Looking for the best

Fran Supek, head of the Genome Data Science group
Fran Supek, head of the Genome Data Science group

Part of the European Research Council’s reasoning for providing their coveted Starting Grants is to “provide top talent with good conditions at the right time to thrive.” For the team led by Fran Supek (b. Zagreb, Croatia, 1981), the right time has just arrived with the award of a Starting Grant worth 1.5 million euros of funding. His project, called HYPER-INSIGHT, was among the 13% of successful proposals of the 3,085 applications made to the 2017 ‘Starting Grants’ Call.

“I am very excited about my Genome Data Science laboratory at IRB Barcelona, also known as aGENDAS, being awarded an ERC Starting Grant,” Fran says. “This award will allow us to test riskier—and possibly more rewarding—hypotheses that could hopefully lead to important discoveries.” Fran’s optimism is more than justified, as this grant will allow him “to focus on long-term priorities and on truly exciting research.”

The aim of HYPER-INSIGHT is to “learn how mutational processes and natural selection shape genomes in general, with an emphasis on human tumour genomes in particular.” Making the best of the currently available genomic ‘big data’ and complementing it in a targeted manner by the group's own experiments, the project “aims to pick up where the initial wave of tumour genome sequencing studies left off,” explains Fran.

However, before settling down to work on his new project, Fran needs to lay down some very important groundwork “I'm working on recruiting a highly interdisciplinary team able to approach cancer genomics from a unique angle,” he says. “This is a challenge in itself!”


A creative approach

Thanks to the ERC Starting Grant Fran will be able to give free rein to his talent and inventiveness over the next five years, but when it comes to work ethic, he does have his feet firmly on the ground: “Although creativity is necessary for scientific research,” he maintains, “it must be tempered by a methodical, rigorous approach to the results of one's creative process. Talent has to be balanced with hard work. There is no substitute for persistence.”

It is precisely this balance between inherent passion, talent, rigor and perseverance that allows Fran to tackle projects in which “no two days are the same.” He admits that he is motivated by “the desire to learn something new about the world every day.”

Over the course of his career, Fran’s research has provided novel insight into how human cells protect important regions of the genome from mutations, how some of these mutations may cause tumours even if they appear to be ‘silent’, and how the cells’ quality control mechanisms deal with messages produced from mutated genes. His work has resulted in more than 30 scientific publications in prestigious journals such as Cell, Nature and Nature Genetics. "A surprising finding that we published in Cell in July," Fran says, "was that DNA repair can sometimes get corrupted and introduce mutations that appear to be very prevalent in human cancers.”

(Written by: Roger Perelló)