Two Babraham Institute group leaders, Olivia Casanueva and Michelle Linterman, have each been awarded a prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) of approximately £1.1M (€1.5M). The Starting Grants recognise excellent early-career scientists and provide the freedom to pursue ambitious research projects over the five year duration of the award. The award of two ERC Starting Grants to the BBSRC-supported Babraham Institute represents a significant achievement in view of the overall success rate of 10% for this round of ERC funding.
Olivia Casanueva, group leader in the Institute’s epigenetics research programme, will work in nematode worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) to study ageing. Groundbreaking work in C. elegans has demonstrated that ageing is not simply a process of random and progressive decay, but that it is genetically controlled and regulated by genes that modulate lifespan. Despite this, genetically identical individuals reared under controlled environmental conditions show highly variable differences in longevity. This points to important non-genetic sources of variability in the molecular pathways that control longevity and Olivia’s project will aim to identify these.
Olivia said: “Understanding the basis of lifespan variability is crucial for personalised medicine, where not the average population but rather the individual is centre stage. It is equally crucial for the identification of new factors that may have been missed by the analysis of population averages that can have an impact for human ageing and health. It is a great honour to have been awarded this grant at the beginning of my career. Support from the institute was crucial. I’ve benefitted from the scientific expertise of the Institute’s group leaders and the support of the Institute’s superb grants office.”
Michelle Linterman, group leader in the Institute’s Lymphocyte Signalling and Development programme, will tackle age-dependent decline in the immune system. With age, the function of the immune system declines, rendering older people more susceptible to infections and less able to benefit from vaccination. Vaccination creates protective immunity by inducing our immune system to generate a germinal centre (GC) response, which produces memory B cells and long-lived antibody-secreting plasma cells that can prevent subsequent infection. However, the GC response declines with age, meaning a weakened response to vaccination and that the body is less prepared when it encounters a real immune challenge.
The decline is due to another type of immune cell, CD4+ T cells, and an age-dependent change in the tissues of older individuals. Michelle’s ERC-funded project will study two specialised types of CD4+ T cells, which act in opposition to promote and suppress the vaccination response. Michelle proposes that aberrant function of these cell subtypes contributes to impairing the GC responses during ageing and that these cells could be targeted to improve vaccine efficacy. In addition, she will investigate whether age-dependent changes in non-immune tissues can impair the vaccination response.
Michelle said: “A major accomplishment of modern society is the extension of human life expectancy. However, this creates a new challenge for medical science; to facilitate healthy ageing. Improving vaccine efficacy is key to reducing infection-related morbidity in older people. To date, the complexity of the ageing process has hindered attempts to fulfil this ambition, and thus innovative approaches are required to better understand the underlying biology.”
Institute Director, Professor Michael Wakelam, said: I’m delighted that the quality of Olivia and Michelle’s research has been recognised by the ERC. The Starting Grant awards provide vital freedom for researchers to explore innovative science and history shows us that this creative approach can serve dividends. The technologies in healthcare that we rely upon today began with pioneering research that started with a ‘What if…’ moment. Michelle and Olivia are two outstanding scientists and the ERC Starting Grants projects will see them emerge as research leaders in their fields.”
The Babraham Institute’s two grants were part of the 14 life sciences grants awarded to the UK and 124 grants awarded in the life sciences category within the EU Member States and Associated Countries (from 1037 submitted proposals). Details of all the awards made in this round can be found here.
Olivia and Michelle are recruiting to fill postdoctoral research position available on these grants:
Causes of inter-individual variability in stress-responsive genes and its consequences for life history traits using C.elegans as a model system
How senescence affects the immune response to vaccination
Press release: ERC grants: Good news for EU-LIFE centres, but with a bitter aftertaste
20 February 2015