Cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012 according to the World Health Organization. Research on cancer development, treatment and prevention is essential to reduce the burden of the disease. Since 2007, the ERC has supported more than 100 projects in this field for an amount of over €200 million. The Annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Philadelphia is an opportunity to meet ERC grantees working in the field.
© Courtesy C. Blanpain - A clone arising from the labelling of single cancer stem cellDetails
On Sunday 19 April 2015, at the ERC workshop Funding Opportunities in Europe for Creative Minds From Anywhere in the World taking place at the AACR, three of them will be sharing their experience with ERC funding. Discover their research projects, three different approaches that can make the difference in cancer research, three new ways to advance the scientific knowledge on cancer origin and development. Their findings could open the door to new, alternative or more adapted treatments for patients suffering from cancer.
From the onset, the role of adult stem cells
Cancer develops from a single cell. It is the transformation of this normal cell into a cancerous one that causes the formation of a tumour and its progression. For the vast majority of cancers, the cell at the origin remained unknown but researchers believed adult stem cells could be involved in this process. These cells act as a repair and replacement system for our cells following, for instance, an injury. For this purpose, they can self-renew for long periods of time. This ability provides an opportunity for transformed cells to multiply and accumulate, leading to cancer formation.
With his CANCERSTEM project, Dr Blanpain aimed at defining the role of adult stem cells in the initiation of skin cancers, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and how they contribute to the growth of tumours. Using mouse models, his team could identify that the first cancerous cells can arise from different stem cells of our epidermis. The researchers also explored the importance of cancer stem cells during the different stages of tumour progression and for the first time, they could show of the existence of cancer stem cells within their natural environment. This finding is key, since the latter have been described as feeding tumour growth. They could be resistant to treatment and therefore be responsible for tumour relapse after therapy.
Dr Blanpain’s findings on the cell origin of cancer and its progression with cancer stem cells could point at new targets for anti-cancer therapies.
Researcher: Cédric Blanpain
Host Institution: Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium
ERC Project: Towards a better understanding of the origin of the tumour: Stem cells in epithelial cancer initiation and growth (CANCERSTEM)
ERC Call: Starting grant 2007
ERC Funding: € 1.6 million for five years
© Courtesy C. Blanpain
A new target for anti-cancer treatment
With her ERC project, Dr Soucek aims to test and validate a new potential target for anti-tumour therapies and develop a drug that could potentially be used against most human cancers. She focuses on a protein called Myc, which plays an important regulatory role in our cells. When deregulated, however, the protein causes uncontrolled proliferation of cells, leading to cancer.
Targeting Myc in cancer therapy has been largely ignored until recently because of the predicted devastating side effects that a drug could have on surrounding healthy tissues and the difficulty in designing small molecule inhibitors. However, Dr Soucek believes her team can design a drug based on peptide molecules derived from Myc that would be able to inhibit deregulated Myc proteins without any detrimental consequences in normal tissues. Preliminary studies in mice have shown the benefits of her approach, which demonstrated a dramatic therapeutic impact with relatively mild and reversible side effects. She aims at identifying peptides that can enter the cell and block the action of Myc, and which could be administered safely as a drug. She will test the most promising ones for their ability to inhibit lung cancer in mouse models.
If successful, this high-risk/high-gain project will provide alternative therapeutic treatments for cancer with limited side effects.
Researcher: Laura Soucek
Host Institution: Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology (VHIO), Spain
ERC Project: Pushing Myc inhibition towards the clinic (MYCINHIBINCLINIC)
ERC Call: Consolidator grant 2013
ERC Funding: €1.7 million for five years
Understanding drug resistance in breast cancer
Why does the same treatment bring relief to some patients and work less well for others? Therapies targeting estrogen receptors in cells are routinely used ‘first line’ for breast cancer but patients’ responses to the treatment vary greatly, and cancer resistance to these drugs is acknowledged as a significant problem.
Dr Jason Caroll looks at how these estrogen receptors function: how they participate in gene transcription in healthy cells and how this can contribute to breast cancer progression. During the course of his project, he was able to delineate their role and their molecular ‘partners’ in the process that drives the development of breast cancer. In particular, Dr Caroll’s research has revealed mechanisms involved in drug resistance. With his team, he could identify a protein called ‘FoxA1’ with a critical impact on the function of estrogen receptors during resistance to drug treatment.
The finding makes FoxA1 a potential target for anti-cancer drugs, and this option is currently explored further. The researcher hopes this could constitute an opportunity to treat breast cancer patients resistant to currently available drugs, and possibly to relieve patients with prostate cancer as well.
Researcher: Jason Carroll
Host Institution: University of Cambridge, UK
ERC Project: Chromatin Mediators of Estrogen Receptor Biology (ER_Partners)
ERC Call: Starting grant 2009
ERC Funding: €1.5 million for five years
Discover more stories in the ERC cancer research brochure
For the first time ever, two ERC grantees, Prof. Luca G. Guidotti and Dr Matteo Iannacone, have observed in vivo how specific white blood cells, so-called cytotoxic T lymphocytes, identify, target and attack liver cells that are infected with the hepatitis B virus. To witness these immune cells in action in real time, the two scientists developed advanced, dynamic imaging techniques. An estimated 240 million people are chronically infected with hepatitis B worldwide. This discovery, published today in the scientific journal Cell, opens new horizons for the development of novel therapies.
