Thursday, November 23rd 2023: Seven researchers based in Irish universities have today been announced as European Research Centre (ERC) Consolidator laureates, through the award of almost €15 million in funding.

Consolidator Grants are awarded to exceptional researchers with a scientific track record showing great promise and a pioneering research idea at the forefront of discovery. The awards provide funding for up to five years to researchers with between seven and 12 years’ experience post-PhD, solidifying their research independence while facilitating their progression to global leaders in their field.

Spanning a variety of disciplines, the research will be primarily conducted through five higher education institutes; Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD), University of Galway, University of Limerick (UL) and RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, and brings the provisional total for Ireland won through ERC awards since the beginning of Horizon Europe to €120 million.

Dr Maria Nash, SFI Senior Executive and National Delegate for ERC, said: “Congratulations to the seven Ireland-based awardees that have been recognised through these prestigious awards as pioneers in their respective research fields. A salute also to the host institutions and indeed the research office staff that support applicants through the onerous application process. I hope that the achievement represented by the realisation of these awards will encourage colleagues to keep applying to new ERC calls to drive their creative, revolutionary and curiosity-driven research.”

Today’s announcement follow’s last month’s news of the first two female researchers in Ireland to secure ERC Synergy funding for their groundbreaking research.

The Award Winners

Dr Ciara Murphy, StAR Research Lecturer, Department of Anatomy & Regenerative Medicine, RCSI, Principal Investigator (PI) at AMBER, SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research and SFI Frontiers for the Future awardee, has been awarded for the research project RESTORE.

RESTORE aims to revolutionise the way osteoporotic vertebral fractures are treated. Combining advanced manufacturing and 3D-printing with innovative therapeutic nanoparticles, will enable engineering of a dual component minimally-invasive platform, with a 3D-printed biodegradable stent and a therapeutic injectable biomaterial.

Stability and mechanical support of fractured vertebrae via stenting, with an injectable biomaterial delivering novel antioxidant nanoparticles, modulating impaired bone remodelling, will drive regeneration and facilitate repair. This technology will provide life-changing treatments for patients suffering from debilitating osteoporotic vertebral fractures.

Dr Murphy commented: “I am thrilled and privileged to receive an ERC Consolidator Grant to develop a technology that will provide a safe and reparative treatment strategy for patients suffering from osteoporotic vertebral fractures, a frighteningly common and debilitating condition. I envision a future whereby it is possible to restore the structural and mechanical health to the spine, allowing patients to live a normal and healthy life.”

Prof Ines Thiele, Professor for Systems Biomedicine at the University of Galway, PI of the Molecular Systems Physiology group and a PI in the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, for AVATAR,  winning her second ERC award, having already been awarded a ERC Starting Grant in 2017. 

Our society is very diverse, including our bodies, biologies, and lifestyles, yet healthcare still largely relies on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, assuming most people will respond the same way to the same treatment. AVATAR will address the differences between individuals by unravelling the intricate relationships between genes, metabolism, microbiome, and diet. 

The international and multidisciplinary team will create advanced computer models to predict personalised health interventions based on individual health data, analogously to a virtual personal health coach. 

Initial applications aim to assist the diagnosis and treatment of inherited metabolic diseases and elucidate metabolic changes linked to cognitive issues. The collaborative and multidisciplinary effort will involve a team across Ireland, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and the USA. 

Prof Thiele said on news of the award: “I am very delighted to having received the ERC consolidator grant, which will allow me to further realise  my vision of digital metabolic humans that can be personalised on an individual's genetic make-up and lifestyle data. Having such a computer model of each person will be pivotal to personalise treatment strategies.”

Assoc Prof Aidan Regan, School of Politics and International Relations at UCD, Director of UCD’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence in the New Political Economy of Europe and Director of Graduate Master Studies at the School of Politics, will investigate how corporate tax avoidance fuels the wealth inequalities that undermine democracy, with the catchily-named project, Democracy Challenged.

The objectives of Democracy Challenged are guided by two, overarching research questions: (1) Why is concentrated capital and wealth inequality a problem for democracy? and (2) What is the role of corporate tax avoidance and law in enabling this process? Empirically, the project will trace, map and explain the tax-avoiding wealth chains of multinationals in the big tech and pharma sectors. 

On winning the ERC award, Assoc Prof Regan stated: “Democracy Challenged will build a transdisciplinary research team in UCD that cuts across the economic, legal and political sciences to address a critical problem in society: global corporate tax avoidance and wealth inequality. The research team will empirically study how legal-accounting actors create the structures and strategies of multinational tax avoidance, while assessing the normative implications this has for the legitimacy and functioning of market capitalism and liberal democracy.”

