International funding for cancer innovation project

NOVA Medical School's Cancer Project Receives International Funding for Technology Development and Validation. With funding from the CaixaImpulse Innovation Call 2023 by the la Caixa Foundation, researcher Guadalupe Cabral will study the applicability of a type of immune system cells, a new subtype of neutrophils, as a marker to predict breast cancer progression and the response to immunotherapy, and demonstrate the role of these cells as a therapeutic target, in a 2 years project.


Bruna Correia, Daniela Grosa, Guadalupe Cabral, Rute Salvador, António Jacinto

Breast Cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality among women worldwide, largely due to metastasis. Immunotherapy, targeting lymphocytes, is an emerging treatment for Metastatic Breast Cancer, although its success is currently limited and therefore it is urgent to find ways to improve patients' response to this treatment.

The multidisciplinary team led by Guadalupe Cabral, , which includes the clinicians Sofia Braga and Telma Martins, from Hospital Prof. Dr. Fernando Fonseca and CUF Descobertas, recently identified a subtype of neutrophils that is abundant in patients with Metastatic Breast Cancer. These neutrophils inhibit the anti-tumor immune system's action and possess exceptional migratory capacity. Based on this discovery, the researchers considered interesting to explore these mechanisms to demonstrate the central role of this neutrophil subtype, both as (i) a biomarker, meaning molecules used to predict the progression of Metastatic Breast Cancer and the response to current lymphocyte-based immunotherapies, as well as (ii) a target to consider including in future immunotherapeutic strategies to maximize treatment effectiveness.

In a superhero metaphor, Guadalupe Cabral explains "let's imagine our body as a city protected by a team of superheroes (immune system cells) to defend us against invaders (cancer cells). One of the superheroes in this defending team is the neutrophil. Recent research has revealed that certain subpopulations within neutrophils betray their commitment as city defenders, aligning themselves with the invaders and helping them spread instead of fighting them. Moreover, these traitorous neutrophils actively undermine the efforts of other superheroes (especially lymphocytes), making it harder for these immune system cells to fulfill their mission. Thus, the increase in traitorous neutrophils is a major concern because, in scenarios like Breast Cancer, these cells can worsen the clinical situation and even hinder the success of reinforcements (immunotherapy), crucial for strengthening the immune system's superhero team. The NeutroTarget project comes into action here as a special task force that aims to meticulously examine these traitorous neutrophils and discover how to exploit these cells to predict the superhero team's performance, especially when it receives reinforcements (immunotherapy). Furthermore, NeutroTarget aims to develop strategies to prevent these cells from reaching the locations where the invaders (cancer cells) have settled and thus prevent them from compromising the defense team's action. In summary, NeutroTarget's ultimate goal is to contribute to making the city's defending team as robust as possible and capable of defeating enemy forces."

In a broad and translational perspective, the research team hopes that, with this project, specific neutrophil-based approaches will provide more therapeutic options for doctors, allowing them to tailor more effective individual treatments for patients, thereby contributing to a more efficient allocation of human and financial resources.

Specific immunosuppressive neutrophils may have an exceptional migratory capacity to tumor/metastatic sites, where they can impair the anti-tumor activity of lymphocytes. Therefore, these cells can exacerbate Metastatic Breast Cancer and compromise the effectiveness of treatments, including immunotherapy. NeutroTarget aims to explore this new subtype of neutrophils as a predictive factor for immunotherapy response and as a potential therapeutic target that can serve as an adjuvant in new immunotherapeutic strategies.

This project demonstrates the commitment of NOVA Medical School's to technology transfer and the researchers' interest in translating the knowledge they are generating. For Guadalupe Cabral, this funding from ”la Caixa” Foundation and BPI in partnership with FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia) holds great significance as it represents the validation of the team's work, their dedication, and innovative approach. Moreover, it is a valuable recognition of the impact and relevance of their work within the international scientific community. The researcher believes that this grant will have a transformative effect both on her research and her career, stating that "this achievement is a powerful motivation for us to venture into less familiar territories of entrepreneurship as a way to accelerate the transition of our discoveries into clinical practice." In addition to the financial boost, this funding will also provide mentoring and training at various stages of project development, from generating proof of concept to preparing for the transfer of resulting assets to the market.

The NeuroTarget project is related to Goal 3 - Good Health and Well-being for All, at all ages. More specifically, by aiming to establish proof of concept for the future development of technologies with the potential to direct Metastatic Breast Cancer patients toward more efficient treatments and minimize the toxicity associated with unnecessary therapeutic agents, it ensures that patients receive the best possible care while avoiding resource wastage.


The CaixaImpulse Innovation programme, by the “la Caixa” Foundation, helps transfer scientific knowledge to society and encourages the creation of new products, services, and companies related to life sciences. It supports innovative biomedical projects, helping them validate their assets and define their valorization and exploitation strategy, bringing them closer to the market. In the 2023 call, "la Caixa" Foundation and BPI granted six CaixaImpulse Innovation fundings in Portugal. The distinguished researchers and projects are as follows:

  • Victoria Leiro, Instituto de Investigação e Inovação em Saúde da Universidade do Porto (i3S) - Desenvolvimento de um agende de contraste para melhorar a precisão de diagnóstico AVC;
  • Pedro Soares-Castro, Instituto de Medicina Molecular João Lobo Antunes (iMM)  - Nanorrevestimentos com propriedades antimicrobianas para prevenir as infeções das próteses articulares;
  • Ana Pina, Univerdidade NOVA de Lisboa; Ana Baptista, Centro de Investigação de Materiais (CENIMAT), FCT-NOVA; Leonor Morgado, UCIBIO – Unidade de Ciências Biomoleculares Aplicadas,  Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia; Felipe Conzuelo, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB NOVA); Erin Tranfield, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência: Baterias biológicas à base de colagénio como fonte de energia para dispositivos eletrónicos cutâneos
  • Mónica Serrano, ITQB NOVA: Desenvolvimento de uma alternativa mais barata, rápida e versátil do que a PCR para a deteção de agentes patogénicos;
  • Luisa Lopes, iMM: Nova tecnologia que utiliza “luminopsinas” para tratar os sintomas motores associados à doença de Parkinson.

Find out more about all the projects on the "la Caixa" Foundation website | Caixa Research.

Maria de Guadalupe Gonçalves Cabral
Professora Auxiliar Convidada
Sofia Braga
Clinical Fellow
Bruna Correia
PhD Student
Daniela Grosa
MSc Student
Rute Salvador
PhD Student
António Jacinto