The European Research Council (ERC) has just announced that it has awarded funding in the field of Life Sciences to two researchers from Universidade NOVA de Lisboa - Cristina Silva Pereira, do Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB NOVA) and Cecília Roque, from the Unit of Applied Biomolecular Sciences of the Faculty of Science and Technology (UCIBIO-NOVA FCT). Portugal was also awarded a 3rd grant, this time to the Champalimaud Foundation (FC).
Each grant of around 150,000 euros will be used to transfer the results of its pioneering research - in NOVA's case in biomaterials technologies and non-invasive diagnostics - to the first stages of commercialisation.
ERC Proof of Concept grants are exclusively awarded to Principal Investigators who have previously received ERC funding and their main objective is to support the commercial and societal innovation potential of research.
"It takes courage and skill to take an idea from the laboratory to the business world," said Iliana Ivanova, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, in the ERC press release. "The Proof of Concept grants now announced should enable researchers to take this bold step and turn groundbreaking research into tangible innovations."
Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council, adds in the same statement: "With the help of the ERC Proof of Concept grants, our beneficiaries can go one step further and test the market potential of their basic research projects".
Read more about the ITQB NOVA project
Cristina Silva Pereira's work is based on the concept of the potential of functional foods to promote health and prevent disease, making them increasingly sought after. The incorporation of functional ingredients, such as probiotics and proteins, is being analysed by the food industry for products such as bread, milk, and fruit juices. However, many of these health-promoting functional ingredients are sensitive to the pH of acidic products such as juices.
Encapsulation technologies, particularly those known as antibubbles, are a promising tool for increasing the survival of these ingredients in acidic environments and the stomach. However, the most commonly used encapsulation material - silica - is not suitable for human consumption.
As part of her recently completed ERC Consolidator Grant, MIMESIS, Cristina Silva Pereira and her team proposed an alternative: "We believe that suberin, a hydrophobic biopolymer that nature uses to prevent moisture transport, could be used as a liquid droplet, preventing leakage and ensuring a long shelf life," he explains.
In total, Cristina Silva Pereira coordinates a team of 18 people at ITQB NOVA's Applied and Environmental Mycology Laboratory. She was appointed principal investigator in 2008, just four years after completing her doctorate. Her team works on plant polyesters and has several partnerships with industry.
She won her first ERC, a Consolidator Grant, in 2015 with the project MIMESIS - Development of biomaterials through mimicry of plant defensive interfaces to combat wound infections. The research developed in this project will now reach the market through the new ERC Proof of Concept grant.
Cristina Silva Pereira studied Applied Chemistry - Biotechnology at the Faculty of Science and Technology of NOVA and started her research career at the Institute of Experimental and Technological Biology (iBET). During her PhD, she worked at ITQB, the John Innes Centre, and the Institute of Food Research (UK).
In the last five years, she has published more than 30 scientific articles in international journals. Currently, Silva Pereira is co-coordinator of the Ph.D. programme in Molecular Biosciences and a member of the board of directors of the postgraduate StartUp Research Programme.
Read more about Cecília Roque's project (UCIBIO-NOVA FCT)
The project "Smell-Inspired Non-Invasive Clinical Diagnostics" is based on the application of modern bioengineering and artificial intelligence tools to present smell-inspired diagnostics as the future of clinical diagnostics.
As part of the European Research Council-funded Starting Grant - SCENT, Cecília Roque's team worked in the field of artificial odours and olfactory-inspired technologies, such as the electronic nose.
The first SCENT bag pioneered an innovative class of bio-based materials, such as gelatine, that are sensitive to volatile compounds (odours) and other disease biomarkers released by the body.
"The new materials change their properties in the presence of disease biomarkers, generating signals that are collected and then analysed by artificial intelligence tools," explains Susana Palma, a member of the project team.
These artificial nose systems find distinct biomarker patterns in complex biological samples, so they can be used to detect fingerprints associated with specific diseases.
Currently, most clinical diagnostic tools are still invasive, requiring blood or other samples to be taken from the body, often causing stress, pain, and discomfort to the patient.
Having developed the SCENT technologies, the team has focused on the technological and market validation of its olfaction-inspired technologies. Although there are many applications, "our goal is to validate SCENT technologies for rapid, patient-friendly diagnostic tools using non-invasively collected body samples, such as urine, as a source of disease diagnosis. We are also analysing clinical applications for which current diagnostic tools are expensive, time-consuming, or non-existent," says Cecília Roque.
With the recently awarded ERC Proof of Concept grant for the project, Cecília Roque's team will validate olfactory-inspired technologies for the diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, which affect a large proportion of the population and have a high economic and social impact.
The research team will work closely with hospital clinicians to validate the technological component of the project and with the Italian DayOne team for validation and business development.
It is worth remembering that Cecília Roque has been Associate Professor with Aggregation in Bioengineering and Director of the Biomolecular Engineering Research Laboratory at UCIBIO, Faculty of Science and Technology at NOVA, since February 2023.
With a degree in Chemical Engineering (specialisation in Biotechnology) and a Ph.D. in Biotechnology from the Instituto Superior Técnico, she has been Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge and the Catholic University of America, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute of Biotechnology (University of Cambridge) and INESC-MN (Lisbon, Portugal), and Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge, University of Nantes, University of São Paulo, City University of New York and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
Her research focuses on biomimicry, fusion chemistry, biotechnology, and engineering, and her work has received several national and international awards.