© Guidotti et al./Cell 2015 - Cytotoxic T lymphocytes (red) recognize and kill infected liver cells (brown) while remaining inside the blood vesselDetails
Cytotoxic T lymphocytes are the armed soldiers of our immune system. They circulate throughout the body blood vessels searching for infected or transformed cells, seeking to destroy them. However, how these lymphocytes actually reach and attack liver cells infected by the hepatitis B virus (known as HBV) has remained unknown for long. Prof. Guidotti and Dr Iannacone have now captured, in real time and from the inside, the body's immune response during the various stages of an HBV infection of liver cells.
Crawling sentinels with lethal tentacles
In Cell, the researchers report how cytotoxic T lymphocytes are alerted by small blood cells, called platelets. These build a "sticky mat" within the liver smaller blood vessels (so called liver sinusoids), in order to attract circulating lymphocytes where they are needed and to block their unhindered further patrolling in blood. After docking to platelets, the cytotoxic T lymphocytes start slowly crawling within the liver sinusoids, even against the bloodstream direction.
"As they crawl, the lymphocytes start deploying tiny tentacles – 10,000 times smaller than a millimetre each - slipping them through small natural holes in the vessel wall called fenestrae", explain the two Italian scientists based at the San Raffaele Scientific Institute (SRSI) in Milan. "Once identified, the same tentacles serve to inject deadly toxins into infected cells situated on the other side of the vessel wall, while the lymphocytes remain inside the blood vessel".
Prof. Guidotti and Dr Iannacone's observations also help explaining why liver fibrosis - a condition frequently observed during chronic HBV infection where the fenestrae are being reduced in number and diameter - is such a predisposing factor for the development of liver cancer. The blockade of the fenestrae may inhibit the capacity of the tiny tentacles to reach target cells, thus reducing the efficiency of our immune system in tracking altered liver cells.
According to the most recent World Health Organisation estimations, over 240 million people are chronically infected by the hepatitis B virus and each year, approximately 780,000 persons die from disease complications. These latest scientific findings open innovative and important scientific horizons that could help to develop new treatments against liver diseases, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The best equipment, back at home
“These results are the outcome of research started many years ago in the US. We then realised that we needed better technology to further understand how the disease progresses in the liver of mice. Back at home, the ERC grants helped us to develop the most modern high-resolution microscopes and state-of-the-art imaging methodology. In Milan, we have now one of the best research facilities worldwide to film, record and analyse what happens live and in vivo at the level of a single cell,” say Prof. Guidotti and Dr Iannacone.
After almost twenty years as a faculty member of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, Prof. Guidotti stably joined SRSI in 2009 as the Head of the Laboratory of Immunopathology. Since 2013, Prof. Guidotti also serves as Deputy Scientific Director of SRSI.
Dr Iannacone was a member of Guidotti's research team in California between 2002 and 2007 and joined Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, thereafter. He moved to SRSI in 2010 to Head the Laboratory of Dynamics of Immune Responses.
Since their arrival in Milan, these two independent scientists work together supported by ERC grants.
"The ERC grant is the reason why we unexpectedly came back to Europe and a unique opportunity to carry out risky research" conclude Prof. Guidotti and Dr. Iannacone.
Immunosurveillance of the liver by intravascular effector CD8+ T cells - Cell, April 2015
Luca G. Guidotti1,2,9, Donato Inverso1,3,9, Laura Sironi1,4, Pietro Di Lucia1, Jessica Fioravanti1, Lucia Ganzer1,4, Amleto Fiocchi1, Maurizio Vacca1, Roberto Aiolfi1,3, Stefano Sammicheli1, Marta Mainetti1, Tiziana Cataudella1, Andrea Raimondi5, Gloria Gonzalez-Aseguinolaza6, Ulrike Protzer7, Zaverio M. Ruggeri8, Francis V. Chisari2, Masanori Isogawa2, Giovanni Sitia1 and Matteo Iannacone1,3,5
Project details:Principal investigator:Prof. Luca G. GuidottiHost institution:San Raffaele Scientific Institute (Ospedale San Raffaele), ItalyProject:Imaging liver immunopathology by intravital microscopy (IVM): a new approach to study the pathogenesis of hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection (LIVER IVM AND HBV)ERC call:Advanced grant 2009ERC funding:€ 2.046.200Project duration:5 yearsPrincipal investigator:Dr. Matteo IannaconeHost institution:Universita Vita-Salute San Raffaele, ItalyProject:In vivo dynamics of antibody responses to lymph-borne viruses (IVM-VIRUS-nAb)ERC call:Starting grant 2011ERC funding:€ 1.934.200Project duration:5 years
- Division of Immunology, Transplantation and Infectious Diseases, IRCCS San Raffaele Scientific Institute, 20132 Milan, Italy
- Department of Immunology and Microbial Sciences, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA;
- Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, 20132 Milan, Italy
- Department of Physics, University of Milano Bicocca, 20126 Milan, Italy;
- Experimental Imaging Center, IRCCS San Raffaele Scientific Institute, 20132 Milan, Italy
- Gene Therapy and Gene Regulation program, Center for Applied Medical Research, 31008 Pamplona, Spain
- Institute of Virology, Technical University of Munich, 81675 Munich, Germany
- Department of Molecular and Experimental Medicine, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
- Co-first authors
We normally think of anthropologists studying ‘exotic’ cultures – ancient tribes that live in faraway places. But how about cultures that are closer to home? Professor Rebecca Cassidy has devoted herself to anthropological studies of European cultures of gambling. In the ‘Gambling in Europe’ (GAMSOC) project – funded by the ERC – Prof. Cassidy and her team have taken this a step further, and conducted an anthropological study of the gambling research community itself.Details
The gambling industry in Europe, which is already worth an estimated EUR 89 billion, is undergoing rapid growth and change. Having resisted the economic downturn, gambling is expected to be worth EUR 351 billion globally by 2015.
