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UCD researchers awarded ERC Starting Grants in Humanities and Engineering

Posted 6 September, 2023

Two researchers at University College Dublin are among the 400 'bright minded' scientists and scholars across Europe awarded (opens in a new window)ERC Starting Grants, totalling €628 million in funding for cutting edge research.

Seven Irish researchers were named as recipients of the prestigious grants, which are part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, and among them were UCD academics (opens in a new window)Dr Fiona Freeman, Assistant Professor and Ad Astra Fellow at UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and (opens in a new window)Dr Jennifer Keating, Associate Professor at UCD School of History.

“We congratulate Dr Fiona Freeman and Dr Jennifer Keating on each being awarded a coveted ERC Starting Grant,” said (opens in a new window)Professor Helen Roche, UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact.

“UCD is eager to support academic career development and pioneering pursuits at every career stage, especially for researchers at an earlier stage of their careers.”

Dr Fiona Freeman, a Fellow at UCD Conway Institute, was awarded €1.5m for her project - ‘Development of a lung METAstasis-on-a-CHIP model for osteosarcoma as a biomimetic testing platform for drug discovery and therapeutic innovation (META-CHIP).’

Dr Jennifer Keating has received €1.5m for her research - ‘Towards a connected history of population, environmental change, capital and conflict in Russian Eurasia, 1860s-1920s (Land Limits)’.

“These groundbreaking projects spanning bioengineering and history will contribute significantly to the Awardees’ respective fields and we are excited to follow their progress,” added Professor Roche.

Some 44 nationalities across 24 countries in Europe were represented among the successful applicants for 2023's Starting Grants, and women received 43% of the total grants - an increase from 39% last year.

“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,” said ERC President Professor Maria Leptin.

Dr Fiona Freeman & META-CHIP

Osteosarcoma is a highly aggressive bone cancer that affects young people. Secondary lung metastasis is the most critical clinical factor, with 70% of those who develop lung metastasis succumbing to the disease within 3 years.

The standard-of-care treatment plan today is no different to when first introduced almost 50 years ago. Accelerating cures remains a challenge, partly due to osteosarcoma being a relatively rare disease, which makes the conduct of large clinical trials investigating novel therapies a difficult endeavour.

Through the META-CHIP project, Dr Freeman will be the first to develop a lung metastasis-on-a-chip model for osteosarcoma, as a biomimetic testing platform for drug discovery and therapeutic innovation. Roughly the size of a USB memory stick, organ-on-a-chip devices recapitulate the complex structures and functions of human organs. These living, three-dimensional replicas offer insights into organs' inner workings and the effects that drugs can have on them, all without involving humans or animals.

META-CHIP has the potential to revolutionise drug development and treatment of osteosarcoma patients by being the first ex vivo testing platform capable of predicting a patient’s response to therapies in real-time. Dr Freeman said, “I am delighted to accept this vital ERC funding, which will allow us to develop a predictive, patient-specific model for osteosarcoma and its secondary lung metastases. META-CHIP will aid in evaluating prospective new therapies and streamlining the clinical trial process.

"This will enable more efficient human trials with significantly reduced preclinical testing, ultimately offering these young osteosarcoma patients a novel treatment option that they rightfully deserve. It seems particularly poignant to receive this news during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.”

“The ERC Starter Grant will establish the groundwork for my team at UCD. The scale of this funding will empower my team to adopt a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to comprehensively understand the progression of osteosarcoma. We envision a future whereby clinicians will be able to insert patient cells into the META-CHIP device and identify the therapy with the highest chance of success for the patient and use this knowledge to personalise each patient’s treatment.”

Adding: "I owe a great deal of thanks to the number of colleagues and collaborators, as well as the tireless work of the UCD research staff, who all took the time to help develop the META-CHIP project over the past twelve months. I must also thank the Marie Curie Global Fellowship (Horizon 2020) and Enterprise Ireland for their support in the development of the proof-of-concept device."

Dr Jennifer Keating & Land Limits

Land Limits will explore a connected history of population growth, environmental change, capitalism and conflict in Eurasia. Using five case studies across the vast territory of the former Russian empire, it aims to understand the ecological impact of population pressure, and to critically assess the economic and political implications of shifting land use practices.

The project seeks to redefine scholarly debates on the nature of economic growth in northern Eurasia and on state and community violence of various types in the late imperial and early Soviet period (1860s-1920s), by restoring the environment as a vital category in exposing the complex causalities that led to the collapse of the imperial state and the rise of its successors.

Dr Keating said, “The ERC grant is a fantastic opportunity that will allow a multi-lingual team to explore at scale a set of highly diverse environments and societies that in the late nineteenth century formed part of the territory of the Russian empire.“

“Conducted across five present-day nation states, this work makes a clear case for the importance of ecological literacy when thinking about past and present. It promises to revolutionise our understanding of the connections between environmental change, economic growth and political violence in Eurasia, and contributes directly to much broader conversations about the breakdown of states and the birth of new political entities. I am extremely grateful to the ERC, and to colleagues within the School of History and UCD Research for their support, in particular the wonderful Máire Coyle.”

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations (with materials from Emma Loughney, UCD Research and Innovation)

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie