Six KU Leuven researchers receive ERC Advanced Grant

© VIB - Ine Dehandschutter

© VIB - Ine Dehandschutter

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its Advanced Grants for ground-breaking research. Six KU Leuven researchers are among this year’s recipients: Peter Carmeliet, Giselinde Kuipers, Diether Lambrechts, Erik Smolders, Patrik Verstreken, and Johan Wagemans.

ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to established researchers with a considerable academic track record. The grants are awarded for a five-year period and are usually worth up to ¤2.5 million.

Peter Carmeliet: decoding the mystery genome for new cancer drugs

Full professor at the Faculty of Medicine - host institution: VIB

What is the project about?

A subtype of endothelial cell - a cell type that lines the blood vessels - shows signs of suppressing the immune system. Blocking this suppression might lead to more efficient immunotherapy. In the project MystIMEC, the Carmeliet lab will use an AI tool to identify previously uncharacterized genes (’mystery genes’) in endothelial cells responsible for the effects on the immune system. Then they will use a revolutionary technology to quickly generate knock-out mice for promising gene targets to validate their findings and pave the way to new therapeutics.

Why is that important?

With this third renewal of the Advanced ERC Grant, our lab will be able to explore dark genome grounds, and hopefully yield novel biological insight as well as offer new translational opportunities.

Read more about the project   Follow the lab of Peter Carmeliet on Twitter

Giselinde Kuipers: social inequalities based on beauty 

Professor (BOF) at the Faculty of Social Sciences

What is the project about?

"How we look and how others judge our appearance has become increasingly important over the past decades. People make more of an effort to look good throughout their lives. So beauty has become a sort of capital that affects your chances in life, for the better or worse. Everyone has an idea and an opinion about what beauty is, but good empirical knowledge on the subject is lacking. I want to change that through this project. What do people find beautiful, and how do those evaluations come about? To what forms of inequality, or even exclusion, does beauty lead?"

"The research consists of two stages. First, we conduct research in five metropolises: Accra (Ghana), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Brussels (Belgium), Hong Kong and Tehran (Iran). In every city, doctoral students do intensive fieldwork, and we question a representative panel of 2,000 inhabitants. This way, we get a clear picture of how beauty standards are shaped locally and what people find beautiful. Do people all over the world agree on what’s pretty, or are there differences? Metropolises are interesting because of their diversity and the presence of cultural industries that are important in the formation of beauty standards. There, we stand the best chance of understanding this process."

"In the second phase, we want to link the survey and ethnography data to processes of social exclusion. More specifically, we will study the consequences for dating and job-hunting. Two areas in which looks play an increasingly important role and in which photos are nowadays often crucial during a first selection. Among other things, we will carry out field experiments with fictitious application letters and dating profiles. On the basis of the responses, we can ascertain whether inequality or exclusion based on appearance occurs."

"That way, we also want to examine if beauty paves the way for new forms of inequality. It has always been the case that certain people are considered prettier, but this may now also apply to older people or in professional situations. Perhaps some people can better adapt themselves to the beauty standards expected by a particular environment. Presenting yourself through social media, for example in the search for a job or a partner, is a skill that only recently has gained importance. It is a talent not everyone has, but that can benefit you socially, also in the long term."

How important is the approval of this project to you?

"It’s a big relief. Such applications require a lot of work; thankfully, it hasn’t been in vain (laughs). Now I know what to focus on for the next five years. Concentration and peace of mind, that’s what scientists want, right? So I’m very happy. I would also like to thank the research support staff at KU Leuven who do an exceptional job." 

Read more about the project   Follow Giselinde Kuipers on Twitter

Diether Lambrechts: improving cancer immunotherapy

Full professor (BOF) at the Faculty of Medicine - host institution: VIB

What is the project about?

With this ERC Advanced grant, the team of Diether Lambrechts aims to answer critical questions about response to immune checkpoint blockade therapy in cancer patients. These insights are needed because despite its huge promise, only a subset of patients has a long-lasting response to this new type of immunotherapy. Diether’s group will focus on tumour biopsies collected during therapy response to immune checkpoint blockade. He will explore the tumour microenvironmental cues that trigger this response and based on T cell receptor sequences, he will identify the tumour antigens to which T cells react. With this knowledge, he will develop novel methods to non-invasively detect the response to checkpoint immunotherapy. 

Why is that important?

This project will contribute to the improved response to checkpoint immunotherapy and will prolong the survival and quality of life of patients with advanced cancer.

