EU grant success to harness the immune system to treat brain damage

EU grant success to harness the immune system to treat brain damage

EU grant success to harness the immune system to treat brain damage

Key points:

  • Immunology group leader, Professor Adrian Liston, is one of 76 top researchers to receive an ERC Proof of Concept grant, which will be used to translate EU-sponsored research into the clinic.
  • Professor Liston’s research developed a method to use the immune system to prevent brain damage caused by disease and injury.
  • The ERC funding recognises frontier research and provides support to explore the innovation potential of discoveries.
  • This funding will also lead the way towards commercialisation and therapeutic application of the technology. 

Pioneering research by Professor Adrian Liston, a senior group leader at the Babraham Institute, will be developed towards being market-ready for the treatment of brain injury by funding provided by an ERC (European Research Council) Proof of Concept grant, as announced today

Research undertaken by Professor Liston and his group has shown that driving the expansion of a specific population of immune cells in the brain is effective at treating brain injury in mouse pre-clinical models. The research shows that this approach is effective at treating brain damage caused by disease, such as occurs in mouse models of multiple sclerosis, or with injury, such as occurs following a head trauma or stroke.

The research grant from the European Union will support the development of this approach over an 18 month period. The funding will allow for the validation of the treatment in pre-clinical trials and the recruitment of a commercial partner for entry into clinical trials in patients.

Professor Liston, a senior group leader in the Institute’s Immunology programme, said: “This is an exciting new approach to preventing neurodegenerative diseases. By working with a multi-disciplinary and international team, spanning both immunology and neuroscience, we have been able to come up with a completely new approach to preventing, and potentially reversing, brain damage. The recent success of translating new immune-based therapeutics from mice to humans in immunological diseases and cancer demonstrates the high potential of using this new method to fight neurodegenerative disease”.

A comparison of two brains from mice following brain injury with and without treatment.

The approach harnesses the power of a type of immune cell called regulatory T cells – cells that control the immune response, suppressing the immune system from over-reacting. Increasing the number of these cells in the brain prevents and reverses the inflammatory damage that occurs to the brain during diseases, such as in mouse models of multiple sclerosis, with traumatic brain injury or stroke. The proof-of-concept research demonstrated that just one treatment was sufficient to prevent brain degeneration and stimulate brain repair (see image right). 

Professor Michael Wakelam, Institute Director, said: “It’s fantastic that the ERC have recognised the potential of this promising research. Neurodegenerative diseases increase in likelihood and severity with age, so this research very closely aligns with our mission to improve lifelong health. We’re hugely excited to take the next steps towards developing this approach and exploring the wider instances where this type of treatment may offer benefits.” 

ERC Proof of Concept grants award €150,000 (£128,000) to researchers to explore the innovation potential of their scientific discoveries and bring the results of their frontier research closer to market. The award to Professor Liston will allow him to develop the research discovered through the TissueTregs project which has been supported by an ERC Consolidator grant funding research at the VIB (Belgium) and the Babraham Institute.

The ERC Proof of Concept Grant to Professor Liston was one of 76 ERC grants awarded in this round. For more details about the 76 projects funded in this round of the 2019 ERC Proof of Concept grant competition, see the announcement issued by the ERC. 

Notes to Editors

Press contact
Dr Louisa Wood, Babraham Institute Communications Manager,, 01223 496230

Image description 
Pre-clinical testing of neuroimmune treatment in mice receiving a brain injury. The brain on the left is from an untreated mouse, which developed neurodegeneration. The brain on the right of this is from a mouse that was treated to provide protection from neurodegeneration. Background image uses immunohistology to visualise signs of active brain repair in treated mice. Image credit: Lidia Yshii (VIB, Belgium) and Pascal Bielefeld (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands).

Animal research statement
As a publicly funded research institute, the Babraham Institute is committed to engagement and transparency in all aspects of its research. The research presented here used mice to study brain repair following damage due to disease or injury. All mouse experimentation was performed after approval from relevant welfare and ethical review bodies. Research to be performed under the funded project will comply with existing European Union and United Kingdom Home Office legislation.

Please follow the link for further details of our animal research and our animal welfare practices.

About the Babraham Institute
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.

About the European Research Council
The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. It offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between grantees' pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.

The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. Since 1 January 2020 the new ERC President is Professor Mauro Ferrari. The overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than €13 billion, as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, for which the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel is responsible.