Trinity researchers secure prestigious ERC Starting Grant awards

Four new projects, which will allow researchers to pursue ground-breaking work at Trinity College Dublin, have each secured funding of €1.5 million via prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants. The successes bring Trinity’s total number of ERC grants awarded under the EU Horizon 2020 funding competition to 24.

The newly funded projects will see researchers develop novel nanotherapeutics, explore influences on the initiation of technological support required long-term to sustain a child’s life, pursue selective therapies, and investigate the genetics of human evolution and disease.

ERC awards support investigator-driven, frontier research across all fields, and are awarded on the basis of scientific excellence. The Starting Grants support talented, early-career researchers with the potential to become research leaders in their respective fields, and are among the most sought-after and competitive in the world.

Dean of Research at Trinity, Professor Linda Doyle, said: “Many congratulations to our four awardees on their success in attaining these very prestigious ERC Starting Grants. These ERC awards are in the physical, health and social sciences and very much reflect the breadth of excellence we have in Trinity. It is important for Trinity and for Ireland to have such wonderful and diverse early-career talent leading the way in research.”

Research Development Manager at Trinity, Doris Alexander, added: “We are delighted that Trinity continues to be a strong member of the ERC family of grantees, leading out nationally in this programme. The ERC promotes and rewards internationally peer-reviewed excellent research, and these awards, which will support highly innovative research projects, are a reflection of this.”

Dr Larisa Florea will join the School of Chemistry and AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre headquartered at Trinity, and establish a laboratory in Trinity after successfully winning funding for Chemlife – a project that will see her develop new bio-inspired microscopic vehicles fabricated from stimuli-responsive materials using advanced 3D fabrication technologies. These soft, smart vehicles will be designed to swim or crawl through fluids to actively recognise, sense, and respond to the external environment. These multifunctional micro-vehicles hold potential as autonomous drug delivery systems within the human body.

Dr Florea said: “The project aims to tackle some of the grand challenges in materials research, by showing that intelligent chemistry, smart design and precise engineering can give enhanced capabilities to soft materials, which have not been achievable to date. This project will enable the creation of soft microstructures, which could navigate, transport cargo, sense and even diagnose. For me, it is extremely captivating to give such functions, which we naturally associate with living things, to inanimate materials.”

Dr Maria Brenner of the School of Nursing & Midwifery secured funding for TechChild – a project that will pioneer research on the influences on the initiation of technology dependence for children with complex care needs, asking the question just because we can, should we? This ground-breaking exploration will involve Paediatric Intensive Care Units in four international sites to better understand technology initiation, with implications for healthcare, bioethics, education, parenting, policy making, and legal practice. Dr Brenner’s Starting Grant is the first one made by the ERC to a nurse in Ireland.

Dr Brenner said: “In awarding this grant the ERC provide me with an exciting opportunity to explore the coexistence of humans with an increasing availability of technological augmentations. This is urgent in a society where this debate predominantly happens in the public domain with limited opportunity for healthcare professionals to offer their perspective. TechChild has the potential to have a significant impact across multiple disciplines on how we conceive access to care across the lifespan.”

Professor Eduardo Ruiz-Hernandez will grow a team in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and AMBER, after securing funding for REACT – a project that aims to dramatically impact the targeted release of diagnostic agents and drugs with nanomedicines that respond to biological cues or changing pathophysiological conditions. This would enable ultrasensitive diagnoses and highly precise therapy selectivity, with significant implications for early in vitro diagnosis of deadly tumours, such as neuroblastoma and glioblastoma.

Professor Ruiz-Hernandez said: “I feel hugely privileged to have secured an ERC Award and to be able to explore how nanomedicines can help us tackle the most challenging diseases. This exceptional funding represents an amazing opportunity to bring my research in smart biomaterials to the next level and connect with other European initiatives to maximise the impact of our ideas on the design of novel and more effective therapies.”

Professor Ruiz-Hernandez’s award was granted from the 2017 ERC Starting Grant awards call, but has just been announced, while the other three were all granted in the 2018 call. In addition to the awards secured by Dr Florea and Dr Brenner, another one went to a leading scientist who will aim to determine how human adaptations occur by using a novel combination of theoretical, computational and biological methods.

For more information on the ERC Starting Grant awards, see: https://erc.europa.eu/news/mini-organs-ultrafast-filming-erc-invests-early-career-researchers

Media Contact:

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685