The competitive grants from the European Research Council (ERC) have been recognizing research of excellence in Europe since 2007. Since then, research projects based in Catalonia have obtained 261 ERC grants, 77 of them in the healthcare and life sciences arena. In terms of number of grants per million inhabitants, Catalonia is ranked second among EU countries. In the last ERC Starting Grants call, 3 projects from the BioRegion of Catalonia were awarded: we’re getting into the lab with their leaders.
The competitive grants from the European Research Council (ERC), an independent European agency, have been recognizing research of excellence in Europe since 2007. These grants go to fund cutting-edge research in any discipline, from humanities and engineering to physics and biomedicine. With just one selection criterion: excellence.
Since the council was created, research projects based in Catalonia have obtained 261 ERC grants, more than half of those granted in Spain. Of these 261 grants to Catalan projects, 77 were in the healthcare and life sciences arena. In terms of number of grants per million inhabitants, Catalonia is ranked second among EU countries and fourth in the European Research Area.
In September, ERC published the results of the 2017 call for ERC Starting Grants, geared towards researchers with 2-7 years of experience after completion of their PhD to develop ideas on the frontiers of current knowledge and set up their own research groups. In a highly competitive call (ERC received 3,085 proposals and roughly 13% will receive funding), Catalonia was awarded 10 of the 22 grants to projects in Spain, the best results since 2012. Of these 10 projects, 3 are in the health and life sciences. Their leaders tell us how they will use these resources.
Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) - Group: Nanoscopy for Nanomedicine
After some years as a postdoc researcher, Lorenzo Albertazzi (Italy, 1983) wanted to take his career another step further and applied for positions at several institutes and universities all over Europe, including some in Barcelona. “To be honest, at that point I wasn’t aware of the structures and ambitions of the Catalan research system,” he admits. “But I was impressed by the vibrant science ecosystem in Barcelona and the Institut for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) made me a very competitive offer that gave me the support I needed to create my own research group,” he remembers.
His group works in the field of nanomedicine. “Specifically, we are working to provide drug-delivery solutions for oncology treatment, developing nanocarriers that can be injected into the body to attack the target tumor and administer the drug locally,” explains Albertazzi. “This will help create more effective treatments without side effects.”
Albertazzi has been awarded an ERC grant of €1.5 million for his NANOSTORM project, which will begin in late 2017 and is expected last 60 months. “We aim to use an innovative microscopy tehcnique, super resolution microscopy, to visualize the carriers during their journey inside the biological world.” he explains. “This will allow us to understand what is going on when injecting the nanocarriers into the body and therefore understand how to design better and improved therapies".
The main goal is to design nanodevices for cancer treatment. "Therefore a medical application is envisioned (e.g. start-up, licensed patent to a pharma company etc etc),” says Abertazzi. In the short term, the group will generate knowledge for the scientific community in the field of nanotechnology. “Basic investigation is the trigger for new and useful technologies,” the scientist reminds us.
Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) - Group: Oocyte Biology & Cellular Dormancy
After doing a postdoc at Harvard, Elvan Boke came to Barcelona in 2016 for an interview at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). “I spoke with scientists working there and realized that I was in a vibrant, cosmopolitan city: a place to do great science,” she remembers.
Boke leads the Oocyte Biology & Cellular Dormancy group at CRG. Her research focuses on oocytes, female germ cells that become eggs and can survive up to 50 years in humans, retaining their ability to give rise to a young organism while other cells age and die. “Our long-term goal is to reveal the mechanisms dormant oocytes use to remain viable,” Boke sums up.
Her research could have an impact in three main fields. Firstly, helping better understand how to clear amyloid plaque that builds up in neurological diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer. Secondly, it will help advance the field of cell biology, contributing knowledge about inactivity mechanisms in organelles. And, finally, it could be key in the field of fertility: “In the long term, we believe our research will contribute significant knowledge on the age-related drop in oocytes and resulting effects on fertility,” says Boke.
IRB Barcelona - Group: Genome Data Science
Fran Supek (Croatia, 1981) came to Catalonia for a postdoc position at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG). He got a Marie Curie grant to work in the laboratory with ICREA professor Ben Lehner, doing bioinformatics analyses on big data from human cancer genomes. “I was very lucky: I learned so much and we made important discoveries that we’ve published in prestigious journals, including Nature, Nature Genetics and twice in Cell,” he remembers. Afterwards he moved to IRB Barcelona, where a few months ago he started his own research group: Genome Data Science.
The group has been awarded an ERC grant of €1.5 million for its "HYPER-INSIGHT" project, which is working to unravel the processes that cause mutations in human cells. “We are interested in mutations that can be observed in tumors and that result from errors in DNA repair processess,” explains Supek. “We plan to examine large numbers of cancer genome sequences and thereby learn about the ways in which DNA repair can fail and what kind of patterns this can this produce in the genome.” The aim: to find out “if there is a possibility to specifically target such tumor cells where DNA repair has failed, thereby potentially opening the door to new types of personalized cancer therapies.”
Founding a start-up isn’t in this scientist’s plans but he believes his research will lead to advances in oncology research. “We hope our research will help to stimulate further investigation into how somatic mutations in human cells result in tumors and how they may be used to treat cancer,” he concludes.