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Cambridge researchers awarded European Research Council Consolidator Grants

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The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. This year it has awarded €657m in grants to 321 researchers across Europe.

Consolidator grants are given to excellent scientists, who have 7 to 12 years’ experience after their PhDs, to pursue their most promising ideas.

“ERC Consolidator grants support researchers at a crucial time of their careers, strengthening their independence, reinforcing their teams and helping them establish themselves as leaders in their fields,” said President of the European Research Council Professor Maria Leptin. “And this backing above all gives them a chance to pursue their scientific dreams.”

Cambridge awardees:

Dr Eloy de Lera Acedo, STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow at Cavendish Astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Cosmology of the Department of Physics, has been awarded a grant for REACH_21: Probing the Cosmic Dawn and Epoch of Re-ionization with the REACH experiment.

De Lera Acedo said: “REACH_21 aims to unveil the mysteries of the infant universe. We want to answer the question: how did the cosmos, that evolved from the Big Bang, become the complex and luminous realm of celestial objects we can see from planet Earth today?

“This unknown missing piece in the puzzle of the history of the universe is now closer to being understood thanks to a new experimental approach that attempts to observe extremely faint radio signals emitted nearly 13.5 billion years ago by the most abundant element at that time: Neutral Hydrogen.”

“This is amazing news for the REACH collaboration. We have been designing our experiment for over five years and are currently awaiting the start of scientific observations in South Africa. The ERC grant is going to allow me to use the REACH telescope, analyse its data, and hopefully access a whole new world of information about the early evolution of the cosmos.”

Dr Daniel Hodson, of the Department of Haematology, has been awarded a grant for Unwind-Lymphoma: RNA helicases; switched paralogue dependency as an exploitable vulnerability in aggressive B cell lymphoma.

Hodson said: “This ERC-funded project, Unwind Lymphoma, will explore sex-specific, cancer cell addiction to the DDX3 family of RNA helicases, proteins that unwind secondary structure in mRNA.

“We will develop recent findings from our lab showing that whilst most male Burkitt lymphoma cells have deleted the X-chromosome gene DDX3X, they instead become uniquely addicted to the Y-chromosome paralogue DDX3Y, a related protein that is silenced in most normal cells. By unravelling the molecular basis of this ‘switched paralogue dependency’ we will expose a potential therapeutic Achilles Heel in this devastating form of blood cancer.

“I am thrilled to receive this award, which I hope will take me one step closer to a tenured position in Cambridge or beyond.”

Sohini Kar-Narayan, Professor of Device and Energy Materials of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, has been awarded a grant for BIOTRONICA: Bio-Electronic Integrated Devices for Healthcare Applications.

Kar-Narayan said: “My research focuses on the development and characterisation of novel functional polymers and nanocomposites, and their application in functional devices using microscale additive manufacturing methods. It covers novel energy harvesting nanomaterials to microfluidic biosensors, to materials and devices for next-generation flexible and wearable electronics.

“I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded a Consolidator Grant to develop new tools for remote health monitoring and personalised medicine. These include novel non-invasive ‘point-of-care’ biosensors, which could potentially be self-powered through energy harvested from the body, thus enabling a step change in health monitoring and patient care.”

Dr Elisa Laurenti, University Associate Professor in Stem Cell Medicine and Wellcome Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow of the Wellcome Medical Research Council Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and Department of Haematology, has been awarded a grant for HEXAGEN: Harnessing haematopoietic stem cell EX vivo Adaptation for GENe therapy.

Laurenti said: “Blood stem cell-based gene therapy has the potential to cure an expanding range of debilitating genetic diseases. HEXAGEN seeks to further improve gene therapies and their outcomes by overcoming the loss of stem cell function observed in current clinical protocols. Using cutting edge single cell technologies, we aim to identify how blood stem cells adapt to the invitro environment, dissect how this negatively impacts their function, and design new strategies to improve gene therapy.

“This award gives my team the unique opportunity to be ambitious and complete a full circle from basic stem cell biology to improving gene therapy for patients with many diseases. I am very excited, because unlocking blood stem cell behaviour outside our bodies will also drive many other clinical applications.”

Dr Naomi McGovern, of the Department of Pathology and the Centre for Trophoblast Research, has been awarded a grant for PMDR: Placental macrophages: Their development and role in the placenta.

McGovern said: “My team’s research focus is human placental macrophage biology. We are interested in determining the role of these cells in mediating healthy placental function and in protecting the placenta from infection. By developing our understanding of these cells, we will be able to provide new insight into pregnancy disorders.

“I am delighted that our proposal was selected for an ERC Consolidator Award. It is an acknowledgement of the exciting research my team carries out. The hard work of my team and the additional expertise provided by our supportive collaborators all helped to form the basis for this proposal. The award will provide my group with the time and resources to undertake high-risk research to inform on placental biology. It is now up to us to deliver on this generous investment.”

Professor Robert Phipps, of the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, has been awarded a grant for IonPairEnantRadical: Transforming Enantioselective Radical Chemistry using Ion-Pairing Catalysis.

Phipps said: “Chemical reactions that are driven by radical mechanisms are rapidly growing in importance, but it is an ongoing challenging to control enantioseletivity in those that form stereocentres. This grant will fund an ambitious program which will apply innovative and unexplored ion-pairing strategies to control enantioselectivity in a variety of important radical chemistries for which there are no or limited existing methods for imposing enantiocontrol.

“I am extremely grateful that my proposal was selected for funding in this very competitive call. I am excited about the chemistry that my group will be able to explore over the coming five years with this fantastic opportunity!”

Akshay Rao, Professor of Physics of the Cavendish Laboratory in the Department of Physics, has been awarded a grant for SPICE: Spin-Exchange and Energy Transfer at Hybrid Molecular/Lanthanide Nanoparticle Interfaces to Control Triplet Excitons.

Rao said: “Our project, SPICE, will explore the physics and chemistry of a new class of hybrid materials, organic molecules connected to lanthanide doped nanoparticles.

“Although we are still at an early stage of research, if we succeed it may create transformative applications in areas ranging from optoelectronics, data communication, photocatalysis, optogenetics and 3D bio-printing. Over the long term this kind of blue-sky science is what drives technological innovation helping to drive improved productivity in industry, but also directly tacking major societal challenges such as climate change and health.

“We are delighted that our project has received the support of the European Research Council. This is a great opportunity for us to pursue high-risk high-gain blue-sky science and push the limits of our understanding of these materials and take them towards application. The award also serves as recognition of the excellent science done by our PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, who’s tireless efforts to push the scientific frontier have made possible the breakthroughs that have brought us here.”

Dr Milka Sarris, Assistant Professor of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, was awarded a grant for LongWayFromFlam: The uncharted journeys of inflammatory cells and their functional implications.

Sarris said: “My group studies how cells of the immune system move in the body to generate and resolve inflammatory responses. To study these processes, we use state of the art microscopy techniques and genetic approaches in zebrafish, a small vertebrate model organism.

“I am absolutely thrilled to have won this award at a key stage of my career and to be able to pursue an ambitious new line of fundamental research. It was a long process and I remain very grateful to my university colleagues, the peer reviewers and the evaluation committee for their feedback.”

Eight researchers from the University of Cambridge have won European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grants

From clockwise: Eloy de Lera Acedo, Daniel Hodson, Sohini Kar-Narayan, Elisa Laurenti, Naomi McGovern, Robert Phipps, Akshay Rao and Milka Sarris.

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