Imperial College London: Three Imperial “rising stars” secure €4.5 million of ERC funding

ERC Starting Grants recognise talented early-career scientists who show potential to be research leaders and have a scientific track record showing great promise.

Each grant is worth around €1.5 million and is designed to help young researchers launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas.

Academics from Chemistry, Materials and the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial were among the winners of this year’s grants, which are the first to be awarded under the EU’s new R&I programme, Horizon Europe.

ERC Starting Grants were awarded to:

Dr Louise Walport, Department of Chemistry for cPTM-DISPLAY
Dr Robert Hoye, Department of Materials for HERALD
Dr Teresa Thurston, Department of Infectious Disease for Re-Kin
Imperial’s Provost Professor Ian Walmsley said “It is wonderful to see the talent and ingenuity of rising academic stars at Imperial recognised by the award of prestigious ERC Starting Grants.

“These highly competitive grants will give them the means to pursue their innovative ideas and to drive forward their research at pace, leading to new discovery that may have far-reaching consequences.

“Their success demonstrates the importance of European collaboration and funding for our scientists, engineers and medics. It is critically important for the future of UK research that this continues.”

Dr Louise Walport, Chemistry – Accelerating chemical probe development
Dr Louise Walport’s project aims to develop a new platform to identify chemical probes for challenging drug targets.

“At my early career stage this is one of the most substantial grants available in Europe and will give me the freedom, flexibility and security to pursue this new research angle.”
Dr Louise Walport
Department of Chemistry
Chemical probes are important tools that allow scientists to alter or inhibit the activity of proteins within a cell to help understand their biological function. They can be used to test the role of a particular protein in disease, and to help establish whether that protein could be a target for future drugs.

However there are many proteins that are almost impossible to develop probes to using current methods.

Dr Walport, from the Department of Chemistry, explained: “My lab develops cyclic peptide based chemical tools. We will combine the peptide screening strategy currently used in my lab with approaches from synthetic chemistry to develop enormous libraries of peptides containing an unprecedented range of different chemical structures.”

“This would allow the team to find probes to a wide range of challenging protein targets, accelerating chemical probe development and opening up new directions for advancing discovery biology.”

Dr Walport
Dr Walport
Dr Walport said: “I feel honoured to have been awarded an ERC Starting Grants. At my early career stage this is one of the most substantial grants available in Europe and will give me the freedom, flexibility and security to pursue this new research angle. I am proud to already work with a very talented group of chemical biologists and am excited to be able to grow this team further over the next 5 years.”

Dr Walport will collaborate with colleagues at Imperial, The Francis Crick Institute and the Babraham Institute on the project.

Dr Robert Hoye, Materials – Harvesting energy from indoor lighting
Image of energy devices
Dr Hoye is developing new materials to harvest the energy from indoor lighting to power other devices around the home or buildings
Dr Robert Hoye, from the Department of Materials, is developing a new generation of materials for harvesting indoor light to sustainably power the Internet of Things.

“Receiving the ERC Starting Grant is a great honour and a dream fulfilled.”
Dr Robert Hoye
Department of Materials
The Internet of Things refers physical objects that are fitted with sensors, software or other technologies that are connected to the internet and share data. We are increasingly using more of these smart devices in our homes, offices, and public buildings. However, the batteries they use can deplete quickly, creating practical and sustainability challenges.

Dr Hoye
Dr Hoye
Dr Hoye’s project aims to develop technology to harvest energy from indoor lighting to power the devices, in a similar way to how solar panels harvest energy from sunlight. This is known as photovoltaics.

He explained: “Most people will have come across this design in solar- and battery-driven calculators. But whilst a calculator only requires a microwatt of power, typical IoT devices require a milliwatt of power or more. Whilst indoor lighting can provide sufficient levels of power, current commercial-standard indoor photovoltaics, made from amorphous silicon, are not able to harvest enough of this power due to their low efficiencies.”

Dr Hoye and his collaborators have discovered that new green materials currently being developed for next-generation solar panels could be useful for indoor light harvesting. The ERC grant will help him to explore and develop methods to manufacture these photovoltaics at scale with low environment impact.

Dr Hoye said: “Receiving the ERC Starting Grant is a great honour and a dream fulfilled. The ERC is one of the only funding streams that allows me to pursue risky, blue-skies research, and provide me with the resources to truly tackle the challenge of developing these new materials to fulfil their potential.”

Dr Hoye is working with collaborators from Cambridge, France’s CNRS, TUM in Germany and Jyväskylä in Finland.

Dr Teresa Thurston, Infectious Disease – Kinase-based therapeutics
Salmonella scans
Previous work revealed how a Salmonella virulence protein changed the specificity of a target kinase
Dr Teresa Thurston based at the Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection will lead the Re-Kin project to investigate how small virulence proteins from diverse bacteria reprogramme host kinases.

“I can’t wait to get into the laboratory and start testing our hypotheses.”
Dr Teresa Thurston
Department of Infectious Disease
Kinases are enzymes that transfer a chemical group, called a phosphate, to specific residues of a target molecule, such as a protein, changing its function.

Normally, kinases show strong preferences to the particular residues they modify. Building on previous work that revealed how a Salmonella virulence protein changed the specificity of a target kinase, Re-Kin will now explore the breadth of this mechanism.

Dr Thurston
Dr Thurston
Dr Thurston, from the Department of Infectious Disease, said: “We will focus on looking at how virulence proteins from diverse bacteria reprogramme kinase specificity, investigate whether eukaryotes encode similar reprogramming proteins and ultimately we then hope to design synthetic kinase remodelling proteins that could revolutionise the development of kinase-based therapeutics to fight disease.

“I am thrilled and honoured to receive this award. I can’t wait to get into the laboratory and start testing our hypotheses. With the award I can really advance my research and with three young kids at home it has convinced me that pursuing a scientific career, even when it is tough, is worth the effort.”

Dr Thurston will collaborate with the Rittinger laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute and the Hurst laboratory at the University of Liverpool.

European Success
This year the ERC awarded €619 million of funding for Starting Grants through its Horizon Europe programme to 397 early-career researchers.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “With this very first round of long-awaited grants, I am glad to see the European Research Council remaining a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme.”

President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin said: “Letting young talent thrive in Europe and go after their most innovative ideas – this is the best investment in our future, not least with the ever-growing competition globally. We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow.”

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