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ERC grants

LMU researchers win ERC funding

Munich, 08/31/2012

Two of the much sought after Starting Grants awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) have gone to the LMU professors Mario Halic and Martin Kerschensteiner. Each will receive 1.5 million euros in grant support over the next five years.

Two new names have just joined the select group of junior researchers at LMU Munich chosen to receive Starting Grants by the ERC. These grants are awarded by the European Research Council solely on the basis of the applicant’s research record and the quality of the proposed project. The research project must be innovative - indeed risky - but promise to deliver ground-breaking insights if successful. In addition, it should be interdisciplinary in character and show evidence of willingness to collaborate with other specialists.

Mario Halic’s project
Cells can remain viable, develop and differentiate correctly only if their genes are properly regulated. The control of gene expression is a multilayered process in which, among many other factors, small RNA molecules  play their part. RNAs are single-stranded nucleic acids that are copied from specific stretches of the double-stranded genomic DNA in the cell nucleus. Different types of small RNAs perform diverse functions in gene regulation, repair of DNA damage, responses to pathogenic agents and other aspects of cell behavior. This versatility also explains why they are interesting from a therapeutic point of view.

In earlier work, Halic and his team identified a novel class of small RNAs, called priRNAs. These molecules are formed as a byproduct of the degradation of longer RNAs, by a pathway that is not entirely understood, but they are not simply dispensable waste products. Instead they form the first link in a molecular cascade that alters the packaging of genomic DNA .

The first goal of Halic’s ERC project is to clarify how priRNAs are made. To understand how they work, Halic also wants to know how the short RNAs are recruited to the genes that they inhibit, and plans to use electron microscopic methods to elucidate the structures of the molecular complexes involved in guiding them to their targets. The wider significance of the project lies in the fact that defects in RNA-based gene regulation are known to play a role in the development of certain cancers.

Mario Halic studied Molecular Biology at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and earned his PhD at the Humboldt University in Berlin. After a short spell as a postdoc in Berlin, he worked as a Research Fellow at LMU’s Genzentrum and then at Harvard Medical School in Boston. In 2011 Mario Halic was appointed W2 Professor of Biochemistry in the Genzentrum at LMU.

Martin Kerschensteiner’s project
The immune system has evolved to fight foreign pathogens, but occasionally, it turns against the body’s own tissues, inducing an autoimmune disease. Among the most common is multiple sclerosis (MS), which often follows an unpredictable course, marked by quiescent phases and sudden episodes of relapse. In MS, localized inflammation in the central nervous system causes fragmentation of axons, the  projections that functionally connect  different neurons. This results in permanent neurological damage, and the extent of axon loss determines the degree of disability suffered by the patient.

Over the past few years, Kerschensteiner and his colleagues have identified a previously unknown mechanism that contributes to axon loss, which they called “focal axonal degeneration” (FAD). In its earliest phases FAD is reversible, and therefore offers a promising target for therapeutic interventions. In his ERC project, Kerschensteiner plans first to use state-of-the-art in vivo microscopy to determine how the structure and function of neural circuits are disrupted by FAD, and then hopes to identify the effector molecules that initiate the process of axonal degeneration.

In the next stage of the project, automated high-throughput methods will be used to identify pharmacologically active compounds that prevent the structural and functional damage of axons that occurs at sites of inflammation. Thus the ultimate goal of the project is to develop new strategies that can protect nerve cells from the consequences of the misdirected immune reaction.

Martin Kerschensteiner studied Medicine at the RWTH in Aachen and at LMU. He carried out the research for his doctoral thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried. In 2001 he moved to the ETH in Zürich, and then worked at Washington University in St. Louis and at Harvard University. In 2005 he joined LMU‘s Institute of Clinical Neuroimmunology at LMU to lead an independent Emmy Noether Junior Research Group. In 2008 he was named Professor of Translational Neuroimmunology and Head of the Research Unit Therapy Development. 

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