Over the next three years hundreds of researchers throughout the country will be working in a network to unmask complex and crucial questions that are of interest to the general population. Among them is the genetic origin of Brazilians; the trail covered by the first human groups in the sate of Piauí; the impact of violence on mental health; and the manifestations associated with intolerance. New medicines and genetic therapies for the treatment of illnesses, as well as cutting edge technology for new materials, can also be found among the targets of these researchers.
They are integrated into groups of excellence that are made up of a total of 34 research projects selected from 236 proposals that disputed the second edictal of the Millennium Institutes program, created by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) in order to sponsor scientific research in strategic areas. Throughout this period, these groups will be able to count upon R$ 90 million promised by the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in order to finance their infrastructure and the construction of the networks, as well as the research itself.
Among the spontaneously inspired and proposed research projects, the dispute was unyielding. “The committee had a lot of work in project selection, since the number of meritorious proposals was very high”, says Erney Camargo, the CNPq’s president. The result is that, for this tender, twice as many projects than the 17 selected during the program’s first edictal in 2001 were approved. As the total sum for the program was identical in both edictals due to “budgetary limitations”, as Camargo states, the greater rivalry knocked down the average of the resources previously destined towards each project
In spite of the limitations, the resources should provide a strong impulse to daring proposals, such as, for example, the study of Brazilian ancestors, which will be carried out by researchers from six universities throughout the country. The group includes a geneticists team from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), led by Sergio Danilo Pena, which has already identified the origin of the indigenous populations of the Americas – two Siberian races whose lineage is still in existence. With R$ 1.4 million from the CNPq the investigation’s challenge will be widened. It will include an analysis of the genetic variability of the American Indians, non-indigenous populations, both urban and rural, until they arrive at the genetic origin of various pathologies. “We’ve knowledge of illnesses caused by simple genetic factors. But we know little about obesity or tuberculosis, which could be influenced by genetic problems or environmental factors”, says Francisco Salzano, from the Genetics Department of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the project’s coordinator.
A good part of the material concerning these human groups – a theme that professor Salzano has been studying for fifty years – has already been stored. The research, up until now, has had to be concentrated on two uniparental markers: the mitochondrial DNA, on the mother’s side, and the Y chromosome, on the father’s side. These markers have already revealed, for example, that man could have arrived in the Americas some 40,000 years ago – and not 20,000 as the current theory is proposing. “Now we want to study in a detailed manner the non-sexual chromosomes, known as autosomes”, explains Salzano. The CNPq resources will be used to purchase equipment that, according to professor Salzano, “will bring about a qualitative jump in research”.
The CNPq is also going to destine R$ 4.2 million in order to consolidate a network of studies concerning the impact of violence on psychiatric morbidity in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. “The prevalence of mental disorders will be studied, especially that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”, explains Jair de Jesus Mari, from the Psychiatry Department of the Federal University of Sao Paulo (UNIFESP), the coordinator of a team of researchers from eleven Brazilian universities and five universities abroad. The research is going to concentrate on the professionals with the greatest exposure risk, such as paramedics and troops sent on the peace mission to Haiti, along with the victims of domestic violence. Surveys carried out in the town of Embu, in the metropolitan region of Sao Paulo city, between 1999 and 2004, verified a high incidence of aggression against children and adolescents, identifying as the main risk factors problems of mental health with the mother and alcohol abuse on the part of the father, amongst others. “Physical aggression on the part of fathers were strongly associated to metal health problems in their children and adolescents”, says Mari. The result of this work, he underlines, is going to help in the elaboration of a national project for the training of health professionals and in the creation of a network for giving attention to violence victims.
Violence that shows itself in anti-Semitism, in slavery, in the relocation of populations and even in persecutions of a religious character, during colonial times, will be the central theme of another project by the Millennium Institutes: the Museum of Tolerance. The museum will bring together films, books, texts to be produced about each one of these themes. “Let’s place on the network both national and international research results”, says Anita Novinsky, the museum’s president, citing the example of the archive of intolerance studies from the Vargas era and digitalized copies of documents from the Inquisition in Brazil that are an integral part of the Torre do Tombo archive, in Portugal.
The museum is going to release the research carried out within the Tolerance Laboratory, established in 2002, at the Philosophy and Human Sciences Faculty of the University of Sao Paulo (USP). The network will include researchers from five universities, will be able to count upon support from the Communication and Hypermedia Center of the Catholic Pontifical University of Sao Paulo, from the Cinema and Imagery Laboratory of UFMG, from the Public Ministry of Rio Grande do Sul and from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (Clacso). “We want to give new significance to the concept of tolerance and to stimulate debate looking towards new fields of reflections that will allow for the elaboration of compensatory solutions for victimized communities”, says Zilda Márcia Gricoli Iokoi, the laboratory’s scientific director.
The museum will be installed in a 6,000 m2 building in University City, São Paulo, on land leased by USP. It will have a documentation center, a library, a reading room, ten show rooms, an auditorium of 400 seating capacity, a cinema with 200 seats, teaching rooms, a cafe, a shop etc. The CNPq will set aside R$1.4 million for the purchase of equipment, the production of material in hypermedia, among others. The construction, budgeted at R$ 10 million, will be raised through donated resources.