The nature of gambling is also changing: the impact of online gambling, cross-border gambling companies and other new phenomena enabled by technology are a source of concern to legislators and consumers, and are still poorly understood. That is why the GAMSOC project – having applied anthropological research methods to the relationships between gambling and religion, gender, age, social class and regulation – then set out to apply them to the world of gambling research.
“It is more important than ever to look at how knowledge on gambling is produced,” explains Prof. Cassidy. “As anthropologists, we participate in the same culture as the people we are investigating. And we feel this gives us a unique perspective to ask ‘Why do we not understand gambling better?’”
Broadening the field
The project’s report, entitled ‘Fair Game: producing gambling research’, concludes that gambling research currently is too heavily dependent on industry support. It also finds that the industry is often reluctant to share data with researchers – and there is a lack of transparency around relationships and influence between industry and researchers.
“Our report shows the need to separate fund-raising from research,” says the professor. “We want to open up the debate: What is evidence? How does this shape the debate?”
The project concludes that research is often limited in its aims, tending to focus only on individuals whose gambling has become pathological. Funding is often only available for research into people for whom gambling has become a ‘problem’ or addiction, rather than the wider social and cultural implications for a society where gambling is ever more prevalent.
“Research funding is often limited to looking at ‘problem gambling’,” says Prof. Cassidy, “with an implicit assumption that gambling is OK for others. But this closes down questions about the broader community and gambling’s impact.”
“The question is: how robust are the mechanisms for the protection of the public now?” she says. “There tends to be resistance to regulations until the research community can produce ‘causal evidence of harm’. But in many cases it might not be possible.”
The report includes detailed recommendations which the researchers hope will influence future support for research in the field. They suggest, for instance, setting up a professional code of ethics, funding research into a wider range of topics using a wider variety of research methodologies, and levying the gambling industry in order to provide public funds for such research.
The four researchers in the GAMSOC team had previously carried out in-depth case studies of different gambling cultures – Chinese casinos, croupiers in Slovenia, mobile gambling in emerging economies, and Cyprus blackjack tables – published in 2013.
“For my previous research into horse racing, for example, I lived and worked in Newmarket,” Prof. Cassidy explains. “But for this project, the research community is very widely distributed, so we spoke at conferences, attended events and organised interviews with stakeholders.”
In all, the project approached 143 people, with 109 being interviewed. The primary focus was in the UK – with 67 subjects interviewed there – but also covered Hong Kong, Macau and Slovenia, which are in strong contrast to the mature UK market.
“There was no homogeneous industry line,” Prof. Cassidy emphasises. “We found very diverse industry opinion – producing information that the field has not considered before, including very candid responses to the question: ‘why is research limited?’”
“Thanks to funding by the ERC, we have enjoyed a privileged position that allowed us to really examine how gambling research is carried out – in a way that would be impossible without that independent support,” says Prof. Cassidy. “It encouraged us to take risks, asking difficult and less-obvious questions. It’s a feature of ERC Starting Grants that we are encouraged to go outside the field and ask new questions.”
Prof. Rebecca Cassidy’s website: http://www.gold.ac.uk/gamblingineurope/
GAMSOC project blog: http://gamblingacrossborders.wordpress.com/
To download the ‘Fair Game: producing gambling research’ report: http://www.gold.ac.uk/gamblingineurope/report/
Watch Prof. Cassidy speaking at Falling Walls conference 2011: http://falling-walls.com/videos/Rebecca-Cassidy-1116
Video trailer for the ‘Fair Game’ report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFi4tvfFbJU&feature=youtu.be
Watch “The Bela game”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRfEW22_FfQProject details:Principal investigator:Prof. Rebecca CassidyHost institution:Goldsmiths College, University of London, United KingdomProject:Gambling in Europe (GAMSOC)ERC call:Starting Grant 2010ERC funding:EUR 1 200 000Project duration:5 years
Space exploration may one day reveal clues to the origin of the universe and life on Earth. In the meantime, scientific advances in the field have supported “space services” for everyday life such as weather forecasts and satellite navigation on our phones. With his ERC grant, space engineer Prof. Colin McInnes explored the mathematics of new families of orbits around the Earth for spacecraft, from micro-satellites to large solar sails. The objective was to map these orbits and to uncover potential applications for new space technologies in fields as diverse as space science, Earth observation and telecommunications.
Credit: Charlotte Bewick - Swarm of ‘smart dust’ micro-sensors in Earth orbit for space physics applications.Details
“Space has a huge impact on our lives,” says Prof. McInnes, “but it is invisible to us. It is amazing to think that a technology such as satellite navigation which thirty years ago was only available to the military is now embedded in our smartphones and available at the touch of a button. When we look at a map on our phones using satellite navigation the locational point is the top of a pyramid which stretches right back to the rocket which launched the satellites into space”. Space technology is now harnessed for a wide variety of civilian uses – telecommunications, monitoring crop growth, urban development and climate science.
