Cultivating connections

FAPESP Week symposia inspire São Paulo researchers to establish top-notch international partnerships

FAPESP Week Munich held in 2014: cooperation agreements and new relationships between researchers from São Paulo and Germany

HEITOR SHIMIZUFAPESP Week Munich held in 2014: cooperation agreements and new relationships between researchers from São Paulo and GermanyHEITOR SHIMIZU

With 12 editions held in eight foreign countries since 2011, FAPESP Week symposia seek, among other things, to publicize the international-level research that is being carried out at institutions in São Paulo and establish new connections among scientists in Brazil and abroad.  Researchers who have already taken part in the events say that the exchange of experiences helps plant the seeds for future collaboration.  This happened recently, in fact, at a session on cancer and inflammatory diseases during FAPESP Week California, held on the campuses of the University of California Davis and Berkeley campuses in November 2014.  Silvia Rogatto, a biologist at the Botucatu School of Medicine at São Paulo State University (Unesp), shared the details of her study on molecular oncology with Colombian biochemist Luis Carvajal-Carmona, a professor at the University of California, Davis.  In the 2000s, the two had met during annual meetings on the project known as CHIBCHA (Genetic Study of Common Hereditary Bowel Cancers in Hispania and the Americas), which is an international consortium that investigates the genetic roots of colorectal cancer.  At the time, Carvajal-Carmona was working at Oxford University in the UK and Rogatto represented the A.C.Camargo Cancer Center, which had contributed 1,000 Brazilian samples to the study.  But they ended up losing contact with each other.

At the California symposium, Rogatto spoke to Carmona about cases of testicular, thyroid and breast cancer that each were studying, knowing that Carmona had just published an article in the journal Nature Communications about breast cancer, as well as articles on thyroid cancer.  That was enough to establish collaboration.  “We sequenced the exome [the part of the genome that encodes the genes] and conducted data analysis of Brazilian cases of testicular cancer in twins, and he helped me with the final part of the analyses.  We are writing an article together,” Rogatto says. “The presence of testicular cancer in twins increases the probability of detecting the gene associated with the disease.  The chance to study identical twins provides us a way to increase our knowledge about the genetic origin of this type of cancer,” she adds.

The trip to California also proved useful to Paulo Mazzafera, a professor at the Intitute of Biology of the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and director of the Brazilian Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory (CTBE). At Davis, a researcher who had just completed her doctorate at that institution and had expressed interest in doing an internship at Unicamp sought him out.  Portuguese native Ana Raquel dos Santos Figueiredo recently received a FAPESP-funded fellowship and began work at Mazzafera’s laboratory on suberin, a biopolymer found in plant cell walls.  In the case of sugarcane, suberin is one of the substances responsible for biomass recalcitrance, which makes it difficult to use sugarcane bagasse in producing ethanol.


Mazzafera also took advantage of the trip to California to look up Markus Pauly, who leads a laboratory devoted to the study of plant cell walls at the University of California, Berkeley.  “He had traveled to Australia at the time of the symposium but I was able to contact him via Skype and we’re talking about a possible collaboration,” he says.  Mazzafera sent Pauly’s laboratory four species of sugarcane, two with high levels of sucrose, and two with high fiber but low sucrose.  “Depending on the outcome of the analyses being performed, we may start a partnership.  Pauly’s group is very strong in characterizing the compounds found in the plant cell walls,” the professor explains.

The topics addressed at FAPESP Week are selected according to the affinities and interests of the São Paulo science community and the country hosting the event, notes physicist Marcelo Knobel, a professor at Unicamp and member of the FAPESP Adjunct Panel on Collaboration in Research, who took part in organizing the symposium.  In the case of FAPESP Week Peking, which took 10 Brazilian researchers to the Chinese capital in April 2014, the hosts decided to focus the sessions on topics such as the materials, agrarian, environmental and medical sciences.

FAPESP Week Buenos Aires, which took place in April 2015, offered a more extensive range of topics, however.  They included presentations about advances achieved by São Paulo and Argentine science in such fields as astronomy, functional foods, energy, nanotechnology, quantum information, health and the humanities.  “We took a large delegation of researchers from São Paulo State to Buenos Aires.  It was the largest of the FAPESP Week editions,” Knobel says. To Héctor Luis Saint Pierre, a professor in the School of History, Law and Social Services at Unesp, in Franca, and a specialist in defense and international relations, the Buenos Aires meeting generated an opportunity for valuable networking.  On the final day of the event, the researcher, an Argentine native who has lived in Brazil for the past two decades, reunited with colleagues from several universities including the universities of Buenos Aires, La Plata, Quilmes and Lanús, in addition to the researchers associated with the Argentine National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), co-sponsor of the event. “There were three meetings where researchers got together because they were friends or had an interest in the topic,” says Saint Pierre. “All of them expressed interest in taking part in cooperation networks with Brazil.”  These meetings focused around two topics.  One, led by researchers from the University of Quilmes, involves studying the status of the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and the diplomatic dispute surrounding their sovereignty.  The other, out of Lanús, is analyzing the strategic significance of the South-South cooperation.  “These are foreign policy and defense topics that have to be worked out through international cooperation,” Saint Pierre says.  Some members of the group have already met since then, in Lima, Peru in July 2015 at a conference promoted by the Latin American Association of Political Science (ALACIP).  “I was unable to attend, but we are continuing our conversations virtually and plan to submit projects together,” says Saint Pierre.

