Juliane Liepe and Stefan Glöggler receive ERC Starting Grants

September 03, 2020

The European Research Council (ERC) funds the research group leaders at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry with about 1.5 million euros. This year, 3272 junior scientists applied for the ERC Starting Grants, 436 of them succeeded in the competition for the best research projects.

Dr. Stefan Glöggler

Stefan Glöggler’s research focuses on nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR for short. This method has had a massive impact on the world we live in today: It is the basis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, which is used by hospitals and medical practices worldwide to take millions of MRI images every year to identify and investigate diseases and to assess the progress of therapies. NMR is also one of the standard methods used to examine proteins and other molecules at atomic resolution. Despite its versatile application, NMR is a rather insensitive technique. The chemist wants to improve this by developing new contrast agents that can also be used for medical diagnostics.

Developing better contrast agents for diagnosis of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases

So-called hyperpolarization methods can amplify NMR signals by more than 10,000 times. Hyperpolarized molecules are, for example, used as contrast agents to directly observe metabolic processes in the organism. “However, most of these contrast agents can be followed for up to three minutes only. Then, the hyperpolarized signal is used up, so to speak. With the funding we will develop contrast agents that can be tracked for longer than ten minutes,” the group leader reports. Glöggler's team has already achieved promising results: The researchers succeeded in producing molecules that can be hyperpolarized and are able to store the hyperpolarized signal for ten minutes or more. 

“There are two goals we will focus on over the funding period of five years. First, we want to study physiological functions directly in the tissue. Second, we want to make these improved contrast agents available for diagnosis of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases,” explains the Max Planck researcher. “I am very happy that the achievements of our group have now been awarded with an ERC Starting Grant, it is a great recognition of the work of my entire team.” 

After studying chemistry, Stefan Glöggler received his doctorate in the same subject from RWTH Aachen in 2013. He then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California in Los Angeles (United States), the Université Bordeaux (France), and the University of Southampton (UK). Since 2017, he heads the Max Planck Research Group NMR Signal Enhancement at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry.

 Predicting antigens of infected and cancer cells

Dr. Juliane Liepe

Juliane Liepe, research group leader at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, convinced in the competition with her project to use so-called computational immunology to decipher how our immune system recognizes infected or cancer cells. To find out how an infection challenges the immune system, scientists perform not only laboratory experiments. A new branch of research, called computational immunology, takes advantage of the enormous progress in bioinformatics and the ever-increasing computing power. It aims at integrating experiments done in the lab with those done in a virtual lab via computers to provide a more comprehensive understanding of how our immune system works and how it could be supported therapeutically to combat new threats such as SARS-CoV-2.

Pathogen-infected and cancer cells carry antigens on their surface, which can be recognized by one of the deadliest ‘weapons’ of our immune system – so-called cytotoxic T lymphocytes. “If we could model and predict what kind of antigens infected and cancer cells show to cytotoxic T cells, we can better educate our immune system to properly respond and combat infected or tumor cells. This could be via vaccination or immunomodulatory therapies, for example” explains the Max Planck researcher.  

Liepe's team already combines experimental and computational biology in order to develop strategies to identify unconventional antigens of pathogens and cancer cells. With the funding, her group will construct a computational model that shows how cells communicate with the immune system, regardless of whether or not they are infected. “For this project, we will collaborate with colleagues in Europe and the United States to generate an accurate virtual picture of an immunological process that we can easily combine with other models. We thereby hope to better understand, predict, and modulate the immune system,” she says. 

 Juliane Liepe studied biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Potsdam, followed by a master's degree in bioinformatics and theoretical systems biology at Imperial College London (UK). After completing her doctoral studies at Imperial College, she continued to work there as a postdoctoral fellow and a David Sainsbury Research Fellow. In 2017, she moved to the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, where she has been heading the research group Quantitative and Systems Biology since. 

European Research Council and ERC Starting Grants

 The European Commission established the European Research Council (ERC) in 2007 to support outstanding scientists with innovative research projects. The ERC Starting Grant is open to young researchers who have worked in science for two to seven years after their doctorate. In this year's competition for the ERC Starting Grants, the ERC has awarded 677 million euros of funding. (cr)

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