29 Apr 2020

Champalimaud Investigator receives Award to explore how the immune and nervous systems control lung infection

Henrique Veiga-Fernandes is the first Portuguese investigator selected for a CZI (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) grant. The project, selected for the Single-Cell Analysis of Inflammation grant, comprises a team of three prominent scientists that will join forces to unravel neuro-immune interactions and their potential therapeutic contributions to pulmonary infection and inflammation.

Champalimaud Investigator receives Award to explore how the immune and nervous systems control lung infection

Henrique Veiga-Fernandes is the first Portuguese investigator selected for a CZI (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) grant. The project, selected for the Single-Cell Analysis of Inflammation grant, comprises a team of three prominent scientists that will join forces to unravel neuro-immune interactions and their potential therapeutic contributions to pulmonary infection and inflammation.

These days, we hear a lot about the immune system and how it fights against airways infection, in particular the one caused by SARS-COVID-2. But the immune system is not alone in its fight against infection. In fact, the body’s response to pathogens happens through continuous interaction between the immune and the nervous systems.

“The novel coronavirus has a high capacity to infect neuronal cells, and a deregulated immune response in the lung is a major cause of severe and life-threatening COVID-19”, explains Henrique Veiga-Fernandes, Champalimaud Research co-Director and head of the Immunophysiology lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown. “Decoding how pulmonary neurons instruct immune cells during viral infection will provide valuable knowledge on how these two systems may cooperate in fighting pulmonary infection, including influenza and COVID-19.”

According to Veiga-Fernandes, it is known that the interaction between the immune and nervous systems is crucial for controlling response to viral and bacterial infection, inflammation and preservation of tissue health. However, the language by which these systems communicate is poorly understood.

To shed light on the processes involved, Veiga-Fernandes joined forces with Isaac Chiu and Stephen Liberles of Harvard Medical School. Together, the three plan to attack this complex problem by combining their unique expertise in the fields of immunology and neuroscience.

The Immunophysiology lab
Henrique Veiga-Fernandes (center left) with his team. Photo credit: Alexandre Azinheira.

Over the past decade, the lab of Veiga-Fernandes lab has pioneered groundbreaking work on how the neuro-immune dialogue is established in health and disease. His lab will contribute to the team with state-of-the-art immunology approaches and extensive knowledge of immune processes in the lungs as well as expertise in innovative technology.

The other two team members will provide strong complementary knowledge and skills necessary to tackle this ambitious project. As Veiga-Fernandes explains, “Dr. Chiu is an expert in neuroimmunology, specialising in the interaction between neurons and immune cells in the lungs and skin. Whereas Dr. Liberles’s lab is focused on neuroscience, particularly on how the nervous system is able to sense what happens in internal organs such as the gut.”

The core of the project is based on an approach recently developed in the lab of Veiga-Fernandes called “Kindle Intercellular Signals and Synapses” (KISS) to crack the code of the neuro-immune language in the context of lung infection and inflammation. This “Made in Portugal” technology, which has already attracted attention from the Paul Allen Foundation in the US, will be used to define when, how and where pulmonary neurons and immune cells intimately interact. “For the first time we will be able to visualize the choreography of complex lung infections and how the nervous and immune systems KISS each other to resolve these diseases”, Veiga-Fernandes adds.

The team believes that this project was selected for the CZI Single-Cell Analysis of Inflammation grant because it has potential long-lasting impact on molecular and functional studies of broad cell-cell interactions, and will unlock an entire layer of knowledge of how the neuroimmune crosstalk controls tissue integrity in infection and inflammatory diseases that currently have limited treatment options.

“Knowing more about inflammation at the level of affected cells and tissues will increase our understanding of many diseases and improve our ability to cure, prevent, or manage them,” said CZI Head of Science Cori Bargmann. “We look forward to collaborating with these interdisciplinary teams of researchers studying inflammation.”

About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Founded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across three core Initiative focus areas of Science, Education, and Justice & Opportunity, we’re pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, please visit https://chanzuckerberg.com.