Three University College Cork (UCC) researchers have been awarded €4.75m in funding from the European Research Council (ERC).
The ERC has awarded its first research grants collectively worth €619m to almost 400 researchers. The three UCC researchers who were awarded ERC funding as part of the round are Dr Maria Rodriguez Aburto of UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, Dr Piotr Kowalski of UCC’s School of Pharmacy and Dr Lijuan Qian of the Department of Music.
The UCC scientists’ work is focused on new discoveries around the next generation of RNA medicines and the relationship between the brain and gut microbiome.
Aburto’s Radiogut project, which received €1.75m, examines the relationship between the brain and the gut and could have ground-breaking implications for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, as well as precision medicine. Her project builds on her research at APC Microbiome Ireland, a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre and UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience.
“We have more microbes than human cells in and on our bodies, most of them inhabiting our gut. I believe that understanding how gut microbes communicate with the developing brain will provide a new lens to view neurodevelopment,” Aburto said.
Kowalski, who was awarded €1.5m for his project, Circle, is developing a circular RNA technology and new delivery methods to tackle unmet medical challenges such as sepsis, which kills 11m every year and is the cause of 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. Kowalski’s research has the potential to advance a whole new class of circular RNA therapeutics.
“As evidenced by the recent success of the mRNA-based vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, RNA-based drugs are a new class of biologics on the path to becoming a major platform in drug development. My ambition with this project is to help reshape the future of RNA therapies which I believe could be circular,” Kowalski commented.
Qian’s project, ECura, was awarded €1.5m. It examines how Indigenous cultures are widely threatened worldwide through cultural imperialism, situations of technological change and political and economic disadvantage. Working with remote communities in China, Qian’s research will examine how members of these communities can overcome the challenges they face by adopting new digital media technologies to sustain their languages, traditional songs, music and dances.
Commenting on the funding, Qian said that it would “provide a testing ground for a new model that could have widespread application in minority cultures worldwide.”
The President of UCC, Prof John O’Halloran welcomed the funding: “It is excellent news for the research in an Irish university to gain such European recognition and strongly support and I congratulate these researchers. Talent such as these researchers will help secure our future through blue skies research and discovery.”
The ERC’s total budget from 2021 to 2027 is €16bn. Last November, Maria Leptin was appointed president of the body, which was set up in 2007.
Speaking about the funding announcement, Leptin said that it was important for Europe to remain a “scientific powerhouse.”
The grants will go to 397 early-career researchers as part of the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon Europe. The new programme is a successor to Horizon 2020. Its budget is €95.5bn, and it was set up to promote innovation, sustainability and the European research talent pool.
Grants will be worth, on average, around €1.5m per researcher. The selected proposals cover a wide range of disciplines, from the medical applications of AI, to the science of controlling matter by using light, to designing a legal regime for fair influencer marketing.
Female researchers won around 43pc of grants, an increase from 37pc in 2020 and the highest share to date.
The laureates of this grant competition proposed to carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 22 EU and associated countries. Thirteen researchers who were previously based in the US will move to Europe on receipt of their funding. The call for proposals under this round attracted over 4,000 proposals, which were reviewed by panels of experienced researchers from around the world.
The grants will create more than 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff at the host institutions.
Leptin said that the investment in “young talent” in Europe and their “most innovative ideas” was vital for the region’s future, “not least with the ever-growing competition globally.”
“We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow. So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams,” she added.
Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth said the “long-awaited” first round of grants would see the ERC remain “a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme.”
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