Imperial College London

Imperial College wins seven European Research Council Advanced Grants

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Awards recognise exceptional research leaders - <em>News Release</em>

For immediate use
Friday 14 November 2008

A prestigious and highly competitive Europe-wide funding round recognising exceptional research leaders has made seven awards to Imperial College London, the highest number given to any UK university.

Imperial's European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants, worth over €13 million (around £10.5m) altogether, will fund important and high quality research across the College.

Recipients of the new awards across the science, engineering and medical faculties of the College will tackle a range of problems, from the development of environmentally friendly solvents for the chemical industry to the advancement of new computer-based systems that can calculate the most effective and safe dose of a drug or anaesthetic for patients.

The Imperial winners are:


More information on the seven successful research projects is available in notes to editors.

Welcoming the College's success, Rector Sir Roy Anderson said:

"The future of Europe depends on innovative research to drive knowledge and improve quality of life. By encouraging researchers to think creatively and take risks, this ERC funding stimulates the growth of really exciting and ground-breaking science.

"I am delighted that Imperial has won a high proportion of grants, reflecting as they do the visionary science that takes place here and the international strength of our staff."

ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to ambitious and pioneering projects headed by researchers with a track record of significant and original achievements. They aim to ensure that research at the frontiers of knowledge is supported with substantial long-term funding.

These seven grants complement the six ERC Starting Independent Research Grants awarded to the College in December 2007.

For further information contact:

Abigail Smith
Imperial College London Press Office
Tel: 020 7594 6701

Notes to editors:

Imperial's ERC Advanced Grant winners are:

Professor Sebastian Johnston, National Heart and Lung Institute

Professor Johnston and his team aim to find new ways to treat asthma attacks by investigating how and why viruses such as rhinoviruses, which are behind most common colds, cause the majority of such attacks. In order to better understand the mechanisms that cause problems in people with asthma, they will explore differences between people who have asthma and those who do not. They will analyse how both groups’ lower airways respond when exposed to rhinovirus infection and see whether people with asthma have deficiencies in, or increased numbers of, particular genes and proteins. They will then explore the precise role of these genes and proteins by investigating mouse models with, for example, a particular gene knocked out. They hope this work will ultimately reveal new areas that can then be targeted with treatment.

Professor Sergei Kazarian, Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology

Professor Sergei Kazarian and his team are developing powerful new chemical analysis techniques with broad applications for improving our understanding of a range of different materials. These include manufactured items such as pharmaceuticals, plastics and biological materials such as human cells and tissue. The aim of the project is to develop a technique that can provide the most comprehensive chemical analysis to date of materials. Researchers also want to improve their understanding about the chemical processes that occur to materials as they are being made, and analyse the chemical reactions that occur to materials when they are mixed together. For example, this technique could provide fresh insights into the processes that enable the transportation of drugs into human cells; or a deeper understanding about the chemical processes that occur to plastics as they are being made. To achieve this, they will use spectroscopic imaging techniques which use infrared rays to analyse the chemical molecules inside materials. The team believes an improved understanding could lead to a range of advancements in the production of more targeted and faster acting pharmaceuticals; or improvements in manufacturing processes to make stronger more durable plastics.

Professor Nicholas Mazarakis, Division of Medicine

Professor Mazarakis and his team aim to develop more focused gene therapies to tackle motor neurone diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy, for which there is currently no effective treatment. In these neurodegenerative diseases a person’s motor neurones, which connect the central nervous system to the muscles, begin to die and the person becomes paralysed. Scientists have already demonstrated that it is possible to protect motor neurones by transferring therapeutic genes to them. This is done by stripping viruses of their harmful genes and using these as vehicles to deliver protective genes. At present such therapies are only able to reach a very small percentage of motor neurones. For the new research, the team aims to design viral vehicles (vectors) that can target motor neurones more specifically and effectively than current approaches, in order to create therapies that can make a sizeable impact on the progression of motor neurone diseases.

Professor Stratos Pistikopoulos, Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology

Professor Pistikopoulos and his team are aiming to create new computer-based systems that can calculate the most effective, safe dose of a drug or anaesthetic for an individual patient by using novel mathematical programming methods that can take account of and control for a mu ltitude of different parameters. These systems would use information about the patient’s makeup and medical history, together with data on how different drugs perform and interact with each other. They would provide fast and reliable methods to help doctors devise the best tailor-made drug regimes for conditions such as cancer and HIV. The new systems would also help anaesthetists to decide on the best dosage of anaesthetic for each patient, prior to an operation. The researchers also want to explore whether a similar system could be used to create a device to help people with diabetes who inject themselves with insulin to manage their condition. This device would read the patient’s blood sugar level and then calculate and deliver the most effective dose of insulin, depending on this readout.

Dr Vincent Savolainen, Departmen t of Life Sciences

Dr Vincent Savolainen and colleagues will investigate the origin of new plant species on two small, remote oceanic islands - one off the coast of Australia, and the other off the coast of Costa Rica. The project will seek to solve the longstanding mystery of how different plant species have evolved on tiny isolated islands where there are very few differences in the natural environment to prompt speciation. Understanding this process will give vital insights into how evolution works. In a twenty first century continuation of Charles Darwin’s work on the origin of species, Dr Savolainen and his team will use a combination of field work, cutting edge DNA sequencing techniques and computer modelling to find and analyse the speciation genes responsible for the evolution of new plant species on these islands.

Professor Michael Schneider, National Heart and Lung Institute

Researchers will be looking at ways to rescue the loss of muscle cells in damaged hearts by investigating how certain very rare cells known as cardiac progenitor cells, which can potentially regenerate heart muscle, are able to renew themselves – something which heart muscle itself cannot do. When a person has a heart attack, as much as 50 per cent of heart muscle is suddenly wiped out. Under ordinary circumstances it is never replaced by sufficient restorative growth. The heart also suffers cumulative damage in heart disease, when muscle cells die sporadically over long periods of time, progressively reducing the heart muscle’s power to pump blood through the body.

The researchers will focus on an enzyme called telomerase, which is believed to play a key role in enabling cells to renew themselves, and which in adult hearts is found mainly in the specialised cardiac progenitor cells. The researchers aim to discover whether telomerase could be used to improve cardiac cell grafting onto damaged hearts, by encouraging these heart muscle cells to take hold and regenerate more vigorously. They will also investigate whether telomerase could help grow new progenitor cells outside the body, to make enough for transplantation back into the patient's heart.

Professor Tom Welton, Department of Chemistry

Professor Welton and his team will focus on developing new environmentally-friendly solvents for use in the chemical industry. The aim of his project is to mix together different ionic liquids – which are salts melted at room temperature – to create new ‘designer’ solvents. It is hoped that these will perform more effectively than those currently used in industry, whilst being easier to recycle and creating less waste. Solvents are used widely throughout the chemical industry because different compounds need to be dissolved in a solvent before they can react with one another. Reactions in solvents play a key role in the mass production of many everyday materials and products, from drugs and some plastics, to dyes and materials used in clothing.

About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 12,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.


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