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UCC Researchers Win €4.75m in Highly Competitive European Funding

University College Cork (UCC) researchers have won highly competitive European Research Council (ERC) funding totalling €4.75m.  

UCC researchers secured the most number of awards of any Irish Higher Education Institution in the European Union’s most competitive grant call in 15 years.  

Three UCC researchers won the highly prestigious discovery research grants competing against over 4,000 proposals from the world’s brightest scientific minds, which were reviewed by panels of renowned researchers.   

The UCC scientists work is focused on exciting new discoveries around the next generation of RNA medicines, the relationship between the brain and gut microbiome, and protecting the music of threatened indigenous cultures. These ERC Starting Grants, administered by Europe’s leading research funding body, are awarded to emerging research leaders across Europe who are at the stage of growing their own independent research teams, so that pioneering research can be conducted.  

The three UCC researchers who were awarded ERC funding today are Dr. Maria Rodriguez Aburto (APC Microbiome Ireland, SFI Research Centre & UCC Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience), Dr. Piotr Kowalski (UCC’s School of Pharmacy & APC Microbiome Ireland) and Dr. Lijuan Qian (School of Film, Music and Theatre) 

Frontier Research 

Currently, we have extremely limited understanding of how our gut microbiome communicates with the brain. The research project by Dr. María Aburto (RADIOGUT €1.75m) examines the relationship between the brain and the gut and could have ground-breaking implications for neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g., autism) and precision medicine. This project builds on her research at APC Microbiome Ireland, a world leading Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre and UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience. 

Dr Aburto said, “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.”

Dr. Piotr Kowalski (CIRCLE €1.5m) is developing a cutting-edge circular RNA technology and new delivery methods to tackle unmet medical challenges such as sepsis, which kills 11 million every year and is the cause of 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. Dr Kowalski’s research has the potential to advance a whole new class of circular RNA therapeutics.  

Dr Kowalski said, “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.” 

Dr. Lijuan Qian (ECura €1.5 m) is examining 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, Dr Qian’s research examines how members of these remote communities can overcome this challenge through adopting new digital media technologies to sustain their languages, traditional songs, music and dances.  

Dr Qian said, “ERC funding is the only route for a researcher in the Humanities who needs to form a team to work in-depth on a societal challenge like this from initial set-up all the way to the measurement of social impact. It will provide a testing ground for a new model that could have widespread application in minority cultures worldwide.”

Highly Competitive  

The European Research Council (ERC) is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than €16 billion, as part of the Horizon Europe programme. 

The President of UCC, Professor 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.”

Commenting Professor John Cryan, Vice-President for Research & Innovation at UCC stated, “I’d like to congratulate these three outstanding progressive researchers in securing such highly competitive and prestigious ERC Awards. This has been one of the most competitive ERC calls in years and it is great to see this recognition for these innovative research programmes which address important and diverse fields from brain-gut interactions in early life, to developing RNA medicines for sepsis treatment, to enhancing cultural sustainability in ethnic minorities. These awards also highlight the importance of supporting basic research in solving global problems in medicine and society and align with our research strengths in Food Microbiome & Health, Future Medicines, Future Humanities & Children.” 

Professor Paul Ross, Director of APC Microbiome Ireland, said, “the prestigious and highly competitive ERC Starting grants fund discovery research which could have a transformative impact on science.  APC Microbiome Ireland are delighted that two of our funded investigators were among the excellent scientists awarded funding to pursue their biomedical research.”

Source: UCC

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