Utrecht University: Over 40 million for research into living cells and quantum materials

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has awarded seven Gravitation grants, two of which to projects led by researchers at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Science. A consortium led by Prof. Anna Akhmanova will conduct research into imaging and manipulating cells in living tissue. Prof. Daniel Vanmaekelbergh leads a consortium that will work on new materials suitable for the quantum age.

With these grants, multidisciplinary consortia can do research at international top level for ten years. Minister Dijkgraaf of Education, Culture and Science: “Researchers from these scientific consortia, who are among the world’s best in their field, can use Gravitation to perform groundbreaking research.”

Main applicant Prof. Anna Akhmanova: “This grant means a lot to me as a cell biologist. It will literally take my research field to the next level: from studying cells in a Petri dish to studying cells in intact tissue. We know that cells behave differently in the body than they do in the lab, but it requires very advanced techniques to view and control them there. This project gives us the chance to develop and apply such techniques.”

This new technology will make it possible to study how drugs work at the tissue level, Akhmanova explains. “We can already do that in a Petri dish, but to develop good drugs it is essential to see how they work in tissues in the body. In the case of cancer therapies, for example, we need to know how treatments affect the cells surrounding a tumour.” The next step the researchers want to take is to manipulate specific cells within tissue in very controlled ways, for instance to influence tissue development.

Co-applicant Prof. Lukas Kapitein: “With this project, we will interweave strong research lines in physics, chemistry and biology into a powerful new line to investigate living systems in a unique way, from molecule to tissue.” Akhmanova adds: “This project enables us to make profound connections between very strong research groups in areas in which we excel in the Netherlands: microscopy, organoids, cancer research and regenerative medicine. This project takes life sciences in the Netherlands a big step further, and it is fantastic to be able to play a role in that.”

QuMAT: Materials for the quantum age
Daniël Vanmaekelbergh
Lead researcher Prof. Daniel Vanmaekelbergh: “According to current predictions, information processing – in your computer, phone or a data center – will account for 30% of global electrical energy consumption in 2030. Fortunately, there is still a lot of improvement possible: the fact that your phone gets warm when you use it is due to electrons colliding with vibrations or impurities in the material and losing energy in the process.” The QuMAT consortium will work on new, more efficient materials for information processing, in which electrons in a coherent state can travel long distances without colliding, which can save a lot of energy. Such coherent states can also form the basis for more robust qubits, the units of powerful quantum information processing.

The researchers will develop and investigate an unprecedentedly broad spectrum of promising new materials. Vanmaekelbergh: “We will combine different types of materials that are one or a few atoms thick, for example superconducting materials with topological insulators or with spin-wave materials. First, we will use theory to see which combinations are promising, and then we will make and combine these materials in the lab. The resulting properties of combined material layers cannot be fully predicted theoretically: one plus one really doesn’t make two; we expect to discover new electronic or magnetic phases, which makes this research super exciting.”

The consortium also includes researchers involved in quantum computing. “In the Netherlands, we have incredibly good research on quantum technology, but only on a limited number of materials,” says Vanmaekelbergh. “With this project, I want to prevent what once happened with the development of current computer chips, which are made of silicon. That material works fine, but when faster electronic materials were found eventually, there was already too much investment in silicon to change course. For the quantum era, we are still on time to find a series of materials with more robust qubits, hence materials that are more widely applicable.”

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