At the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, Prof. McInnes' team has used an ERC Advanced Grant to explore the potential of various orbits, both close to and far from Earth, to support future space products and services. They used mathematical modelling to understand how natural forces such as light pressure from the sun can generate new families of orbits, for example using the pressure of sunlight on a large reflective sail to hover stationary over the poles of the Earth for climate science observations.
Prof. McInnes’ fascination with space began as a young child gazing at a picture of a rocket on his Junior School classroom wall. Add to this an inspirational physics teacher at High School demonstrating projectile motion and he was hooked. Through the VISIONSPACE project, his team also investigated Near Earth Objects (NEOs) – asteroids or comets in orbits close to that of the Earth. The team has looked into how they could exploit the natural effects to manipulate the orbits of NEOs, ultimately to engineer some of them for capture at the Earth and exploitation for future in-space resource use.
In the course of the project, the team discovered a new class of easy-to-capture asteroids that could be mined for raw materials in the future to support future space ventures. Within a catalog of 10,000 space objects, the researchers identified a new category of “Easily Retrievable Objects” (EROs) and 12 fairly small asteroids, ranging in size from approximately 2 meters to 60 meters in diameter, which could be captured with existing space technology. Applications include baking water out of small asteroids using heat from the Sun to provide resources for future human space exploration.
The researchers also recently calculated ways to use so-called “sticky” orbits, where the asteroid is not strictly captured but would remain at an accessible distance from the Earth. Their method, yet to be developed and put to the test, could be cheaper than others currently considered by space agencies.
The freedom to think
Prof. McInnes describes the ERC funding as “a fantastic opportunity and essential to the health and wellbeing of the European research base because it is the only funder which is supporting unconstrained frontier research in this way.” In the context of his five-year VISIONSPACE grant, it meant that the team was encouraged to pursue curiosity-driven research, not least because they were freed from the need to regularly re-apply for funding.
The funding led to the establishment of a new Space Institute at the University of Strathclyde, a regional Centre of Excellence in satellite applications and strong links with Glasgow-based CubeSat manufacturer Clyde Space Ltd. It also gave the research team the time and space to explore unexpected ideas, such as applying prior research by astronomers on the orbits interplanetary dust to design new ways of removing space debris, such as old satellites or spacecraft fragments, ultimately “cleaning space”.
Since finishing his ERC project Prof. McInnes has moved to the University of Glasgow, where he is James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science and hopes to bridge the forthcoming centenary of his Chair with the intellectual possibilities of science and engineering of the next hundred years – further opening the “envelope of possibilities for our future”.Project details:Research area:Products and process engineeringPrincipal investigator:Prof. Colin McInnesHost institution:University of Strathclyde (UK)Project:Visionary Space Systems: Orbital Dynamics at Extremes of Spacecraft Length-Scale (VISIONSPACE)ERC call:Advanced Grant 2008ERC funding:€2 million for five years
- Garcia Yarnoz, D., Sanchez, J.P., and McInnes, C.: ‘Easily retrievable objects among the NEO population’, Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 367-388, 2013.
- Heiligers, J., McInnes, C. R., and Ceriotti, M.: ‘Mission analysis and systems design of a near-term and far-term pole-sitter mission’, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 94, No. 1, pp. 455-469, 2014.
In June 1770, the explorer James Cook ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and became the first European to experience the world's largest coral reef, today a paradise for scientists and holidaymakers alike. Last year, the James Cook research vessel set out to encounter unique and unexplored corals, this time in the deep ocean. Led by ERC grantee Dr Laura Robinson (University of Bristol, UK), the team on board crossed the equatorial Atlantic to take samples of deep-sea corals, reaching depths of thousands of meters. On the expedition, Dr Robinson collected samples that are shedding light on past climate changes and she will share her findings at TEDx Brussels.
©Illustrations: TROPICS CruiseDetails
The group of researchers are using coral skeletons and sediments to analyse abrupt climate changes in the Atlantic over the past 30,000 years. The data collected also show how deep-sea ecosystems are affected by changes in the ocean such as the concentration of carbon dioxide and water circulation. The scientific crew transited from Tenerife to Trinidad, stopping at selected sites to dive down and collect data from undersea mountains, many of which had not been explored in any detail before. To reach these depths, the scientists used the ISIS Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), a remarkable piece of equipment which can travel far beyond the range of human divers.
Speaking after the first dive, Dr Robinson explained: "We have collected samples of coral skeletons from a range of depths, some of which are likely to date back millennia. We were amazed to see the wide array and abundance of fauna living on and around the seamount from corals to sharks."
Pioneering research for the future
Robinson's project explores exciting new areas of oceanography. One of the team's aims is to discover the conditions required for cold-water deep-sea corals to survive in the central Atlantic, an area for which data are scarce. To do this, they couple a modern ‘snapshot’ of where and why corals live today with a historic perspective gained from determining the age of fossil coral populations. Documenting such information is particularly important as these ecosystems are thought to be particularly vulnerable to changes in ocean chemistry. For example, a parameter known as aragonite saturation, a key predictor of coral abundance, is decreasing as the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean increases. Projections indicate that by 2100, around 70% of deep water corals are likely to be living in undersaturated waters.
One of the most innovative aspects of the project is the new geochemical techniques the scientists are using to analyse their samples. When applied to coral skeletons and sediment from the seafloor, these techniques should reveal ancient changes in heat and carbon levels, particularly during times when the global climate moved rapidly from cold to warm conditions. In another first for deep-sea research, the ISIS ROV has taken coral skeletons from exactly the same locations as water and sediment samples, so that they can be compared more accurately in a single program of tests.