Read more about the project   Follow Diether Lambrechts’s lab on Twitter

Erik Smolders: interaction between plant and soil

Full professor at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering

What is the project about?

In one sentence: the impact of soil structure on the availability of nutrients and contaminants for plants. The reactive elements in soil, called colloids, are the smallest particles with which nutrients can combine. Those colloids coagulate into aggregates, which determine the soil’s structure. Because of this agglutination, plant roots are exposed to the aggregates in the soil rather than directly to all colloids inside the aggregates. 

In traditional soil research, soil samples are sieved and homogenized destroying the soil structure. The purpose of this common practice is to have a reproducible soil analysis. But still, this approach creates an overestimation of the soil’s available elements, which can give a distorted picture. In this project, we want to compare the traditional examination of disturbed, sieved soil to the analysis of intact soil. 

And of course, we also want to know why soil structure can make a difference. That’s why we will develop a new system that gives a 2D image of the locally available elements in undisturbed soil around a plant root. 

An additional advantage of intact soil research is that we will be able to measure dissolved colloids. The soil solution may contain colloids that can move freely to the roots and provide a vast amount of nutrients. However, we don’t know exactly how big their impact is on plants because the traditional methods of analysis make it difficult to identify dissolved colloids in undisturbed soil.

Why is that important?

In addition to nutrients, there can also be harmful substances in the soil. For example, think of PFAS, which can end up in the ground via the air. Contaminants infiltrate through pores in the soil structure and can reach the plant roots. But if we disturb the soil structure during research, it is impossible to estimate how quickly this infiltration goes and how long these substances persist. So analysing intact soil is necessary in this case too.
A second application is particularly important in the search for more efficient fertilisers to increase soil fertility, a necessity in Africa. But before we can develop such fertilisers, we have to gain more insight into how fertilisers behave in soil pores. Soil structure probably plays a part in this process; that aspect will be investigated in this project as well.

Read more about the project

Patrik Verstreken: hibernation and dementia

Full professor (BOF) at the Faculty of Medicine - host institution: VIB

What is the project about?

The Verstreken group will tackle an innovative question in neurodegenerative conditions, such as dementia, in the project Hibernating_Synapses. In its initial stages, dementia is associated with tau pathology and synaptic degeneration. Interestingly, we observe the same process in hamsters and squirrels as they enter hibernation. There is a crucial difference, though: in the rodents, this is reversible. Patrik’s team will identify the genes responsible and the corresponding human orthologs (genes shared due to common ancestry) with spatial transcriptomic and synaptic proteome analyses in hamster brains. Characterizing these genes and their functions is the first step in developing new ways to prevent synapse loss and tau pathology in dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions. 

Why is an ERC Grant important for your research?

The ERC budget is decisive to take this bold and unexplored blue-sky step in my career with enormous implications if we are successful.

Read more about the proejct   Follow the lab of Patrik Verstreken on Twitter

Johan Wagemans: analysis of aesthetic preferences

Full professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences

Congratulations! Did you expect this news? 

"Not at all. The interview with the panel didn’t go as I had expected, and I had a rather bad feeling about it. So I’m pleasantly surprised that I got the grant after all." 

What is the project about?

"It is sometimes said that there is no disputing about tastes. However, there are several factors that determine our preference for specific images. Traditionally, two categories are distinguished. Firstly, there are factors that have to do with the image itself, such as statistical regularity. However, we know that this type of factor only accounts for thirty per cent of our preferences at the most. Secondly, some factors are highly individual, like our personal taste regarding an image’s style and content."

"Both traditional approaches have reached their limit separately. That’s why we want to reconcile them. The missing link - and the focus of our project - is how observers organise images in a meaningful way. To study that, we will link aesthetic preferences for images of paintings and everyday pictures to general principles and concepts such as composition and visual accuracy." 

"Based on a large-scale online survey, we will develop a model to predict aesthetic preferences. Next, we will test that model through eye-tracking techniques, among other things. That technology enables us to monitor and analyse the eye movements of people watching a particular image: where is their gaze drawn to first, how do their eyes travel across the image, where do they linger? We already have such a pilot project in M-Museum Leuven at the moment." 

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

  • ¤150,000
  • for ERC grant holders to bring their research ideas closer to market

  • Synergy Grants

  • up to ¤10 million for 6 years

  • Katrien Bollen, Nena Testelmans, Bregt Van Hoeyveld, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), Translated by Miriel Vandeperre

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