The program will fund projects in the area of biotechnology, among them two of medicines and natural products. The first, coordinated by Luiz Hildelbrando Pereira da Silva, from the Research into Tropical Medicine Center, will investigate the use of biodiversity in the treatment of malaria and tuberculosis, and the second, led by Marcos Vinicius Gomez, from the Biological Sciences Institute of UFMG, will analyze the use of neurotoxins as therapeutic agents. “For some ten years we’ve been studying the neurotoxin of the spider, which is a natural blocker of the calcium canal stimulated in the cases of cerebral ischemia and of pain. These neurotoxins also show action in cardiac arrhythmia”, explains Gomez. The basic research has been concluded. “We’ve had contact from laboratories abroad that are interested in forming a partnership, but we’d prefer to push forward with the project on our own. We want the royalties for Brazil”, he affirmed. The group can count upon R$ 2.9 million from the Millennium Institutes to purchase equipment and to initiate tests with live animals. “We hope to have carried out the first phase of tests on the drug within three years.”
Resources from the Millennium Institutes will also help in the construction of the Genetic Therapy Network, formed by 14 research groups headed by Rafael Linden, from the Carlos Chagas Filho Biophysics Institute, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Here one is dealing with an area that has been only slightly developed in the country: different from cellular therapy – that makes use of stem cell transplants for the treatment of illnesses such as muscular dystrophy and that could, quite rapidly, reach the stage of clinical trials –, genetic therapy is fundamentally basic research. “Currently, throughout the world, 1,000 clinical trials are taking place, but none in Brazil”, says Linden. For example, at UFRGS the researchers are investigating therapies for the revascularization of the myocardium, which could, in the future, produce positive responses in the treatment of cardiac diseases. The network’s researchers, located in USP, are studying forms of restoration of the DNA associated with skin cancer; those at the UFRJ, degenerative retinopathy, and those at the National Cancer Institute (Inca) have been developing therapies directed towards leukemia. These are long-term projects, some already in the pre-clinical or clinical trial phase, which should advance significantly with the investment of R$ 3.7 million from the Millennium Institutes program. As well as the basic infrastructure of the research network, these resources are going to finance the implantation of three laboratories for the manufacture of viral vectors – weakened viruses used for transporting strips of genetic material to damaged cells – fundamental for the development of research.
Ten of the thirty four (34) projects approved this year have been counting upon the support of the Millennium Institutes program since 2001, having been approved after the first edictal. The renovation of these contracts, in Camargo’s opinion, also helps to explain the reduction in the average value of the resources that will be passed on to each project. “These are already consolidated networks, in which the sum of the resources could be smaller. In this case the CNPq destined resources for their maintenance and for some advances”, he justifies, remembering that the institutions involved in the program participate with counterbalancing sums.
This is the case of the TB network, formed by 300 researchers from more than a dozen universities and research institutes, which has been investigating the development of a DNA vaccine and new diagnostic tests for tuberculosis, research work that, at its beginning, was able to count upon FAPESP’s financial support. The group is studying 20 diagnostic tests and various vaccines, one of them now ready for clinical trials, according to Celio Lopes da Silva, from the Medical School of USP, in Ribeirão Preto, that project’s coordinator. They have also been testing 2,000 biodiversity extracts, which have resulted in 38 compounds that act positively against the illness. “With the resources from the first tender, we managed to get some products to the clinical trial stages that will now be funded with resources from the second tender”, she adds. In the first contract with the CNPq the network received R$ 6 million. Now it can count upon a further R$ 2.5 million to continue its research.
The Nanosciences Network, established in 2001, and which had basic research as its focus, has redirected its activities and transformed itself into the Nanotechnology Network. It brings together around 80 researchers from the Federal Universities of the States of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and the Fluminense, from the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory, from the MST and a further sixteen institutions. Part of their investigations centers around the development of carbon nanotubes. “We’re dealing with a new type of material with potential applications in gas sensors or measuring glucose levels”, explains Helio Chacham, from the Physics Department of UFMG, the project’s deputy coordinator. Another research line is the study of applications for semiconductor nanowires and nanostructures associated with medicines. “We’re working with a wide range using the experience of the Nanoscience Network and directing it towards products”, explains Chacham. The group requested R$ 6 million from the CNPq in order to finance the project, but obtained only R$ 2.54 million, which will finance the purchase of equipment. “At the end of three years we’ll have a product.”
The 17 first projects have already received almost the total amount of contracted resources and the contracts finish at the end of December. “Of the program’s R$ 90 million, only R$ 1.17 million is still to be released”, says the CNPq president. These projects were the object of “extensive evaluation”, as he says, which demonstrated that the program’s objectives had been plainly reached. “There was a substantial increment in the standards of excellence and productivity for Brazilian science and technology, as well as its more competitive and integrated insertion into the international scenario.”
The first payment for the 34 approved projects of the second edictal should be passed out during this year. “For 2005 and 2006 the resources are assured”, the president stated. In 2005 they totaled R$ 28 million and for 2006 the forecast is a further R$ 34.5 million. There is no forecast for 2007.
Grants for innovation
The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) has created the Productivity in Technological Development and Innovative Extension Grant (DT in the Portuguese acronym). “One is dealing with a version of the Research Productivity Grant (PQ in the Portuguese acronym) in the technological area”, explains the CNPq president Erney Camargo. “In the case of the DT, the productivity will be measured by the technological development, innovation, products and patents.” It will begin with a “pilot scheme” for 200 grant holders, now in the month of November. The grant will last for 36 months with the monthly payment varying in accordance with the level of technology.
The classification criteria will be similar to those for the Research Productivity Grant, but there will not be the demand for scientific production in the area of performance by the grant holder, in which a doctorate degree is necessary, experience in the development of prototypes and in obtaining patents, among other requirements.