As our climate continues to change, their findings could help to predict how and when ocean transformations will occur. As Dr Robinson points out: "It is only through looking at the history of the earth's climate that we can predict what might happen in the future."
A voyage to cross frontiers
On board the James Cook during its 48-day voyage were a team of 19 researchers, including another ERC grantee, Veerle Huvenne, who is working on an underwater mapping project. The multidisciplinary team brought together ideas from diverse fields, including oceanography, geochemistry and marine biology, in order to cross frontiers in our present knowledge of the oceans.
When asked about funding for the voyage, Dr Robinson said, "The ERC grant has been fundamental in enabling this whole research program. Among other things, I have used the money to hire the highly specialised equipment aboard the James Cook and to recruit a great team. One very important aspect of our work is creating inspirational opportunities for the next wave of upcoming scientists in Europe and this project has allowed me to bring together a varied and talented group of researchers."
Dr Robinson will talk at TEDx Brussels about how the ocean's environment has changed and what might happen in the future. She will speak at the ERC session, starting at 2.15 pm.
To follow the adventures of the scientists as they crossed the Atlantic, consult their blog here.Project details:Principal investigator:Laura RobinsonHost institution:University of Bristol (UK)Project:Reconstructing abrupt Changes in Chemistry and Circulation of the Equatorial Atlantic Ocean: Implications for global Climate and deep-water Habitats (CACH)ERC call:Starting Grant 2011ERC funding:€2 millionProject duration:Five years
First dive (21/10/2013) - Pictures ©TROPICS Cruise More pictures here
November 2014November 2014
At Trinity College Dublin Professor Jonathan Coleman and his team are creating a ‘gateway technology’ in material science that, if successful, will open the door to a host of industrial applications. Their research focuses on producing two-dimensional monolayers of a variety of materials by exfoliation. Prof. Coleman's TEDx talk will introduce the audience to this technology and demonstrate how to make the 'wonder material' graphene in a kitchen blender.
©Grantee picture: Courtesy J ColemanDetails
Prof. Coleman first demonstrated how to create nanomaterials in this way by producing graphene – one atom thick monolayers of carbon with unique electronic properties. He showed that subjecting bulk graphite to sonic energy while suspended in a liquid causes carbon monolayers to ‘exfoliate’ from the graphite. This produces a liquid dispersion of graphene monolayer flakes. In 2010, he received an ERC Starting Grant to expand his award-winning research and demonstrate its wider potential. Indeed, it would take the weight of an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of cling film.
Prof. Coleman’s team is now applying this technology to many other industrially important materials, for example by exfoliating monolayers of tantalum sulphide, a metallic conductor; boron nitride, an insulator; and molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), a semiconductor. These form the building blocks for nanoelectronics applications – but the significant element is that it is done in the liquid phase. So by allowing the suspended monolayers to settle out onto a surface and form a continuous film, the team are producing stacked layers of conducting, insulating and semiconducting films, of controlled thickness and with well-defined electrical and optical properties – from which a host of devices such as semiconductors and detectors can be manufactured in bulk.
And the potential of this research is not only in electronics. Monolayers of molybdenum disulphide are 20 times stronger than steel, so it can be used to strengthen other materials, such as plastics, which are also processed in liquid solvents. Prof. Coleman’s team have demonstrated exactly this by co-depositing a small amount of MoS2 with an everyday polymer plastic – which more than doubled its strength!
Plastics are ubiquitous in structural applications – for example as car components. So doubling the strength means that half the material is needed – reducing the amount of oil required to produce plastics in the first place, and reducing the weight, and thus the emissions from cars. This is why Prof Coleman’s research is described as a ‘gateway technology’ – if they can demonstrate industrially tractable applications, then the potential take-up is enormous.
In advance of his TEDx talk, Prof. Coleman said: "I am very much looking forward to sharing the latest developments in material science with the audience at TEDx. The discovery of graphene has opened a door to countless potential real-world applications and I think the people at TEDx will find the prospect of creating two-dimensional monolayers of a variety of materials as exciting as I do!"
Listen to Prof. Coleman discuss these developments during the TEDx Brussels ERC session at 2.15 pm. He will also be present at the ERC booth in the 'fumoir' area of BOZAR at coffee breaks to demonstrate how to make graphene in a kitchen blender.Project details:Principal investigator:Prof. Jonathan ColemanHost institution:Trinity College, Dublin, IrelandProject:Semiconducting and metallic nanosheets: two-dimensional electronic and mechanical materials (SEMANTICS)ERC call:Starting Grant 2010ERC funding:€1.41 millionProject duration:five years
November 2014November 2014
As Europe continues to confront the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis it becomes ever-more important to fathom not only how Europe can return to productive levels of employment, but why it is failing to do so. Professor Pissarides’s ERC research examines both what kind of jobs Europeans do and future trends in employment. He will present his research to the public at TEDx Brussels event on 1 December.
Portrait © Christopher Pissarides
Illustration ©2014 iStockphotoDetails
Shaping employment policies
Exploring not only the factors that influence total job creation but also the sectors that attract most jobs has obvious implications for policy-makers. The aim is to make policy recommendations based on a clearer understanding of how European labour markets function. Prof. Pissarides offers the example of Sweden which “creates twice as many jobs in social sectors like healthcare or childcare as Italy. This partly explains why Sweden has more overall employment than Italy, especially of women. Preliminary research tells us that a main factor behind this difference is Sweden’s social policy which heavily subsidises social care, whereas Italy’s subsidies are miniscule.”
