Henrique Veiga-Fernandes receives 2020 Pfizer Award
The 64th edition of the Pfizer Awards, the oldest award in the field of biomedical investigation in Portugal, took place yesterday, November 11th. Among the three scientists selected for the award is Henrique Veiga-Fernandes, a principal investigator at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown and co-director of the Foundation’s research programme.
Veiga-Fernandes was one of the winners of the “Fundamental Research Category”, following his groundbreaking work on the interaction between the immune and nervous systems.
In particular, the award highlighted a recent discovery by Veiga-Fernandes and his team, which was published in the scientific journal Nature last year.
In this study, the researchers focused on the relation between the immune system and a brain area that controls the body’s physiology across the day-night cycle, known as the “brain’s clock”.
Linking sleep habits and gut inflammation
People who work night shifts, or frequently change time zones, are more likely to be overweight and suffer from intestinal inflammation. Various efforts have sought to unravel the cause of this phenomenon, trying to relate the physiological processes to the activity of the biological clock.
Veiga-Fernandes’ investigation into this topic has revealed a major player – Type 3 Innate Lymphoid Cells (ILC3). These cells are known as important contributors to intestinal health: they fight infection, control the integrity of the gut epithelium and instruct lipid absorption.
With a series of experiments in mice, Veiga-Fernandes and his team discovered a novel mechanism by which the brain’s clock influences the activity of these cells. When the researchers disrupted the function of the brain’s clock, they found that it resulted in a very specific problem: the molecular tag that directs ILC3 cells to the intestine was missing!
In the absence of the brain’s inputs, ILC3s cells were not expressing the “molecular zip code” that delivers them to the right place at the right time of the day. This resulted in severe inflammation, breaching of the gut barrier, and increased fat accumulation.
“This work allowed us to identify the role of these cells in controlling inflammation in the intestine. It also revealed how the activity of these cells depends on our own biological rhythm. The biological rhythm is associated with conditions as diverse as cancer, obesity and chronic inflammatory diseases. This realisation may be essential for developing new therapeutic approaches ”, says Veiga-Fernandes.
Henrique Veiga-Fernandes. Photo by: Alexandre Azinheira.