In only three years’ time, Dr Jan Tkač went from being the first ERC grantee in Slovakia to obtaining the “2015 Scientist of the Year” award. His research in the field of glyconomics could emerge as a turning point for the diagnosis of cell-related diseases.

Dr Jan Tkač got his Ph.D. degree in biotechnology and D.Sc. degree in analytical chemistry in Slovakia. He did postdoctoral stays in the UK and Sweden, where he benefited from an individual Marie-Curie fellowship. Nowadays based at the Institute of Chemistry in the Slovak Academy of Sciences, he was the first researcher to obtain, in 2013, an ERC grant in Slovakia, where he had returned after his postdoc experiences. Only three years later, in May 2016, he received the prestigious Slovak “2015 Scientist of the Year” award for his ERC research on the use of nano-biotechnologies for potential cancer diagnostics.

Glycans are complex sugar molecules that carry the information human cells need to stay healthy and fight infections at the first sign of attack. Unluckily, infectious pathogens and cancerous cells have developed subterfuges to bypass this first line of defence, as they crack the glycan’s molecular code or steal its identity, going unrecognised by cells until the infection is well advanced.

To tackle this phenomenon, Dr Tkač’s has engaged in a cellular ‘cold war’. With his team, he develops novel early-detection technologies based on the development of nano-biochip sensors that, in case of disease development and progression, can detect changes in glycans at an early stage of the process and with greater sensitivity. The novelty relies also in the combination of two distinct scientific fields: glycomics and nanotechnology.

With his ERC grant, Dr Tkač set a talented team in Slovakia and developed new infrastructure in his country, from which he cooperates with several European research groups. So far, the research results are promising, with potential applications for the early detection of many diseases, including prostate cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic sclerosis.

First published in the ERC Annual report 2016