The results of this research are still preliminary. Early observations have revealed that European-wide patterns disguise a lot of interesting differences between countries. Women are key to these differences. The UK and the Netherlands have labour market policies which privilege part-time jobs, whereas Scandinavia subsidises jobs in health, care and education: all traditionally female dominated areas. These findings could have implications for future female employment rates because they offer a policy model for how to encourage women into work.
This research builds on previous work on European employment trends. Despite existing efforts in this area, there has been little research into employment activity by sector: work which is vital if we are to better understand the effect of policy on employment patterns. We need to learn not only how many people work but also what kind of jobs they do.
Prof. Pissarides explains that this work is of great significance beyond academia because “it is about citizens’ jobs and their wages. Most citizens spend the majority of their time in their place of employment. Family welfare depends on the income generated in those jobs. Knowing how many and what kind of jobs a country can support is essential to understanding how we can improve ordinary citizens’ employment situations.”
Prof. Pissarides’s research into labour economics is driven by the desire to understand and explain problems. When he began, published work in this area said very little about how to model solutions to the problems being described: “We learned several different approaches, each with its own conclusions and policy recommendations, but we were never told which one was right and which wrong. I decided to start my research by ignoring all those, starting from a new beginning and then, when I had my tools, checking where the other approaches could be fitted.”
Prof. Pissarides describes himself as working “best in an office without music or other interruptions”: “Just an empty desk in front of me populated only by pen and paper or a laptop. The biggest threat to that ideal environment is the internet and the many things that it brings you: email and access to websites connected with work and some not so connected. Of course, I am not blind to the benefits of the internet: it is indispensable in my work. But frequently it takes more discipline than I can muster to use it efficiently before it takes over my whole being.”
The origin of ideas
Economics was not his first choice: “It was a coincidence. I never planned to do it as a young man. I much preferred sciences or architecture. But when my parents told me that I should become an accountant I reluctantly agreed on condition that I do it via an economics degree. When doing economics I discovered that it satisfied my curiosity for scientific discovery. After this I stuck with it.”
Prof. Pissarides traces the origins of his current research back to the moment when he wrote “two simple equations that could represent the famous Beveridge curve (the empirical relation between unemployment and vacancies).” “I could see them working exactly in the way empirical labour economists described it and as candidates to open up the whole area of research in the study of markets with frictions: markets that do not jump to full employment in the way described by mainstream theory.”
This was the beginning of a publication cited as the origins of the research which won Prof. Pissarides the Nobel Prize in 2010.* Despite its significance, he describes it as a “eureka moment but not of the kind that makes you run naked in the street. Just as well I guess, London is pretty cold, not to mention other potential hazards.”
Prof. Pissarides characterises the effect of the ERC grant as enabling you to “focus on one big issue and providing you with the support that you need to pursue it. Every single thing that they offer contributes to the research: from the administrative support, through the assistants and collaborators, to the time release that they negotiate with your institution. I am very fortunate to have it.”
* The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel - awarded jointly to Christopher Pissarides, Peter Diamond and Dale Mortensen.
Listen to Prof. Pissarides on 1 December at 9.00 am (BOZAR, Salle Henry Le Boeuf).Project details:Research area:Individuals, Institutions and MarketsPrincipal investigator:Prof. Christopher PissaridesHost institution:University of Cyprus (Cyprus)Project:Employment in Europe (EUROEMP)ERC call:Advanced grant 2012ERC funding:€2.2 millionProject duration:five years
November 2014November 2014
The idea of invisibility sounds like something out of science fiction: but could new research turn it from fiction into science? The ambition behind Professor Leonhardt’s ERC- funded research is to trace the connections between abstract theoretical concepts, drawn from geometry and relativity, and their practical implications in fields from materials to photonics. He will be presenting this research to the public at the TEDx Brussels event on 1 December.Details
The ideas behind the science of invisibility seem to come from a fantastical realm outside the reach of the laboratory. Yet, the tools used to investigate this are not in themselves complicated. Prof. Leonhardt’s work explores the practicalities of invisibility: drawing on cutting-edge optical science which also has profound implications for relativity theory.
The science of the everyday
This research is founded on the connection between geometry and optics: in exploring the space/time curvature for example. This kind of high-impact physics may seem remote from everyday life but the same physics governs the optics of magnifying glasses, or the displacement of objects in water. The best way to describe this process is to think of fish in an aquarium. We see the fish in places other than where they are actually located because the water has distorted the images. Our perception of space is then altered by the water, as our perception is created by the way in which light perceives the altered space.
The research team are testing this distinction by pushing it to extremes to see where it can be taken, and whether any new and intriguing ideas can be developed.
The fundamentals of science
The mysteries of optics have interested scientists for over a thousand years. They have inspired research into what new technology can teach us about the intersection between physics and optics. Beyond this theoretical exploration, Prof. Leonhardt is tracing the potential practical applications: for example in the sharpness and resolution of imaging techniques, and the implications for quantum physics. The forces acting in a quantum vacuum are of particular interest for this project. Whilst these concepts seem abstract, Prof. Leonhardt explains that the vacuum is something we experience day-to-day: “These forces are what make a parking ticket stick to a windscreen. Both surfaces are electrically neutral but they nonetheless attract each other. The forces are particularly important for micro-mechanical devices where they may cause parts of the machinery to get stuck. Our work should aid the development of frictionless devices. The quantum vacuum is also what drives particle behaviour at the event horizon, only on a cosmological scale. This research could shed light on the mysteries of dark energy, the repulsive force which energises the universe, but about which we understand very little.”
