The European Research Council (ERC) is charged with supporting leading research within the EU. The principal objective of the council is to support top-flight, creative scientists, and encourage them to be more daring in their research, opening the opportunity for them to take risks. The council, quite simply, wants to encourage Europe’s leading scientists to break through the limits of established knowledge.

The council is achieving this through two major systems for research grants within the Seventh Framework Programme: “ERC Starting Grants” for prominent scientists in the early stages of their careers, and “ERC Advanced Grants”, which are awarded to scientists who lead already well-established research groups. One such advanced grant has now been awarded to Andrew Ewing, Professor in Analytical Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry, University of Gothenburg.

Stem cell research
Stem cells and the ability to transform one type of cell into another are extremely promising for future medical use, and give a glimpse of new possibilities with respect to the exchange of organs and new tissue. It is, for example, already possible to cause fibroblasts to be transformed directly into nerve cells in the brain. What we lack at the moment is knowledge about how to modify the chemical environment such that it is possible to control such a reprogramming process of cells.

The research grant from the ERC will be used to develop new chemical imaging tools in order to measure the levels of chemicals on the surface of cells, and in this way predict the environmental signals that control these processes.

Chemistry of the brain
If the scientific community can solve the mysteries of stem cells and cell programming, only the brain will stand between us and immortality.

Andrew Ewing’s research team is trying to understand the brain from a chemical perspective by studying various signal substances and their effects on nerve cells. The research is based not only on brain-like cells in culture, but also on fruit flies.

Thus, the research grant will be used to develop new methods for imaging signal substances in the brain after they have been released from the nerve cells. Andrew Ewing and his research team hope in this way to gain deeper understanding of various aspects of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. They are also hoping to learn more about the mechanisms that control learning and memory.

The short-term goal is to develop three chemical methods for measuring molecules on the surfaces of individual cells. The research is highly technical, with all operations being carried out at micrometer and nanometer dimensions. This means that parts of nerve cells that are about 100 times smaller than the thickness of a hair must be analyzed.

Andrew Ewing, Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Gothenburg
Telephone: +46 31 786 9113

Photo: Malin Arnesson