Three BIST Community researchers awarded ERC Proof of Concept grants

• Three researchers in the BIST Community have been awarded ERC Proof of Concept grants to explore the commercial and societal potential of their research projects.

• ICREA Prof. Salvador Aznar Benitah (IRB Barcelona) will explore halting cancer metastasis by targeting lipid metabolism, Prof. Michael Krieg (ICFO) aims to develop a light-efficient microscope for fast volumetric imagining of photon starved samples, and ICREA Prof. Samuel Sánchez (IBEC) will target mucinous tumours with nanorobots.

Proof of Concept grant awardees from the BIST Community from left to right: ICREA Prof. Salvador Aznar Benitah (IRB Barcelona), Prof. Michael Krieg (ICFO), and ICREA Prof. Samuel Sánchez (IBEC).

The European Research Council, in its efforts to help ERC grant-holders bridge the gap between their research and the earliest stage of a marketable innovation, created the Proof of Concept (PoC) funding scheme for researchers who have already been awarded an ERC grant. The grants are part of the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe.

In this latest call, which is the second round of the 2023 competition, the ERC has announced the awardees of 66 new Proof of Concept grants, including three researchers from the BIST Community: ICREA Prof. Salvador Aznar Benitah (IRB Barcelona) for the project PalmitoMET, Prof. Michael Krieg (ICFO) for the project LowliteScope, and Prof. Samuel Sánchez (IBEC) for the MucOncoBots project. The researchers will receive €150,000 of funding over 18 months to develop their work.

Halting cancer metastasis by targeting lipid metabolism

Metastasis is the process through which some cancer cells detach from the primary tumour and colonise distant organs, and it is responsible for 90% of cancer-related deaths. While primary tumours rely on glucose metabolism to rapidly grow and divide, the metastatic process is mediated by a switch in the metabolic state of the cell, which turns to fatty acid metabolism. Specifically, previous work by the Stem Cells and Cancer lab, led by Dr. Salvador Aznar Benitah at IRB Barcelona, has identified palmitic acid metabolism as crucial in the development of metastases.

The researchers are now taking their discovery a step further through PalmitoMET, a project aimed at identifying compounds that prevent the post-translational modifications derived from palmitic acid metabolism. To this end, experiments carried out at the Drug Screening Core Facility at IRB Barcelona will address the potential of enzymes responsible for increased palmitic acid metabolism as antimetastatic therapies.

Our goal is to develop novel drugs that block the effect of palmitic acid metabolism once palmitate has entered the metastatic cells, as a potential therapy for metastatic cancer patients,” says Dr. Aznar Benitah.

A light-efficient microscope for fast volumetric imaging of photon starved samples

ICFO Prof. Michael Krieg, head of the Neurophotonics and Mechanical Systems Biology group, leads the LowLiteScope project, which aims to develop a light-efficient microscope for fast volumetric imaging of photon starved samples.

Currently, commercial solutions for bioluminescence imaging suffer from low spatiotemporal resolution, due to photon-starved samples. LowLiteScope aims to overcome these limitations by radically redesigning the optical path, data acquisition and post processing based on artificial intelligence.

LowliteScope leverages a Fourier light field approach to capture the spatial and angular information of light rays that pass through the sample. In contrast to conventional light field microscope, this technique records three-dimensional images with high spatial resolution and a large depth of field. To reconstruct the 3D volume from single exposure light field images, researchers in Prof. Krieg’s group will use new deep learning models based on artificial intelligence (WP1). The use of generalised and optics-informed deep learning techniques will also increase the spatial resolution beyond conventional light field microscopes. They will test the performance of the LowLiteScope prototype using photosensitive samples and samples with high intrinsic autofluorescence (WP2) – two properties that often render long-term, high-resolution imaging via fluorescence microscopy difficult. Ultimately, success is measured by the ease to adopt this technology. To facilitate the adoption of LowLiteScope by the end user, they propose a new lens design (MONOMIR for Microscope Objective iNtegrated fOurier MIcrolens aRray), which can be used as a modular add-on to any conventional, fluorescence microscopes.

Targeting mucinous tumours with nanorobots

The MucOncoBots project has a primary objective of employing nanobots to transport a specialised drug for the treatment of peritoneal pseudomyxoma (PMP). This rare disease is distinguished by the development of tumors that produce a significant quantity of mucus within the peritoneal cavity, making it the most notable type of mucinous tumor known.

Samuel Sánchez, an ICREA Research Professor at IBEC, leads the Smart nano-bio-devices group dedicated to researching and developing nanorobots for biomedical applications. In this project, he collaborates with Meritxell Serra-Casablancas, a PhD student specialising in the development of enzyme-powered nanorobots for cancer treatment, with a specific focus on mucinous tumors. Meritxell will be responsible for the technical advancement of the nanobots and conducting in vitro demonstrations of their therapeutic effects.

This research will be conducted in a close collaboration with the research team of Dr. Héctor G. Palmer, who leads the Stem Cells and Cancer group at the Vall d’Hebron Cancer Research Institute (VHIO). Additionally, the project will benefit from the medical advice and expertise of Dr. Elena Élez, the head of the VHIO Colorectal Cancer group and a medical oncologist at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital (VHUV).

Learn more:
IRB Barcelona news
ICFO news
IBEC news
ERC press release
List of all 66 awardees