The appeal of optics
Prof. Leonhardt’s current line of research began fifteen years ago, when he was giving a lecture course on general relativity. The details of this were unfamiliar, and it prompted him to think about how to communicate it clearly, and to explore the connections between what he was teaching and his background in optics.
This project should enlarge our understanding of the world at both the small and the cosmological scale. Prof. Leonhardt emphasises that the ERC’s commitment to funding frontier research means that “ideas which may seem outrageous can be pursued. Because if they are right they should be taken seriously, however peculiar they may seem. The significant thing is what they teach us.”
The world beyond the laboratory
Prof. Leonhardt’s research is highly imaginative, but the tools themselves are not particularly technical. He believes this is the source of his appeal to the TEDx audience. He argues that the public can be “gripped by frontier research without even labelling it as such. They can then be made to understand that research takes time. We do not always need to think in terms of applications, though of course these can and do arise in the course of research. If we don’t support frontier research we will just carry on refining existing technologies. We may even run out of ideas.”
Discussing the TEDx event, Prof. Leonhardt is adamant that such dissemination events are vital because the science is “publicly funded and so the public should know where the money goes - that it is not wasted and that it produces interesting ideas and applications.”
The ERC funding is focused on the individual researcher, an emphasis which Prof. Leonhardt argues ideally suits the generation of ideas. Flexibility fosters the kind of science where by definition you don’t know the answers yet. Also inspired by the relationship between imaginative literature, science and musics, he compares the science he does to an orchestra “where both the conductor and the varied musicians are necessary to complete the piece.”
Listen to Prof. Leonhardt on 1 December at 2.15 pm (Salle Henry Le Boeuf). Prof. Leonhardt will also give a demonstration of the science of invisibility at the ERC booth in the 'fumoir' area of BOZAR during coffee breaks.
Also watch the video on invisibility of science by clicking here.Project details:Research area:Fundamental constituents of matterPrincipal investigator:Prof. Ulf LeonhardtHost institution:Weizmann Institute of Science (Israel)Project:Transformation optics: cloaking, perfect imaging and horizons (TRANSFORM OPTICS)ERC call:Advanced grant 2012ERC funding:€2.5 millionProject duration:five years
November 2014November 2014
A research background in earthquake engineering seems at first sight like an unusual fit with studying tsunamis. But on her return from Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, Professor Tiziana Rossetto discovered that very little research had been done into the effects of tsunamis on coastal infrastructure and she wanted to find out more. She will be presenting this research to the public at the TEDx Brussels event on 1 December.
© images: EEFIT - Tiziana Rossetto, HR WallingfordDetails
An ambitious exercise
Prof. Rossetto looks back at the origins of her current project as the result of asking “Why not?” when told that tsunami waves could not be simulated in the lab. She was also attracted to earthquake engineering because it is a new science, and one in which an impact can be made very tangibly. She says that “it allows us to contribute to a revolution in how we design buildings. It combines engineering with seismology, structural dynamics and even the social sciences.”
Her ERC-funded research looks at the damage caused by the impact of tsunamis on buildings by modelling the horizontal force that hits buildings during a tsunami, and studying how they react. Looking at the load that buildings can withstand should teach us more about how we can mitigate these forces. The aim is to improve sea defence systems, rather than the buildings themselves, as it is more likely that these coastal defence systems can be constructed and maintained in the areas of the world that are affected by tsunamis, which tend to be developing nations.
The devastating impact that tsunamis can have on infrastructure is illustrated in very distinct ways by the cataclysmic effects of the “Boxing Day” tsunami (2004) and the tsunami which hit Japan in 2011. In the Indian Ocean crisis, whole communities were swept away by the waves. In Japan, the tsunami caused the meltdown of three of Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. In a finding of particular relevance for this project, it was determined that the plant could have been better protected against natural disaster. It is precisely this kind of planning which interests Prof. Rossetto and her team.
Modelling a tsunami
The difficulties of this research are compounded by the fact that there is little verified observational data on how tsunamis unfold, due to the rarity of these events. The goal of this research is both to experimentally investigate the transformation of a tsunami nearshore and, alongside this, mathematically model the permutations which cannot be physically modelled with any degree of ease. Originally Prof. Rossetto was told that it was not possible to model the tsunami waves, which are extremely long. This became a challenge, which was solved with the building of a new type of pneumatic tsunami generator, which is not limited by the piston capacity of traditional wave generators and which can reproduce the extremely long wavelengths associated with tsunamis. It is also the world’s only facility able to model trough-led tsunami waves. The tsunami generator is mounted in a 70m long and 4m wide flume at the laboratories of HR Wallingford in the UK. The flume is heavily instrumented and enables the researchers to examine the interaction between tsunami waves and coastal defence structures, individual buildings and groups of buildings: more accurately mirroring what happens in a real-life event.
