO, BioData.pt and PPBI; clinical and translational consortium projects including UM-CURE 2020 (oncology, involvement of patient organisations) and ProCancer-I (imaging advances through AI); CorEuStem: H2020 MSCA Innovative Training Networks (ELBA, CAST, ZENITH), MSCA IFs and WFs (through informal mentorship) and European Research Council (ERC) grants, with synergies between the ERA Chair holder and the researchers involved, plus co-produced events/initiatives and shared resources.

Impacts on health, demographic change, wellbeing challenges and international policy: QuantOCancer remains uniquely positioned to contribute to understanding the fundamental mechanisms behind cancer development in children and adults, directly on the chances of surviving cancer and aligning with the new Horizon Europe Mission Conquering Cancer: Mission Possible. QuantOCancer will effectively translate knowledge into advancements in early diagnosis and treatments options for the benefit of citizens and impact on strategies to further involve patients in the research process. QuantOCancer structure is very much aligned with post-2020 Horizon Europe EU Research and Innovation goals (inclusive and open approach, mobilisation of multiple super-disciplinary actors, overseas cooperation and investment in people). Beyond Europe, QuantOCancer will contribute to global sustainable development goals and targets (e.g. United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development), particularly to goal 3 (ensuring healthy lives and the promotion of wellbeing for all at all ages) and goal 5 (achieving gender equality).