Scientists from the University of Coimbra win Pfizer Prize 2023 for research into Parkinson's disease


Sandra Morais Cardoso, a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra (FMUC) and researcher at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology of the University of Coimbra (CNC-UC), and Nuno Empadinhas, a researcher at CNC-UC, will receive the Pfizer 2023 Award for basic research. The distinction is awarded to a study led by the scientists that demonstrated a direct relationship between the intestine and Parkinson's disease.

This research is one of the winners of the 67th edition of the Pfizer Awards, the oldest biomedical research prize awarded in Portugal, which aims to support and encourage biomedical research in the country. This year, the award will distinguish two projects: a clinical research project and a basic research project, worth a total of 60 thousand euros.
Parkinson's disease is a multifactorial illness characterized by a long prodromal phase that often includes gastrointestinal symptoms. A direct correlation has recently been found between alterations in the intestinal microbiome and the onset and progression of the disease. It is believed that chronic dietary exposure to the microbial toxin β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), accumulated in certain foods, may be the cause of the disease called ALS-parkinsonism-dementia complex in specific populations whose diet was rich in these foods.

Through this study, Sandra Morais Cardoso, Nuno Empadinhas and their teams demonstrated that, when ingested chronically, the BMAA toxin alters the intestinal microbiome, triggering a neurodegenerative process compatible with Parkinson's disease. This is particularly worrying given that this toxin is present and accumulates in some foods of marine origin, but is not monitored by public health authorities. On the other hand, it was possible to verify that the toxin directly interferes with mitochondria, essential cell organelles, evolutionary descendants of ancestral bacteria.

As the scientists explain, "we observed that chronic supplementation of the diet of mice with BMAA reduced the levels of a specific group of intestinal bacteria that regulate immune homeostasis specifically in the ileum mucosa, leading to increased intestinal inflammation, loss of intestinal barrier integrity and aggregation of alpha-synuclein in intestinal tissue." "The loss of the intestinal barrier promoted systemic inflammation and induced blood-brain barrier permeability, where mitochondrial dysfunction and activation of innate immunity induced and potentiated brain inflammation. This succession of events culminated in the loss of dopaminergic neurons in the midbrain and motor dysfunction similar to that seen in Parkinson's patients," the researchers add.

According to the scientists from the University of Coimbra, the results of this work demonstrate that chronic exposure to BMAA can trigger a succession of events that recapitulate the evolution of the disease from the gut to the brain. Researchers Ana Raquel Esteves, Mário Muñoz Pinto, Daniela Costa, Emanuel Candeias, Diana Silva, João Magalhães, Ana Raquel Santos, Ildete Ferreira, Susana Alarico and Igor Tiago also took part in this study.

As Paulo Teixeira, Managing Director of Pfizer Portugal, said, "We are thrilled to be celebrating another Pfizer Awards ceremony, aware that the value that the evolution of science and medicine adds to our lives is invaluable. We believe that this edition's award-winning work, like that of previous editions, contributes to improving people's lives, reinforcing that health and science must be united in the search for new therapeutic solutions."
The other Portuguese researcher honored by the Pfizer 2023 Awards is Luís Graça, from the João Lobo Antunes Institute of Molecular Medicine (iMM), who led research that reveals that people vaccinated and infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 have lasting protection against a new infection.

The Pfizer 2023 Awards ceremony took place at Nov 15, starting at 6pm, in the presence of the Minister of Health, Manuel Pizarro, the President of the Lisbon Society of Medical Sciences, Maria do Céu Machado, and the Managing Director of Pfizer Portugal, Paulo Teixeira. The event will be broadcast live on the Pfizer Portugal Facebook page and in the Expresso newspaper here.


About the Pfizer Awards

The Pfizer Research Awards are the result of a partnership between Pfizer and the Sociedade das Ciências Médicas de Lisboa, with the aim of contributing to the promotion of health science research in Portugal. Established in 1956, the Pfizer Awards distinguish the best basic and clinical research work, carried out in whole or in part in Portuguese institutions by Portuguese or foreign researchers. Over the years, the Pfizer Prizes have been awarded to more than 700 researchers and more than 200 works have been recognized. Since their inception, the Pfizer Awards have made a positive mark on research in Portugal and have been an incentive for young researchers, projecting their scientific careers. More information here.

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