Advanced Grants for Ghent University researchers

(30-03-2023) Ghent University researchers An Martel, Frank Verstraete and Nico Callewaert win an ERC Advanced Grant. With this result, Ghent University closes its best ever call year 2022 with 22 new ERC grants and puts itself among the European top institutions.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced the awarding of 218 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the Horizon Europe programme. The grants support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities. 

The ERC Advanced Grant funding is amongst the most prestigious and competitive EU funding schemes, providing researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. They are awarded to established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant research achievements over the past decade. 

“ERC grants are a top recognition and a significant commitment from our best researchers. The €544 million funding puts our 218 research leaders, together with their teams of postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and research staff, in pole position to push back the boundaries of our knowledge, break new ground and build foundations for future growth and prosperity in Europe” - Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

The new Advanced grant projects at Ghent University

An Martel: GLOSSI

Humans have inadvertently been dispersing wildlife pathogens that now pose a major threat to biodiversity and contribute to the current mass extinction event. The disease chytridiomycosis, caused by the fungus Bsal, is a prime example of a pathogen that was introduced by humans in Europe and now threatens most European salamander and newt species. No efficient mitigation measures are available to stop the deadly fungus from expanding its range. With GLOSSI Prof. Martel aims to develop disease resistant salamanders that are able to survive a Bsal infection. If this project is successful, it will open novel avenues to combat further loss of amphibian diversity.

Frank Verstraete: It's the symmetry stupid! (ISYS)

Symmetries form the most powerful organizing principle in physics. They dictate the forms of the equations of motion in both classical and quantum physics, and the possible phases of matter are characterized by the different ways in which the symmetries can be broken. In recent years, a wealth of new types of topological matter has been envisioned and created in the laboratory, with novel applications in the area of quantum technology. Their intriguing properties are a consequence of long-range entanglement permeating those systems. Those materials do not fit the usual physics paradigm that they can be classified according to the symmetry they break, as all their determining properties are hidden in those entanglement patterns. The central goal of this ERC project is to study those entanglement patterns in terms of so-called tensor networks, a new mathematical and computational formalism which allows to represent and simulate those topologically ordered quantum states through their correlations and entanglements. We will also apply those methods towards the realization of real-space renormalization group flows, to construct new types of quantum error correcting codes based on non-Abelian anyons, and to clarify open problems relating topological field theories, conformal field theories and integrability.

Nico Callewaert: GlycoCAR

The project GlycoCAR aims to target glycosylation pathways to empower CAR-T therapy of solid tumors. Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy is a type of cancer treatment that can provide lifelong protection against certain types of leukemia. However, this therapy is not as effective for other types of cancer, like solid tumors, because these tumors can overcome the immune system's attacks. Current attempts to improve CAR-T therapy for solid tumors focus on targeting specific proteins involved in immunosuppression pathways, but this approach is not always successful. Instead, a new research line targets the outer layer of CAR-T cells called the glycocalyx, which contains glycosylated structures that can simultaneously modulate multiple cell surface receptors. This approach has shown promising results in mice, where a single glycogene inactivation led to strong long-term functional persistence of glycoengineered CAR-T cells and clearance of a highly immunosuppressive carcinoma rechallenge. Researchers plan to explore further glycosylation engineering concepts in CAR-T cells to improve CAR-T therapy for solid tumors.

“This ERC Advanced grant is the result of intensive teamwork; the preparatory research took several years and was lead by VIB staff scientist Nele Festjens and the PhD work of Elien De Bousser. It was a pleasure to write the grant application in team with them and our science coordinator Nele Vervaet. After investing in the foundations of this research line for quite some years, it really feels great that we now get the resources to go all-in with the team to fully explore this underestimated layer of biomolecular information on CAR-T cells: the glycome that forms the initial contacts between all cells and their environment. I also want to thank our collaborators in this field, Profs. Bart Vandekerckhove at UZGent and Prof. Yvonne Chen at UCLA, both of whom have generously provided tools and knowhow when we just got started with CAR-T cells.” says Nico.

The 2022 Advanced Grants

The laureates of this grant competition will carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 20 countries in Europe. The winners come from all over the world, with 27 nationalities represented. This call for proposals attracted nearly 1,650 applications, which were reviewed by panels of renowned researchers. The overall success rate was 13,2%. Female researchers account for 23% of all applications, their highest participation rate in Advanced Grant calls up to now.

In addition to strengthening Europe's knowledge base, the grants are expected to create more than 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff at the host institutions. Past recipients have included Nobel laureates and other leading scientists who have gone on to make major contributions to their respective fields.

"These new ERC Advanced grantees are a testament to the outstanding quality of research carried out across Europe. I am especially pleased to see such a high number of female researchers in this competition and that they are increasingly successful in securing funding. We look forward to seeing the results of the new projects in the years to come, with many likely to lead to breakthroughs and new advances.” - Maria Leptin, ERC President

About the ERC

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. 

Researchers within and outside of Ghent University who wish to apply for an ERC Grant with our university as host institution, can contact the EU Team for advice and support.