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Prestigious ERC grants awarded to Lund researchers


Capsules for transporting drugs, knee injuries that are really osteoarthritis, skin cells reprogrammed into nerve cells, variations in our DNA affecting the production of blood cells, and the urban sharing economy as a potential solution to our sustainability challenges. These are the research areas which have been awarded ERC Consolidator Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) in the 2017 round of awards.

The five researchers behind this exciting research are: chemist Ingemar André, medical researchers Martin Englund, Malin Parmar and Björn Nilsson, as well as Oksana Mont who is researching sustainable consumption.

The task of the European Research Council (ERC) is to promote research of the highest quality through extensive and long-term funding. The prestigious ERC Consolidator Grants each amount to EUR 2 million over five years to the five researchers.

Read about the researchers and their projects:

Sealed capsules for transporting drugs into the body

Chemist Ingemar André is awarded ERC funding for a research project on designing sealed capsules at the molecular level. These capsules could be used to transport drugs into the cells of the human body. The capsules will be made up of protein-based nanostructures that imitate nature’s own self-assembling ability. This means that the proteins spontaneously bind to one another in order to build more complex structures.

“The goal is to produce protein structures that can form sealed spherical containers”, says Ingemar André, researcher at the Faculty of Science.

To achieve this, the project first needs to develop methods for both computer modelling and experimental evolution, i.e. the method of mimicking the evolutionary process of nature in a lab environment, at the molecular level. In this case, it involves testing the various mutations of a protein to see which variant appears to have the best properties, and using that variant in the next mutation round. This process is repeated in a number of mutation cycles until the protein most suitable for building the capsules has been obtained.

“The trick is to be able to measure the ‘fitness’ of a protein for the property you want to improve”, says Ingemar André.

What happens when the meniscus degrades in case of osteoarthritis of the knee?

Martin Englund, professor of epidemiology and medical research at the Faculty of Medicine and physician at Skåne University Hospital, is conducting research on osteoarthritis. With the help of the ERC grant, he will study the degradation of meniscus tissue in case of osteoarthritis of the knee. The meniscus plays an important role in the knee joint as it distributes the weight of the body and protects the joint cartilage. The aim of the project is to map which molecules are involved in the disease process and how it affects the meniscus and knee joint over time, with the help of advanced measuring instruments.

“A damaged meniscus was previously considered a knee injury, but we believe it is often a case of osteoarthritis, which has slowly damaged the meniscus. Among other things, we will be looking for signal substances in the joint fluid and in the blood, known as biomarkers, which can be used for diagnosis, monitoring the course of the disease and seeing the effects of treatment”, says Martin Englund.

By combining advanced molecular analyses, such as mass spectrometry (indicating which proteins the tissue consists of) with MRI exams and molecular imaging techniques, the researchers will find out what happens at the early stage of osteoarthritis development. This way, they hope to find clues for new drugs that can slow down or prevent meniscus degradation and thereby osteoarthritis.

Can skin cells reprogrammed into dopamine-producing nerve cells be transplanted into the brain and used to treat Parkinson’s disease?

This is the fundamental question that Malin Parmar, professor of cellular neuroscience at the Faculty of Medicine, is trying to answer in one of her research projects. The ERC Consolidator Grant is the second grant Malin has received from the European Research Council; in 2012 she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant. The research also aims to find out whether such treatment should be personalised – that is, whether to reprogramme the skin cells of the individual patient, or to use skin cells from a matching donor.

“A hereditary component is found in less than one in ten people with Parkinson’s disease – the vast majority of Parkinson’s patients develop the disease spontaneously without really knowing why. Therefore, it is important to find out whether reprogrammed cells from these people develop signs of the disease. If so, it may be better to use matching donors”, says Malin Parmar.

A lot of research remains to be conducted before the treatment can become available to patients, but by the end of the five-year project, Malin Parmar hopes to have developed the method further and completed the preclinical animal studies required before advancing to clinical application.

Mapping how DNA variations affect the production of blood cells

Every day, our body produces hundreds of billions of new blood cells. Our innate genes affect and control the production. Björn Nilsson, senior lecturer and specialist in clinical immunology and transfusion medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant to investigate how genome variation affects blood cell production.

“We are interested in finding out what variations in our DNA sequence affect the production of blood cells. If we can better understand what goes wrong, eventually we may be able to control the regeneration of blood cells, which is important in cases of, for example, blood cancer and deficiency diseases related to the blood and immune system”, says Björn Nilsson, whose research team at the Biomedical Centre (BMC) in Lund will combine genetics, haematology, and mathematics in order to carry out the project.

Urban sharing economy studies in 5 cities on 5 continents

Oksana Mont, professor of sustainable consumption at the International Institute for Industrial and Environmental Economics (IIIEE), has been awarded ERC funding for the research programme Urban Sharing: Sustainability and Institutionalisation Pathways. The programme focuses on the sharing economy in urban environments, sustainability and institutionalisation processes. Urban sharing of assets, space and skills is considered a possible solution to the sustainability challenges that cities face. However, the sustainability potential of the sharing systems, and the institutional processes that promote them, have not been systematically reviewed. The Urban Sharing research programme aims to investigate, test and advance knowledge about design, sustainability and institutionalisation processes in urban sharing organisations (USOs) in five cities on five continents: Amsterdam, Toronto, São Paolo, Seoul and Melbourne. The research integrates studies on sustainable consumption with organisational theory and institutional theory.

“The funding is right on time. We are facing a phenomenon under rapid development in society, but we lack theoretical support and methods to understand the impact of this phenomenon. I am working with a strong research team and all of us are ready and looking forward to making this ‘journey’ to find solutions to the sustainability challenges facing our cities”, says professor Oksana Mont.

Facts ERC Consolidator Grants:

· Calls for applications once a year
· Available to researchers 7–12 years after obtaining their PhD
· The grant amounts to EUR 2 million over 5 years for the researcher in charge and their team
· ERC Consolidator Grants are highly prestigious and difficult to obtain as they are applied for in international competition (applicants from all over the world but with a host institution within the EU)

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