Six Young Ghent University Researchers Receive ERC Starting Grant From European Commission


Can network theory help unravel the origin of cardiac arrhythmia? How do plants communicate internally about stress? Can we make thermometers with new nanomaterials that can also administer medication? And can traditional concepts of medical ethics keep up with rapidly succeeding innovations in medicine?

These are some of the questions that six young Ghent University researchers will be working on in the coming years. Like 422 of their colleagues across Europe and 8 other colleagues in Flanders, they have received a prestigious ERC Starting Grant from the European Commission. This grant, up to a maximum of 1.5 million euros per person, should enable them to build up a research group and carry out groundbreaking research within five years.

International Cooperation Rewarded

The researchers are drawn from all disciplines, from social sciences and humanities to natural, medical and applied sciences. Two of them are coordinator of an International Thematic Network (ITN). Marthe De Boevre coordinates the MYTOX-SOUTH network and Katrien Van Poeck is responsible for the SEDwise network. With the International Thematic Networks, Ghent University wants to stimulate international cooperation in order to increase the scientific and social impact of research on certain themes, something to which Europe, too, attaches increasing importance.

Read more about the plans of the six researchers below.

Do mycotoxins in our food lead to cancer?

Do mycotoxins in our food lead to cancer? This is what Marthe De Boevre (Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences) is going to investigate. Mycotoxins are toxic substances, produced by fungi, that occur frequently in our daily diet. A first step in the research is to determine how mycotoxins behave in our body, both in cell cultures and in humans. In addition, De Boevre and her research team will measure mycotoxins in blood and urine of healthy individuals and cancer patients. The research will be executed both in Europe, where dietary mycotoxin intake is low, and in Africa, where specific populations are exposed to larger doses of mycotoxins. In order to further explore a possible causal relationship between mycotoxins and cancer, the effect of daily exposure to mycotoxins will also be investigated at the DNA level.

Cardiac Arrhythmia: an Innovative Approach

Nele Vandersickel (Faculty of Science) wants to find out whether network theory can help to unravel the origin of cardiac arrhythmia. Network theory is already used in the Google search engine, for online social networks and has numerous applications in biology, physics and social sciences. Nele Vandersickel now wants to use the theory to describe electrical conductivity in the heart. Her preliminary results show that network analysis is capable of automatically predicting so-called ablation locations on which the heart surgeon can intervene to resolve a certain type of cardiac arrhythmia. The technique already surpasses all other technologies in the clinic and has led to the filing of a patent. The aim of the project is not only to provide new insights into the mechanism of cardiac arrhythmia, but also to improve patient treatment.

Learning for a Sustainable World

Today's profound socio-ecological problems challenge us to develop new habits, structures, cultures and practices. To do this in a sustainable way, 'learning' is essential. Katrien van Poeck (Faculty of Political and Social Sciences) investigates how learning processes can contribute to sustainability transitions. Through three case studies - on food systems, mobility and plastics - she wants to gain insight into what conditions are necessary for this. The greatest challenge for the project team will be to successfully link insights into the process and the results of learning processes at the micro level with whether or not macro-societal transitions are taking place. If that succeeds, it should be possible to develop better learning processes with regards to sustainability transitions.

Check-Up for Our Medical Ethics

Several innovations in health care have disrupted the traditional model of the doctor-patient relationship and have exchanged more specialized and qualitative medical care for more accessible or cheaper care. Examples include the much-discussed corona-apps, but also doctor Google, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a smartwatch giving you medical advice or a decision support system giving your physician medical advice. Given that medical ethics are tailored to ‘traditional’ medicine, Heidi Mertes questions whether the discipline of medical ethics is sufficiently equipped to guide new, disruptive innovations in healthcare towards their great potential in terms of improving patients’ access to good quality healthcare, while also safeguarding patients/users from the risks that accompany them, not only in terms of health, but also in terms of infractions against firmly rooted values such as patient autonomy, the duty of care, confidentiality or privacy.

Internal Communication of Stressed Plants

Plants must continuously adapt to changing and often harmful environments, including water limitation, extreme temperatures and pathogens. These environmental stresses are expected to increase due to climate change, so there is an urgent need to breed tolerant crops. Within the COSI project, Inge De Clercq and colleagues aim to understand how plants convey the initial sensing of environmental stimuli at the intra-cellular level into adaptive and defense responses. More specifically, they will look into how organelles (mitochondria and chloroplasts) within the plant cell perceive stress signals and communicate with each other to coordinate and trigger optimal adaptation responses. Due to this grant, they will be able to study the exciting hypothesis that organelles associate directly through stress-induced contact sites to enable efficient communication. The outcome of COSI will be a better understanding, and potentially re-evaluation, of the fundamental mechanisms by which plants respond and adapt to stresses.

Future Nanothermometers Capable of Drug Delivery

With project NORTH, Anna Kaczmarek (Faculty of Science) wants to develop new types of nanomaterials that combine in one material both temperature measurement and photodynamic therapy or drug delivery (theranostics). Nanothermometers are a valuable addition to existing techniques for measuring temperature in medicine, such as infrared imaging or thermocouples. However, the current nanothermometer materials offer few possibilities to combine with theranostics, in contrast to the materials Kaczmarek is working with. If she succeeds in her design, this will be an important step forward for various diagnostic and treatment techniques (e.g. for tumors, inflammation or ischemia).