Projects from ICFO, IRB Barcelona and ISGlobal have been selected in the latest round of ERC Advanced Grants. Catalonia has been awarded 3.6% of these grants in the life sciences, surpassing countries like Belgium and the Netherlands.
Three Catalan projects in the healthcare and life sciences have been awarded Advanced Grants in the latest call by the European Research Council (ERC) announced this April. These grants, with up to €2.5 million for 5 years, are geared towards principal investigators with a consolidated career.
The Catalan results make up 3.6% of the 83 European projects selected in the life sciences, from a total of 636 projects submitted in this field. This surpasses countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, with two life sciences projects each.
In Spain as a whole, 18 projects have been selected in all disciplines, 8 of which are Catalan. The three Catalan life sciences projects are the only Spanish representatives in this discipline. A total of 2,167 projects from around Europe were submitted to the call, in all areas of science. Of these, 269 have been awarded grants (8 from Catalonia, 2.97%). The quality of the project is the sole selection criterion for these grants, which is why they are considered a good indicator of the level of scientific excellence in the institution and country where the researcher works.
The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) - Group: Single Molecule Biophotonics
María García-Parajo came to Catalonia through ICREA thanks to a coincidence, after meeting some Catalan researchers at a congress in Italy in 2004 who told her about the initiatives the Catalan government was launching to attract top-notch international researchers. “Even though my husband and I had established positions at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, we were excited about being part of a time when growth, investment and new ideas in Catalonia were at their best,” she highlights. “We could feel the vitality, enthusiasm, vision for the future and commitment of the Catalan system to supporting and boosting the highest level competitive research and that was very attractive to us.”
The research group García-Parajo leads at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) has now been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant of €2.5 million to study the connection between the spatial and temporal organization of molecules in the cell environment and the implications on cell function and response. “It’s a very simple concept that is nevertheless very important in biology: molecules in the cell don’t work independently. They all interact, just like individuals within a society carry out their functions by interacting with other people,” she explains. “Our group is trying to visualize these interactions on a molecular level.” These processes occur in nanometers and less than a thousandth of a second, so the team is developing highly advanced optical microscopy techniques.
“From a technological standpoint, developing new techniques generates patents and collaborations or deals with the technology sector in the field of optical microscopy,” the researcher explains. “However, my interest in the future is focused on understanding the fundamental processes that can have a clear impact on health.” Because understanding how a specific protein works could help create new, more efficient therapies and drugs: “We’re talking about diseases in which a protein malfunction can trigger cell migration in the context of cancer and metastasis, an immune response to a viral or bacterial invasion, autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, etc.,” she explains.
Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) - Group: Stem cells and cancer
Salvador Aznar Benitah, ICREA researcher and head of the Stem cells and cancer lab at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona), will receive €2.5 million for five years to develop the project entitled Dietary Influences on Metastasis: How, When, and Why. The challenge: to understand how cell metastases behave and, above all, why metastasis –the main cause of death among cancer patients– is so sensitive to dietary fat, specifically palmitic acid.
Aznar’s team was awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2012 and had a paper published in Nature in 2016 on the relationship between the initiation of metastasis and fat consumption. Now his team will combine functional in vivo metastasis models with quantitative metabolomics, proteomics and epigenetics, among others, to identify underlying mechanisms of systems, cells and molecules. The grant will allow them to hire doctoral students and postdoc researchers.
"It is an ambitious project that may yield very interesting data on metastasis, which can be applied in various studies. However, I think this type of work should also receive support from private foundations, public bodies and philanthropic activities in Spain,” says the researcher.
ISGlobal - Childhood and Environment Programme
Childhood and Environment Program coordinator at ISGlobal and professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at Pompeu Fabra University, Jordi Sunyer, will receive €2.5 million for the project entitled Pre-natal exposure to urban AIR pollution and pre- and post-Natal Brain development (AIR-NB). This study will follow 900 pregnant women and their newly born children. This research continues in the same line as BREATHE, a project that has analyzed the impact of pollution on cognitive development in 4,000 children at 40 schools in Barcelona, and which won Jordi Sunyer another ERC grant in 2010.
The prenatal period “is a time when brain structures are forming and growing, and the effect of in utero exposure to environmental factors could cause permanent brain damage, especially in terms of myelination of the brain, and cognitive impairment at a later stage,” highlights Sunyer. So, the researcher hopes the results of the study help “push for the implementation of policies that truly protect the health of urban children.”