Eduardo Moreno - Principal Investigator at Champalimaud Foundation
Eduardo Moreno is our latest Principal Investigator in Champalimaud Research. In this interview, he explains his work and introduces us to the world of selfish cells, Flower molecules and cellular gossip! Welcome, Eduardo.
Eduardo is originally from Madrid, where he studied molecular biology and earned his PhD in homeotic genes. Since then, he has worked in Madrid, Zurich and Bern, where his work has always been on the cutting-edge of scientific research.
How are you enjoying your first days at the Champalimaud Foundation?
I am very impressed by the Foundation, I have to say. I have worked in institutes all over Europe, and I think the quality of the support that you get from the Foundation, and the building and the setting - it is probably the best institute I have ever been in.
These first few weeks have been hectic – we just had our third child in August, [Eduardo’s wife, Christa Rhiner, will also be joining the Champalimaud Foundation after her maternity leave to be a Junior Group Leader], so moving to a new house, in a new country, with three kids is keeping us busy!
What differentiates CF from other institutions specifically?
To be honest, I am not sure to what extent the Champalimaud foundation is aware of how special this place is in Europe, in terms of environment and support. In the rest of Europe, there are very few places that compete [with the Champalimaud Foundation], in my opinion.
I also really enjoy the interaction with the P.I.’s [Principal Investigators], who are mostly young people. These people really want to do research and they know that the best days of their scientific careers are ahead of them. It is this spirit of discovery that I enjoy very much.
Of course, it’s such a beautiful place, and I fell in love with it when I came. As a sailor, when they told me that this was where the boats used to set sail for Africa and India in the old days, I thought that was destiny!
What exactly is your field and what motivates your research?
You may know that all of our bodies are composed of cells, and there are a huge number of cells in a single body – there are more cells in a single human body than there are galaxies in the universe, or stars in our galaxy. But when you think about yourself, you don’t see a trillion different parts, right? You feel like a complete individual. So, that’s my main question: how are these cells constantly interacting and exchanging information in a society with so many members, but they are so well-integrated that, in the end, each cell becomes a single ‘unit’? We cannot even do this as humans: with much smaller numbers, we have many social problems – so how do cells solve these social problems, and how do they communicate and interact? That’s the main motivation of my research.
This basic question has many implications for other fields. For example, how the cells keep their cooperation over time during the ageing process, how memories are formed, or cancer which is essentially a cell, as I see it, that disrupts the social norms and becomes a selfish cell that abuses the resources of the organism for their own benefit.
This is quite unusual vocabulary to use about cells, isn’t it? To use words like ‘selfish’ and social norms.’ Is this a deliberate change in how we should view cellular activity?
It’s something new that we are bringing to the problem: that we can conceptually hold this idea that cells represent a perfect society and that disease is often a problem of communication between cells. Of course they don’t communicate with sounds or visual gestures, but they communicate with molecular, chemical and mechanical cues. They tell each other information, and they listen to each other, and they ‘gossip’ because they have to know as much as they possibly can about their neighbours.
What are you working on right now?
We are focusing at the moment on one type of cellular interaction, which we call the ‘fitness’ of cells or the ‘health status’ of cells. This concerns, for example, ageing - when the cells get damaged by things like the sun, or random errors, or smoking. What we found, which was very surprising, was that there is a group of molecules called the ‘flower’ molecules that exist on the plasma membrane of the cell and they receive and transmit information about the cell. One set of flower molecules will transmit messages saying: “I’m very healthy and fit and young!” and another set may tell its neighbor “look, I’m getting old, I’m making errors, I have problems” - Think of it as how we see somebody with grey hair or wrinkles and immediately understand that they are older people. The flower molecules use the information to help select the best cells and decide which cells to repair or eliminate. This is an anti-ageing issue, but it also helps to reduce developmental errors. Cancer cells, to use this example, convince their neighbouring cells that they are super-fit and that all of the other surrounding cells should be eliminated and this is one of the ways the cancer cells destroy and invade tissue. But we know very little about this right now. We don’t know how they compare the values of the cells around them. And we don’t know how they detect the differences between each other. These two questions are what keep me up at night!! But we are lucky to be at the beginning of something. A friend of mine told me that the “pioneers get all the arrows” but I enjoy being on the front-line. That is the philosophy of this place, right? – Into the Unknown!