The symposia are often an opportunity for FAPESP and foreign institutions to sign new cooperation agreements.  At FAPESP Week London, held in the British capital in 2013, memoranda of understanding were signed that established cooperation among researchers from São Paulo and the Imperial College London.  There were also agreements signed with Cambridge and Manchester Universities, in addition to the partnerships already in place with the seven Research Councils UK (RCUK), the British  Council and 13 British universities.  Another symposium that inspired cooperation was FAPESP Week Munich, held in October 2014. There, agreements were signed with the Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany, the University of Munster, and Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Germany’s largest organization for applied research.  In 2015, an agreement was signed with the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU). According to Sister Melo-Reiners, executive director of the Bavarian University Center for Latin America (BAYLAT), co-sponsor of the symposium, FAPESP Week Munich has already begun to produce collaborations.  She mentions a project approved in a BAYLAT call for proposals by researchers Thomas Hamacher of the Technical University of Munich, and Gilberto Jannuzzi of Unicamp, that involves supplying energy to remote regions of Brazil.  Hamacher and Jannuzzi took part in a symposium session that discussed sources of renewable and sustainable energy. “We plan to send one of our students to Germany next year to study models of policies for distributing electricity generation and integrating renewable energy into the electrical system,” Jannuzzi adds.

Rekindling partnerships
The organizers of symposia usually invite researchers who have had some sort of collaboration with the host institution to lead sessions on those topics.  There are cases in which the meeting has served to renew relationships.  FAPESP Week North Carolina held in November 2013 in the U.S. cities of Charlotte, Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, marked the resumption of a partnership between the Hospital de Reabilitação de Anomalias Craniofaciais (HRAC) and the Bauru School of Dentistry (FOB), associated with the University of São Paulo (USP), and the Craniofacial Center, associated with the School of Dentistry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill.  “We have worked collaboratively since the 1990s when Professor Donald Warren was the director of the Craniofacial Center, but the partnership lost momentum after he retired,” explains Inge Trindade, a professor at FOB, who took part in FAPESP Week. “We had planned to start it back up, but this event ended up hastening the process.”  In Chapel Hill, Trindade met with fellow Brazilian Luiz Pimenta, who had completed his master’s at FOB and is currently serving as Dental Director of the Craniofacial Center.  An exchange of studies about rehabilitating patients with cleft palates and other craniofacial anomalies grew out of conversations with him and other researchers.  “These clefts are closed surgically when the patient is a baby, but as people grow, deformities and disorders may appear that can impair breathing, speaking and sleeping,” says Trindade.  The new agreement has not yet been signed but the exchange has already been reactivated.   Ivy Trindade-Suedam, a professor at FOB, was invited to serve as adjunct associate professor at the UNC School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill and one of her students, Thiago Freire Lima, recipient of a FAPESP master’s scholarship, did a three-month internship at the Cranofacial Center under the supervision of Luiz Pimenta. Both received training in the use of Mimics software, which creates 3D surface models from computer tomographies of the upper airways. Professor Trindade-Suedam’s thesis is based on studies conducted using the software, which was made available by the center. In 2015, three students from UNC School of Dentistry made a weeklong visit to the Hospital de Reabilitação de Anomalias Craniofaciais (HRAC) at USP and other annual visits are planned.  Soon, HRAC doctoral candidate Letícia Dominguez Campos will spend time doing graduate research at UNC, where she will use computer simulations to study the morphology of the pharynx and its relationship with sleep in patients with maxillo-mandibular deformities.

In the case of researcher Carlos Eduardo Ambrósio, a professor at the USP Faculty of Animal Science and Food Engineering in Pirassununga, taking part in FAPESP Week North Carolina helped jump-start a partnership with Jorge Piedrahita, director of the NC State Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, a relationship that has already resulted in several joint publications of scientific articles.  The two groups have long wished to work together and had submitted a joint project in response to a request for proposals by the University Global Partnership Network (UGPN) of the United States that was approved at the time of the 2013 symposium. “But my participation at FAPESP Week was important for strengthening my contacts and afterwards I was able to use instruments made available under the cooperation agreement signed between the Foundation and the university in 2012,” he says.

The two teams are working with adult animal cell lines in which they induce pluripotency, which is equivalent to the ability that stem cells have to differentiate themselves in any tissue.  “Our focus is to obtain a safe line, without tumor-formation potential, for use in pre-clinical and clinical trials,” explains Ambrósio. To induce pluripotency in fibroblasts of dogs, the researchers are using a Nobel-prize-winning technique (2012). The method consists of inserting certain proteins known as transcription factors—capable of reprogramming the cell genome—into cells obtained from adult skin. Vanessa Cristina de Oliveira, a master’s student who Ambrósio advises, was in North Carolina on a FAPESP-funded scholarship abroad for a research internship to conduct a study that described a new source of stem cells in animal models.  It was published in February 2015 in the Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. Researcher Natália Nardelli Gonçalves was also in the U.S. conducting studies using canine induced pluripotent stem cells for her doctoral degree.  “In this study we produced the first Brazilian line of these cells in dogs,” Ambrósio says.