Four ERC Starting Grants for young TU/e researchers

Four challenging projects for talented Assistant Professors of TU/e are awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) with individual Starting Grants of up to € 1.8 million each. The projects are about predicting the performance of cardiovascular implants, exploiting the immune system for superior cellular vaccines, pre-processing techniques to accelerate time-consuming algorithms and brain-inspired lab-on-chip devices for cancer screening.

The winners of this year at TU/e are Sandra Loerakker and Jurjen Tel (both from the department of Biomedical Engineering), Yoeri van de Burgt (Mechanical Engineering), and Bart Jansen (Mathematics and Computer Science).
Predicting cardiovascular regeneration – Sandra Loerakker
Cardiovascular disease is a major cause of mortality worldwide. Cardiovascular tissue engineering (CVTE) is a promising alternative to the current treatment strategies, which can only delay or prevent disease progression. CVTE is based on the use of artificial and biodegradable materials which can be implanted directly in the patient’s body and replace, for example, damaged blood vessels and heart valves. Over time, these materials should gradually transform into living biological tissues that match the healthy native tissue in terms of form and function. Sandra Loerakker will work on the development of mathematical models that mimic the interactions occurring in this environment and, thus, predict the emergence of organization and associated performance of the implanted biomaterials. “If successful” - says Loerakker – “this project will have a tremendous impact on the development of guidelines for ensuring the successful regeneration of cardiovascular tissues, which represents a breakthrough towards creating superior cardiovascular replacements.”

Decoding cellular interactions – Jurjen Tel
Our immune system is trained to protect us against a broad range of threats. Understanding how immune cells achieve this breadth and flexibility is a core challenge for Jurjen Tel. The protagonists of this research is a particular class of immune cells, the dendritic cells. “Amongst the dendritic cells” – explains Tel – “plasmacytoid DCs (pDCs) are rare dendritic cells, which are capable of producing massive amounts of interferons in response to viruses, priming killer T cells, and destroying tumor cells, in close collaboration with other immune cells. Because of this wide range of mode of actions, pDCs are considered to be the Swiss army knife of our immune system”. The ambitious goal of this five years project is to achieve a full mechanistic understanding of immune cells activation, communication and heterogeneity, which paves the way for the development of superior cellular vaccines to battle cancer and infectious and auto-immune diseases.

Simplifying prior to solving - Bart Jansen
In our world of big data and theoretically intractable problems, it is becoming ever more important to simplify problems before algorithmically solving them, and Bart Jansen knows that well.  “A suitable preprocessing step, in which redundant constraints and variables are eliminated, has the potential to reduce computation times from days to seconds”, explains Jansen, “which inevitably calls for a thorough scientific understanding of the power and limitations of preprocessing procedures.” With his Rigorous Search Space Reduction project (REDUCESEARCH),  Jansen aims at re-shaping the theory of effective preprocessing. “Earlier research only considered how preprocessing can make the input to an algorithm smaller, without changing its answer”, says Jansen. “But to achieve the biggest speed-ups, preprocessing must reduce the exponential-size space of potential solutions that the algorithm searches through. The goal is to develop a toolkit of algorithmic preprocessing techniques that reduce  the search space, along with mathematical guarantees on the amount of search-space reduction that is achieved.

Brain-Inspired lab-on-a-Chip - Yoeri van de Burgt
The exceptional ability of the human brain to recognize patterns, speech and images has long inspired the development of machine-learning algorithms and brain-like computer architectures. Taking inspiration from the human brain, Yoeri van de Burgt will work on the first Brain-Inspired Organic Modular Lab-on-a-Chip for Cell Classification (BIOMORPHIC), containing “artificial synapses”. These synapses, which are made of low-cost organic materials, form the basis of a hardware-based neural network that facilitate the development of a novel generation of cost-efficient “smart” biomedical sensors. In fact, BIOMORPHIC will particularly focus on the detection of circulating tumor cells (CTC) in blood, which remains a major challenge due to low prevalence and large morphological and molecular variability of CTC. Classification of such seemingly variable data is precisely the strength of neural networks.  Van de Burgt: “If successful, BIOMORPHIC will form the basis for a low-cost disposable cancer diagnostic tool that can be quickly adopted in medical institutions and can act as a first check before further expensive diagnostics as well as a versatile personal monitoring tool.”

ERC mission and grants
The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence. ERC grants allow Europe's brightest minds to identify new opportunities and directions in any field of research, and catalyze new and unpredictable scientific and technological discoveries. Starting Grants have yearly calls and are meant for researchers of any nationality with 2-7 years of experience since completion of their PhD.