"The proposed research aims to contribute to the early diagnosis of diseases and to propose innovative treatment approaches. In other words, to focus on personalised treatment, instead of the usual generalised therapy to serve everyone", stressed the Rector of Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, João Sàágua, who also emphasised that, if achieved, "it will be a feat of great impact on society".
It was with these words that he opened the meeting that took place on 23 October at the NOVA rectory, at the inaugural meeting of NIMSB, the acronym by which the NOVA Institute for Medical Systems Biology is known - a consortium with the Max Delbrück Center (MDC) in Berlin.
To attract the best talent in Portugal and beyond, the NIMSB will be established over the next 6 years and will have a team of around 200 researchers. It will also have close links with hospitals and other healthcare institutions, in a network designed to work with the local ecosystem.
The project will benefit greatly from the experience of the MDC, which runs a centre of this kind - BIMSB - a kind of older brother of NIMSB, which, as the Rector of NOVA concluded, "will be indispensable for the success of our NIMSB".
Holger Gerhardt, deputy scientific director of the MDC, also took the opportunity to celebrate this first moment. "We have a shared vision of what it takes to push the boundaries of precision medicine," he said, recalling that the experience of the scientific community working together during the recent pandemic showed that this was the way forward. "The key to success is collaboration".
The head of the MDC recalled how BIMSB's 15 years of experience opened the door to the possibility of detecting the first signs of a disease and immediately suggesting appropriate treatment. Now, he added, "We believe that NIMSB will very soon become a leading research centre in Europe".
Isabel Rocha, vice-rector of NOVA, who coordinates the research and added value areas, also emphasised that another step is being taken "to make the most of the talent we already have".
In other words, the eight units dedicated to health and life sciences at NOVA are rated very good or excellent by international standards - including more than 500 PhD researchers, with more than 2,500 publications in the last four years and an internationalisation of more than 50%, according to all the databases that make this type of classification.
"We believe we have enough critical mass to take this giant step," she concluded.
"The body as a whole system"
The stage was then taken by Ana Pombo, head of a research group at the MDC, to whom NOVA researcher António Jacinto presented his idea of creating a joint centre of excellence in precision medicine. "MDC's research is already world-class; with this partnership, we can go even further".
António Jacinto, Professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences/NOVA Medical School and affiliated researcher at CEDOC - Centre for the Study of Chronic Diseases, also recognised the added value of the partnership. "The research at NOVA is also of high quality, but it is scattered," he said, adding that with this project it will be possible to make much more of the resources we have. "Soon we will be working at full speed."
With a total funding of €30 million (half of which comes from the Horizon 2020 programme), the project also excites two other inspiring figures in medicine and research in Portugal: the renowned surgeon and retired professor at the Faculty of Medical Sciences/NOVA Medical School, José Fragata, and the Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education, Elvira Fortunato, also known as a world pioneer in paper electronics research.
"The proposal is a medicine that looks at the body as a whole system," praised José Fragata, recalling that he was still vice-rector of NOVA, where he coordinated the NOVA Health strategic platform when he supported the project - which also includes the construction of what he called "the most powerful health research infrastructure in the country".
Minister Elvira Fortunato did not hold back in her praise either: "With ageing and climate change, such a holistic view of health is needed, which proposes to study, discover and transfer this knowledge to society, offering an effective response to its problems".