ERC grant success for Crick group leaders

Adam Sateriale (top left), Leanne Li (top right), Louise Walport (bottom left), David Balchin (bottom right).

Adam Sateriale (top left), Leanne Li (top right), Louise Walport (bottom left), David Balchin (bottom right)

Four group leaders at The Francis Crick Institute have been awarded European Research Council grants for projects spanning parasitology, chemical probes to aid drug development, the nervous system’s role in cancer and protein folding. Their work will further our understanding of biology and help find new treatments for disease. 

Each researcher has received an ERC Starting Grant, with the four grants totalling €6 million and each project will run over a period of five years. Starting Grants are open to researchers who completed their PhD two to seven years earlier, who have a promising scientific track record and an excellent research proposal. 

This round of funding attracted 4,000 proposals, with a total of 397 researchers securing grants worth €619 million. Of these projects, 46 have been awarded to researchers in the UK.

Importance of ERC funding in the UK

Researchers across the Crick and the wider UK rely on funding from the European Union to support their projects and help access new collaborations. Continued access is paramount to secure the UK’s place as a global player on the scientific stage.  

From 2014 to 2020, under Horizon Europe 2020 the European Research Council (ERC) awarded a total of 6,494 grants with 1,196 (18%) going to researchers in the UK. For life science grants alone, the UK received €594 million through 301 ERC grants and researchers at the Crick received 23 of these at a total of €50million.

Paul Nurse, director of the Crick says: “Congratulations to all those who have been successful in this round of highly competitive ERC funding, especially those at the Crick. 

“Being able to access ERC grants is incredibly valuable to the UK research sector. It not only provides financial backing to explore important, unanswered questions about health and disease, but also positions the UK as an attractive country for world-class researchers choosing where to work. 

“It is not completely certain whether researchers in the UK will retain access to this route of funding, as negotiations with the EU continue. Yet to maintain the UK’s position on the global science stage, this is imperative.”

Latest ERC funding success at the Crick

How parasites hide in the body

Adam Sateriale, head of the Cryptosporidiosis Laboratory, has received a grant to study the cryptosporidiosis parasite. This parasite is a major global cause of diarrhoea and can be fatal, especially for children in developing countries. 

His lab will study how the parasite behaves after infecting a cell, including how it evades detection from the immune system. In particular, they will focus on the role and function of molecules called effectors, which the parasite releases into their host cell.

Using chemical probes to aid drug development  

Louise Walport, head of the Protein-Protein Interaction Laboratory, will use her grant to develop a new platform to identify peptide-based chemical probes - tools which can be used to control the activity of proteins in a time and context dependent manner.

Combining approaches from chemistry and biology, the platform will enable probe development for a wide range of challenging drug targets. Such probes could provide new insights into the functions and interactions of different therapeutically relevant proteins in cells and help to guide drug development.

Role of the nervous system during cancer

A third grant, received by Leanne Li, head of the Cancer-Neuroscience Laboratory, will be used to study the involvement of the nervous system in cancer progression. While there is growing evidence that the nervous system plays a crucial role in cancer, its exact impact is not understood. 

Using cross-disciplinary methods, including mouse models and contemporary neuroscience methods, her research team will aim to identify the types of and circuits of neurons which are altered during cancer. They hope their work will ultimately lead to breakthroughs in clinical cancer treatment.

Understanding protein folding 

David Balchin, head of the Protein Biogenesis Laboratory, will use his grant to study how proteins fold into unique 3D structures in order to carry out their function.

The project will focus on folding during protein synthesis on the ribosome, and in particular the importance of molecular chaperones, proteins that help other proteins fold. David’s team will identify the routes that different proteins take through the chaperone network and also how the organisation of this network influences the folding process.

The work will help bridge the gap between in vitro and in vivo concepts of protein folding, and contribute to a new understanding of how the cellular environment informs how proteins are created.

Update - July 2022

Eachan Johnson, head of the Crick’s Systems Chemical Biology of Infection and Resistance Laboratory, has received an ERC Starting Grant totalling €1.5 million over a period of five years.

Eachan Johnson

Blocking the evolution of drug resistant bacteria.

Millions of lives are claimed every year by tuberculosis, which is caused by the bacterium M. tuberculosis. Like other pathogenic bacteria, M. tuberculosis is poised to become an even greater threat because it can evolve to become resistant to modern antibiotics. Eachan and his team are aiming to identify the genes that are essential for pathogens to evolve and become drug resistant through metabolic remodelling. They will then look for new antibiotic treatments that target these genes and therefore suppress the evolution of resistance.

“The cycle of discovering new antibiotics and then pathogens becoming resistant to them is unsustainable and a very real threat to human health,” says Eachan. “We need to ground the discovery of new therapies in a detailed understanding of how bacteria and other pathogens evolve, so we stay one step ahead of antimicrobial resistance. This grant will enable my lab to tackle this challenge from across different scientific disciplines including bacteriology, large-scale genomics and chemistry.”

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