Over the next 3 years, the Osakidetza Biodonostia Health Research Institute will co-lead a collaborative research project headed by the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Lisbon, focussed on research into the part played by extracellular vesicles as non-invasive biomarkers of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (or NAFLD), and on its development and progression.

One in every three adults in Spain today suffers from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, caused by the excessive accumulation of fat in the liver, which also affects one in every ten children without them being aware of it. A number of risk factors exist which predispose a person to suffer the disease, such as excess weight or obesity, diabetes or high levels of cholesterol or triglycerides. The incidence of this pathology is very high and is expected to rise in coming years due to bad habits among the population. In the Basque Country, it is estimated that non-alcoholic fatty liver disease may affect more than 400,000 people. This chronic disease can progress to cause inflammation, fibrosis, and even cancer of the liver.

A large part of effort made under this project will be directed towards defining the role played by TGR5 bile acid receptors in modulating the content of extracellular vesicles (i.e. microARNS), as well as their role as a signalling mechanism between the adipose tissue and the liver. This may have important diagnostic and therapeutic implications. The project also has the collaboration of the pharmaceutical company, Intercept Pharmaceuticals.

This multidisciplinary research project will be led by Dr. Rui Mota Castro, Researcher at the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Lisbon, and co-led by Dr. Jesus Bañalas, Miguel Servet, Ikerbasque and CIBERehd Researcher, and head of the Liver Diseases Group at the Biodonostia HRI. Other participants are the groups of Dr. María Luz Martinez-Chantar (CICBiogune, Derio) and Dr. Kristina Schoonjans (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland ).

The project will have a budget of €500.000, financed by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia as a result of the collaboration agreement between the La Caixa Foundation in the framework of its Health Research Call 2017. This is the first open call for biomedical research projects set in motion by the body, with highly competitive results thanks to the submission of 785 projects of high scientific quality from Portugal and Spain, and under which a total of 24 projects have been financed.  

The purpose of the call was to promote projects of excellence in the fight against diseases with the greatest impact in the world, such as cardiovascular, neurological, infectious and oncological disorders.

The strong multidisciplinary composition of the team and the solid research backgrounds (in liver disease) of both the leader and the co-leader of the project were very positively valued when granting the financing. The scientific impact of the project is considered to offer very high potential, as is the belief that it could lend a strong boost to the field of metabolic and hepatic disorders. Also highlighted was its potential social impact.