Prof. Rossetto’s research is both experimental and theoretical, encompassing reconstructions and calculations of the tsunami wave and its aftereffects, particularly modelling the fragility of buildings. Calculating the insurance implications of a natural disaster on this scale is a necessary part of the preparations from an infrastructure perspective but there is another side to the insurance question. In a related piece of research, Prof. Rossetto traced a global phenomenon: “how do people living in at-risk areas approach potential disasters? They are not ignorant of the risks, but they do very little to prepare.”
The ERC backing has been of enormous help to the project, not least because of the attention it has attracted. She emphasizes: “On a practical level it has ensured that I can concentrate on the work uninterrupted. It has really opened doors because it is seen as such a seal of quality for the work. It has led to conversations with policy-makers and involvement in co-development projects: for example in research collaborations and discussion to include tsunamis in the next European building codes post-2020.”
Prof. Rossetto believes that her research will “spark imagination” at TEDx Brussels. She observes that the combination of real-life threat and hi-tech solutions produces a narrative that should grip the TEDx audience. In the most practical way possible her aim is to “save lives, and in doing so build a safer world for our children”.
Listen to Prof. Rossetto on 1 December at 2.15 pm (BOZAR, Salle Henry Le Boeuf).Project details:Research area:Products and Processes EngineeringPrincipal investigator:Prof. Tiziana RossettoHost institution:University College London (UK)Project:Urban Waves: Evaluating Structure Vulnerability to Tsunami and Earthquakes (URBAN WAVES)ERC call:Starting grant 2013ERC funding:€1.9 millionProject duration:five years
October 2014October 2014
We are more and more accustomed to interacting physically with technology - using touchscreens for example. We now routinely “thumb-flick” through information on our phones or tablets rather than pressing keys. For Professor Sriram Subramanian and his team this kind of technology needs to be pushed beyond a flat interaction with the screen beneath our fingers - instead we should be able to feel what we are currently touching. Only by doing so can we fully interact with the information we are accessing.
Matt Sutton, © University of BristolDetails
The concept underpinning this is known as haptic feedback: the ability to “feel” and manipulate objects through our sense of touch. Professor Subramanian’s ERC project is a revolutionary exploration of the future possibilities of touchable technology. The work in his lab is multi-faceted - encompassing everything from touchless, floating displays to sensory bubbles. Prof. Subramanian presented his research at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin, China and will be at the Genoa Science Festival (Italy) this month.
He is a veteran of demonstrations, having presented the practical possibilities of his haptic technology to a wide variety of audiences from fellow scientists to potential investors: “Audiences are always surprised to discover that we have something concrete to demonstrate to them - they are expecting the technology to be purely theoretical. With our latest technology, SensaBubble, which uses sensory information delivered in airborne bubbles, there is an added novelty value - it has the entertainment factor as well as scientific significance. It has potential for both education and gaming applications.”
The science of touch
Behind all of these innovations lies a shared aspiration: to harness the rich sensory possibilities of touch to improve our relationship with the technology we use everyday. The ambition is that a sea change in technology will lead to interactions that come naturally to us without the need to learn to use the technology. This means for example that medical students could concentrate on key surgical techniques, rather than on the medical device interface itself. Similarly, car drivers could focus on a safe and pleasurable driving experience rather than worrying about the dashboard controls. New display devices developed in this project will multiply the possibilities for applications of the technology: particularly in terms of teaching aids and in-vehicular interfaces.
Prof. Subramanian and his team are attempting to create displays we do not have to touch. We could feel and interact with these displays without entering in contact with them: the objective is to turn flat 2D information into “feelable” 3D interactions. The haptic technology they are developing is designed with multiple users in mind - each able to receive their own individualised “feelable” feedback from the screen. This technology is game changing not only because it will provide the user with customised feedback, but also because the information is generated with minimal interference: you can be as close as 3cm or as far as 2m, and you do not have to wear gloves or use special equipment in order to interact with the screen.
One particular facet of this research is the “MisTable” technology. Prof. Subramanian explains: “The “MisTable” technology relies on creating a see-through and reach-through environment in which the user can interact with the tabletop - reaching through the mist to proactively interact with both the tabletop and the space above it to receive tactile feedback as they learn.”
The idea of “SensaBubble” came from a table tennis game: could information be projected in 3D rather than on a flat screen, and why not on a bubble? SensaBubble produces bubbles filled with fog delivering information to users through in two ways: visuals are projected on the bubble and scent is released in the air when the bubbles burst, creating a multisensory experience.
The ERC funding has not only enabled the team to pursue their ambitious blue-sky research but also to attract talent. Prof. Subramanian’s international team is larger than initially anticipated because “we have had the freedom and flexibility to follow the science without external pressures”, he says.
“We try to combine good science with creativity and inspiration in order to further enhance the research we do,” notes Prof. Subramanian. The project has produced a spin-off company, Ultrahaptics, and the technology has been sold several universities in order to further develop the tools for supporting learning. Ultrahaptics is enabling the scaling up of the technology and allowing the team to explore further entrepreneurial possibilities.
The recent receipt of an ERC “Proof of Concept” grant will allow the team to improve the perceptual quality of the tactile feedback whilst making the system noise free. The team will also use the “Proof of Concept” grant to demonstrate the technology at trade shows in order to help grow the spin-off company.Project details:Research area:Computer science and informatics (PE6)Principal investigator:Prof. Sriram SubramanianHost institution:University of Bristol (UK)Project:Interactive systems involving multi-point surfaces, haptics and true 3D-displays (INTERACT)ERC call:Starting grant 2011ERC funding:€1.4 million for five years