Four ERC Consolidator Grants for KU Leuven researchers

Breast cancer researcher Christine Desmedt | © Jos Desmedt

Breast cancer researcher Christine Desmedt |  © Jos Desmedt

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its Consolidator Grants. Four KU Leuven researchers are among this year’s recipients: breast cancer researcher Christine Desmedt, computer scientist Tias Guns, chemical engineer Simon Kuhn, and psychiatrist Lukas Van Oudenhove.   

ERC Consolidator Grants provide funding for excellent researchers with 7 to 12 years of post-PhD experience. The grants are awarded for a five-year period and may be worth up to ¤ 2 million.   

CHRISTINE DESMEDT: THE LINK BETWEEN BREAST CANCER AND OBESITY  

Head of the Laboratory for Translational Breast Cancer Research, Assistant Professor at the Department of Oncology, and member of the Leuven Cancer Institute (LKI) 

Congratulations! Were you expecting this?

"I pulled out all the stops for this project application, but it’s very difficult to gauge your chances beforehand. The selection process is extremely strict, and the jury members don’t give anything away during the interview: you can’t tell whether they like your answer or not. I’m happy my application was successful. It’s a huge boost for my team."    

What will the project be about?

"We want to find out what the link is between breast cancer and obesity. In the West, half of all women are overweight or obese, and this percentage increases after menopause. There is evidence that overweight and obesity have an impact on the biological aspects of cancer, the effectiveness of treatments and the prognosis of patients, but the link between both health problems has not yet been sufficiently studied."

"My team and I will analyse existing data on thousands of tumours, focussing, among other things, on links between certain mutations and patients’ body mass index (BMI). However, BMI isn’t such an accurate indicator of adiposity, which is why we are also going to collect new data and consider, among other things, patients’ fat composition and lifestyle."

"One in eight women will experience breast cancer at one point in their lives. With our research we hope to contribute to better personalised treatments."  

READ MORE ABOUT THE PROJECT       follow christine desmedt On TWITTER

TIAS GUNS: OPTIMISATION SOFTWARE THAT LEARNS FROM ITS ENVIRONMENT AND USERS   

 Associate Professor at the Department of Computer Science and member of the KU Leuven Institute  Leuven.AI ; also affiliated with VUB 

Congratulations! Did you expect this news?

"The jury’s decision is hard to predict. But working on my proposal made me realise one thing: this project is what I really want to do, whether I get the grant or not. I’m very happy that my application was successful."

What will your project be about?

"We want to create smarter optimisation software for vehicle routing or industrial automation. The current software often suggests solutions that are efficient but don’t always take users’ preferences into account. Someone who delivers postal parcels, for instance, may deviate from the proposed route due to his previous experiences in a specific neighbourhood. The current systems only take such elements into account if they are manually adjusted. We have recently started using machine learning to make the software learn from both the context - for instance, how quickly a parking spot is typically found - and the user’s preferences. We’re going to explore this further."   

"Ultimately, we want to make it possible to initiate some sort of dialogue between the user and the smart software, so that the user can request and suggest alternatives, and ask the system why it makes certain choices, because it may have a good reason to do so". 

READ MORE ABOUT THE PROJECT       follow tias guns On TWITTER

SIMON KUHN: REACTORS FOR A MORE SUSTAINABLE CHEMICAL INDUSTRY  

Professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering; member of the KU Leuven Institute SIM2

You received an ERC Starting Grant in 2015. How does it feel to now be awarded a Consolidator Grant as well?

"I feel honoured and am very excited about this new opportunity, which will enable us to further advance the field of microreaction engineering. I’m looking forward to start working together with my team on this challenging project."

What will you be working on?

"My team and I want to develop novel reactors for chemical manufacturing. Electroand photochemical reactors are more sustainable than other types because they don’t involve any heating up and can do without rare-precious-metal catalysts - you just need electricity. The problem with current reactors, however, is that their productivity is too low. We want to make the reactors more effective by using ultrasound, sound waves with frequencies that are too high for humans to hear.  In my ERC Starting Grant project, we already used sound waves to prevent small chemical reactors from clogging up. In this new project, we will go beyond this concept and use ultrasound to overcome transport and throughput limitations in microreactors."  

READ MORE ABOUT THE PROJECT      follow the lab on TWITTER

LUKAS VAN OUDENHOVE: THE IMPACT OF GUT BACTERIA ON EMOTIONS   

Head of the Laboratory for Brain-Gut Axis Studies (LaBGAS), Associate Professor at the Translational Research in Gastrointestinal Disorders unit (TARGID) and member of the Leuven Brain Institute (LBI) 

Congratulations! Did you expect this wonderful news?

"You want to stay realistic, of course, but you secretly get your hopes up as soon as you go to the second round. I spent a lot of time preparing for my interview, and I’m very grateful to the many colleagues who helped me. Even in these times of corona, the interview was somewhat unusual: I’m currently on sabbatical at Dartmouth College, so I defended my project via Zoom at my kitchen table at half past three in the morning. (laughs)"

What will your project be about?

"We’re going to study mechanisms that allow bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract, especially in the large intestine, to influence psychological processes in our brain, and particularly our response to psychosocial stress and fear. The first part will be a longitudinal study in which we examine the composition of our subjects’ gut bacteria and their psychological condition. In the other three parts we will manipulate two important mechanisms. What exactly is the role of inflammation processes? And is it possible to attenuate psychosocial stress or fear by administering short-chain fatty acids via capsules that only dissolve in the large intestine? That’s what we want to find out."

"To be clear: we’re not talking about miracle remedies here. The link between gut bacteria and mental health is obviously more complex than ’eat more fibres and cure your depression’. This nuance is crucial: we have to be careful that we, as scientists, are not overly optimistic in our communication because that does not help anyone. This project will use solid research to refine our knowledge on the connection between food and mental health."   

      follow targid On TWITTER

The ABC of ERC

The European Research Council (ERC) funds ground-breaking and innovative projects by Europe’s finest researchers through five types of grant:

Starting Grants

  • up to ¤1.5 million for 5 years
  • for promising early-career researchers with 2 to 7 years of post-PhD experience

Consolidator Grants

  • up to ¤2 million for 5 years
  • for excellent researchers with 7 to 12 years of post-PhD experience

Advanced Grants

  • up to ¤2.5 million for 5 years
  • for established researchers with a considerable academic track record

Proof of Concept

  • for ERC grant holders to bring their research ideas closer to market

Synergy Grants

  • up to ¤10 million for 6 years

  • for groups of 2 to 4 Principal Investigators

ERC GRANT HOLDERs at KU leuven     YOUR ERC PROJECT AT KU LEUVEN?

Katrien Bollen, partly translated by Shana Michiels


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