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Triple success in prestigious EU grant round

Lennart Olsson, Sara Linse and Oskar Hansson
Lennart Olsson, Sara Linse and Oskar Hansson

Three researchers at Lund University in Sweden, all with a long list of significant research credentials, have been awarded the ERC Advanced Grant worth EUR 2.5 million each to further develop and advance their research projects. This concerns research on a fundamentally changed food system, chaperone proteins’ function in neurodegenerative diseases, and blood tests for rapid screening of drugs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

The European Research Council’s (ERC) mission is to encourage research of the highest quality through extensive and long-term funding. Grants are applied for in international competition with research excellence as the only selection criterion. Advanced Grants (AdG) which run for a maximum of 5 years and are worth up to EUR 2.5 million, enable researchers to explore their most innovative and ambitious ideas.

These are the three Lund researchers who have received Advanced Grants in this round:

Professor Lennart Olsson’s research project is to investigate the opportunities and obstacles relating to a future transition to agriculture using completely new perennial crops. It includes an analysis of the political economy that controls agriculture at different levels and an analysis of the economic and climate gains from perennial crops. Among other things, researchers are to test-cultivate kernza, a wheatgrass from the Mediterranean, up to the Arctic Circle to see how it copes in different climate zones. The project will also formulate a strategy to facilitate the introduction of perennial cereals.

Lennart Olsson thinks it was the project’s visionary element that convinced the ERC panel.

“It concerns fundamentally changing our entire food system, and thus contributing to a new agricultural revolution. For 10,000 years, our food has come from annual crops, even though they cause, or contribute to, many of the problems agriculture is grappling with such as erosion, nutrient leaching, the spread of toxins, emissions of greenhouse gases, high costs and vulnerability to climate change. Using perennial crops, we can meet nearly all these challenges. It is also a way to change the direction of agriculture back towards a functioning ecosystem,” says Lennart Olsson, professor of geography at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

Project name: PERENNIAL/Is there a PERENNIAL future of agriculture?

Chemistry professor Sara Linse’s research project, CHAPLIN, is to investigate the thermodynamic basis for how a group of chaperone proteins work. This applies to chaperone proteins that increase other proteins’ solubility and thereby protect against neurogenerative diseases such as ALS, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and type 2 diabetes. One characteristic that the researchers hope to understand is how the chaperone proteins combine a very strong specificity in the matter of what they achieve with essentially no selection concerning the sequence of the proteins they help. Sara Linse’s team must therefore address the issue in ways others than the traditional search for specific elements that are directly involved in the interaction between two proteins. The research team will thus use a number of methods based on calorimetry, spectroscopy (optical and nuclear magnetic resonance) and microscopy (optical and electron), as well as the scattering of light, neutrons and X-rays. It is hoped that these efforts will find out if the answer lies in special characteristics of the chaperone proteins and, if so, what these are.

“It is immensely pleasing and flattering. The ERC grant enables us to take an in-depth approach using this exciting research, develop new methodologies and collect data in a systematic way. I hope that after five years we will be close to an answer to the fundamental question,” says Sara Linse, professor of biochemistry and structural biology.

Project name: CHAPLIN/Chaperone action – a thermodynamic view

Oskar Hansson is a consultant and professor of neurology, focusing on neurodegenerative diseases. He has previously found blood biomarkers that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease and shown that by using blood samples, memory tests and a special algorithm, it is possible to determine if an individual will develop the disease or not. His research is now in an implementation phase, where tests are being carried out in primary and specialist care concerning how the new blood biomarkers can improve diagnostics and treatment for patients.

“We will now optimise the blood sample tests further so[BR1]  that we can identify people with Alzheimer’s disease before they have any symptoms,” says Oskar Hansson.

By identifying the disease before the cognitive challenges arise, he hopes that ultimately medicines will be able to slow down the disease at a very early stage. As several disease-modifying drugs are now entering healthcare, there are good possibilities for evaluating diagnostics and treatment.

“In this project, we will use our new blood tests to rapidly screen through different relevant drugs that are approved for other diseases, and establish whether or not they also have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s disease. This is a high-risk project, but the benefits could be considerable if we succeed. I am very grateful for the grant from the ERC, which provides the conditions for us clinical researchers to conduct this bolder type of research,” says Oskar Hansson.

Project name: ADVANCE-AD/ Novel biomarkers for improving [BR2] diagnostics, prognostics, and treatments of Alzheimer’s disease.