New ERC Starting Grants for pioneering health research at Helmholtz Zentrum München
Helmholtz Zentrum München is awarded four ERC Starting Grants in the latest funding round of the European Research Council (ERC). All shortlisted projects submitted by early career researchers were successful, marking a novel record for the center. The winners aim to promote a healthier society and accelerate the development of personalized medicine solutions in the fields of lung, metabolism, cancer and allergies.
“With this wonderful recognition, the ERC honours our outstanding early-career talents. It also validates the ambitious strategy our research center has developed: All four winning projects develop and employ next generation technologies in order to prevent, treat and cure environmentally triggered diseases”, says Prof. Matthias Tschöp, CEO of Helmholtz Zentrum München. “Digital approaches ranging from deep learning to organs on a chip, reside at the heart of these projects and will accelerate the emergence of personalized medicine in a rapidly changing world.”
ERC Starting Grants aim to support early career researchers in developing their own careers and making the transition from supervised to independent and autonomous research. Applicants of any nationality must have 2-7 years of experience after completing their PhD and show a promising academic track record. Outstanding research projects are funded with a sum of up to 1.5 million euros over a maximum project period of 5 years.
About the winners at Helmholtz Zentrum München and their projects:
Dr. Marie Standl, Epidemiology:
The prevalence of allergic diseases (such as asthma, rhinitis and atopic eczema) has risen dramatically over the past decades, and a cure is not yet available. Marie Standl aims to obtain a deeper understanding of how the interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors lead to the development of allergic diseases. Her goal is to identify what differentiates adults who suffer from allergic diseases from those who do not, and understand the specific mechanisms involved. To this end, Marie Standl and her team make use of two German birth cohort studies (GINIplus and LISA), with data available from birth to young adulthood. This includes a comprehensive physical examination of participants at the age of 25 years. Through this work, Marie Standl aims to identify biomarkers that predict the development and progression of allergic diseases. Ultimately, the project intends to support effective early intervention strategies for people at risk of developing allergic diseases.
Dr. Michael Menden, Computational Biomedicine:
Cancer therapy holds high hopes for personalized medicine. To improve drug responses, treatments are tailored to the genetic profile of the patient’s tumor. This method, however, often fails due to the manifestation of drug resistances in patients. Michael Menden aims to identify molecular changes in cancer that may predict whether a cancer cell will respond to a therapy or not. Michael Menden's group will use statistical and computational methods to analyze high-throughput screens of cancer cells to identify potent drug combinations. In addition, Michael Menden aims to create synergies between different drugs using deep-learning algorithms and thus improve precision medicine in cancer treatment.
Dr. Maria Rohm, Diabetes and cancer:
Almost one third of all people suffering from cancer die of cachexia. Cachexia is marked in particular by the severe loss of adipose and muscle tissue. Until today there is no effective cure. Maria Rohm therefore aims to identify cachexia biomarkers and underlying metabolic pathways to treat the disease at an early stage. To this end, she builds on research results from her group in understanding metabolic dysfunction in cachexia. Current data suggest that tumors trigger cachexia by activating energy costly substrate cycles in the fat cells, which leads to an energy deficit and subsequent systemic metabolic disorder. This also affects the glucose and lipid metabolism. Maria Rohm aims to use cell cultures, cachexia mouse models and patient samples to better understand and target cachectic metabolism and explore lipids as potential disease biomarkers.
Dr. Janna Nawroth, Biological and medical imaging:
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is primarily caused by air pollution or cigarette smoke and is the third most common cause of death worldwide. So far, it is only possible to treat the symptoms in humans whereas the disease itself cannot be cured. Studies suggest that mechanical changes in the lungs caused by COPD, such as reduced airflow, are important active drivers of the disease themselves. Janna Nawroth developed a 3D model of human respiratory diseases, a lung chip, that can mimic COPD characteristics. With this chip, she aims to simulate the mechanical properties of COPD respiratory tissue. Using light microscopy and other analytical methods, her goal is to systematically decipher the role of mechanical factors in the progression of COPD. This interdisciplinary approach could lead to the identification of novel therapeutic targets. Furthermore, it has the potential to facilitate research in other chronic lung diseases such as cancer and fibrosis.
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