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ERC Starting Grant awarded to reveal the needs of the immune system’s frontline troopers




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  • IRB Barcelona Junior Group Leader Dr. Stefanie Wculek receives funding from the European Research Council (ERC) to develop the project “MyTissue” over the next five years.
  • The study will focus on unveiling the mechanisms underlying the adaptation of dendritic cells and neutrophils to different tissues and organs and how this changes with ageing.
  • The ERC has announced 400 Starting Grants today, 110 in Life Sciences.

Dendritic cells and neutrophils are present in our body tissues and organs to detect harm (whether a wound, infection or other damage) and call in the immune system’s defence and repair mechanisms. However, the effectiveness of these cells diminishes with age, leading to either excessive immune responses causing inflammation, or inadequate responses against common infections.

The 'MyTissue' project, led by Dr. Stefanie Wculek, has secured €1.5 M of funding from the ERC to study how dendritic cells and neutrophils adapt to different tissues, organs and physiological conditions, especially in the context of ageing. The project aims to uncover the adaptation mechanisms that allow these bone marrow-derived cells to function effectively in the diverse environments they face in homing tissues. In addition, the research will address how the ageing process alters this interaction, compromising the immune response and leading to an impaired defence system.

“Understanding the tissue-dependent variety of these immune system troopers in both young and aged organs will enable us to devise a map for potential interventions to improve their function in the elderly,” says Dr. Wculek, head of the Innate Immune Biology lab at IRB Barcelona.

Dendritic cells and neutrophils exert their function in almost all body tissues, but it is not clear if the effect of ageing on their performance also varies from one tissue to another. Given these considerations, the project will examine a variety of tissues, such as skin and lung (barrier tissues), liver and adipose tissue (examples of metabolic tissues), and spleen and lymph nodes (immune system tissues).


110 ERC Starting Grants for Life Sciences

Today, the ERC has announced the award of its Starting Grants to 400 junior group leaders throughout Europe, 110 in Life Sciences, of which 9 are in Spain and of these 5 are in Catalonia. ERC President Professor Maria Leptin said: “It is part of our mission to give early-career talent the independence to pursue ambitious curiosity-driven research that can shape our future. In this latest round of Starting Grants, we saw one of the highest shares of female grantees to date, which I hope will continue to rise. Congratulations to all winners and good luck on your path to discovery.”

ERC Starting Grants are awarded to prestigious research projects that serve as a transformative catalyst for emerging talent in the scientific arena. Designed to propel the careers of early-career researchers, these grants provide crucial financial backing and autonomy, enabling them to embark on pioneering research.

The Innate Immune Biology lab

Dr. Wculek joined IRB Barcelona in March this year to head the Innate Immune Biology lab. The research group studies the adaptation mechanisms of immune cells to different environments and conditions and how they become dysfunctional during ageing and cancer and thus hamper immune responses and generate low-level tissue inflammation. The ERC Starting Grant will allow the lab, which currently comprises five researchers, to expand through the appointment of two postdoctoral researchers and a lab technician.

“Receiving an ERC Starting Grant to support the lab's early years is an unparalleled opportunity that will provide a solid foundation for addressing the questions we are eager to explore,” says Dr. Wculek.


About IRB Barcelona

The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) pursues a society free of disease. To this end, it conducts multidisciplinary research of excellence to cure cancer and other diseases linked to ageing. It establishes technology transfer agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and major hospitals to bring research results closer to society, and organises a range of science outreach activities to engage the public in an open dialogue. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 researchers and more than 30 nationalities. Recognised as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence since 2011, IRB Barcelona is a CERCA centre and member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).