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Edgar Gomes, group leader at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes and professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon was awarded with a Proof of Concept grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop a technology that will mimic neuromuscular disorders and contribute to accelerate the discovery of novel drugs and therapeutic targets. This funding of a sum of 150 000 euros aims at facilitating the application of scientific discoveries in commercial and social innovation.

Most neuromuscular disorders are incurable and the current therapies are in general ineffective, mostly due to the lack of models that mimic the human disorders. Now, the research team at iMM will develop a new device, each containing 96 units of muscle tissue, to test drug candidates in a reliable, quick and inexpensive manner. The multidisciplinary team, in collaboration with INESC-ID Lisboa (Portugal), will engineer a platform specially designed to mimic the characteristics of human muscle.

“The device will be designed carefully to promote muscle development in vitro, mimicking the characteristics of muscle in our bodies. Muscle is a particularly complex tissue. To start with, all the muscle cells are aligned, and attached at their ends by the tendons. These are some of the characteristics that are crucial for muscle function. We will be able to reproduce these features in our device by taking advantage of its topography and composition”, explains Afonso Malheiro, bioengineer and postdoctoral researcher at iMM. “The aim is to find the best conditions for the muscle to function in the lab as close as possible as it would function in the body”, adds Afonso Malheiro.

“Another important aspect of our work is that we will obtain muscle from human pluripotent stem cells, a type of cells that is able to give rise to all other cell types in the body. This is preferable to other systems that use the muscle directly, because it does not require human donors, and it’s more easily scalable”, adds Katharina Hennig, biophysicist responsible for researching the best conditions for muscle development in the device. Each device is the approximate size of a hand, and will contain 96 independent units of muscle, allowing to test a wide range of conditions using a low number of cells.

About the importance of this funding, the coordinator of the project, Edgar Gomes, says: “There is no cure for most neuromuscular disorders and this affects greatly the quality of life of people suffering from these disorders. On the other hand, the drug development process is very long and inefficient since it’s difficult to translate the findings in the laboratory to the clinic. The platform we will create in this project will facilitate drug testing for neuromuscular disorders by making it faster, cost-effective, and, most importantly, more reliable. It’s a great accomplishment to have our work recognized once again by the European Research Council”.

In this call, the ERC Proof of Concept supported 90 projects all around Europe. This funding is open only to awardees from other ERC funding programs.

This work will be developed at iMM (Portugal) in collaboration with “Instituto de Engenharia de Sistemas e Computadores: Investigação e Desenvolvimento em Lisboa” (INESC-ID Lisboa, Portugal).