Assoc Prof Kate Maguire, School of Physics at TCD, is a second-time ERC awardee, having being awarded a Starting Grant through the 2017 call, and will embark on her new train of revolutionary research with CosmicLeap.

The explosive deaths of small dense stars called ‘white dwarfs’ are essential for producing much of the iron seen on Earth today, yet how exactly they die and end their lives is still unknown. CosmicLeap will provide the first complete census of the multiple ways that white dwarfs can explode, by mapping their observations to their explosion physics and constraining their diversity. This sample will be crucial for defining new precision samples for cosmology, as well as determining the rates and contributions of white-dwarf explosions to the origin of the elements.

Commenting on the news, Assoc Prof Maguire said: “I was really delighted to find out that my ERC Consolidator Grant project, CosmicLeap, had been successful. My research focusses on understanding some of the most dramatic explosions in the Universe, and this award will allow me to build a diverse team of researchers that would not be possible without a grant of this scope. It will link state-of-the-art observations of white-dwarf explosions to detailed theoretical models via novel machine-learning techniques. I hope that it will allow us to gain the most comprehensive understanding yet of the mysterious deaths of white dwarf stars.”

Prof Niamh Nowlan, Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at UCD, and SFI Frontiers for the Future awardee, is also a second-time ERC laureate, having being funded through the ERC 2013 Starting Grant call.

This second award, for ReZone, seeks to explore how the zonal structure of cartilage forms after birth and, in particular, how mechanical loading affects the cartilage layers. Articular cartilage is an amazing material that we depend upon for pain-free movement. Due to its poor healing ability, cartilage needs to last a lifetime. What makes healthy cartilage low-friction and long-lasting is its complex layered (zonal) structure, but current surgical techniques to fix damaged cartilage cannot recreate the original structure. Therefore, repair cartilage tends to break down, leading to the need for further surgeries and possibly even joint replacement. Through discovering how articular cartilage grows and develops, we hope to be able to (re)activate those processes in adults to be able to truly regenerate articular cartilage. 

Remarking on the award, Prof Nowlan said: “I am thrilled and very grateful to be awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant. The ERC will enable us to understand how mechanical loading affects the development of cartilage, with implications for both cartilage regeneration and also for orthopaedic conditions affecting children.”

Prof Michael Quayle, Social Psychologist and Lecturer in Psychology at UL, Funded Investigator with Lero, the SFI Research Centre for Software, and third-time ERC beneficiary (having won a Starting Grant in 2018 and a Proof of Concept Grant in 2022), aims to make a fundamental breakthrough in social identity, social information and social polarization with his proposed work in IDENTIDY-COMPRESSION.

We urgently need to understand social polarization to tackle pressing issues like climate change, and in planning how to respond to future events like pandemics. This is especially important, since technological advances like social media and AI seem to be accelerating and amplifying polarization in ways we do not understand well. IDENTIDY-COMPRESSION will explore a natural mechanism that might be the ticking heart of polarization: social information compression. How do we build cohesive societies and simultaneously reach consensus on how to deal with contentious issues? If successful, this project will deliver a model of polarization that will help us tackle this question. For example, urgent action on climate change needs a large majority to be convinced that it is necessary and urgent to take action; but this consensus will be much less useful if it is concentrated in on partisan lines. By explaining how polarization arises, and what it achieves, this model will give us new tools for addressing our most pressing social issues.

Prof Quayle explained: “The ERC explicitly funds high-risk research that, if successful, will have high rewards. This means that there is a realistic possibility that our hypotheses are not supported by evidence – but we have licence and resources to explore new ground, and that’s an important part of the scientific process. We might make profound discoveries, or find that our existing assumptions are wrong. However, if our experimental and analytic work supports our theory, then we will have a much clearer understanding of how polarization occurs and what functions it achieves. We will have some good ideas of how social media might amplify and accelerate polarization, and some ideas for how we might build more cohesion into social systems.”

Assoc Prof Michael Monaghan, Biomedical Engineering at the Dept of Mechanical, Manufacturing & Biomedical Engineering and Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering at TCD, was awarded the ERC Consolidator funding for PiezoMac. He is also a funded investigator at CÚRAM, SFI Research Centre for Medical Devices and AMBER, SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research.

PiezoMac aims to engineer a new platform of biomaterials that, by virtue of their material chemistry and geometrical design, will treat patients after the incidence of a heart attack, whereby heart muscle is injured. This platform will halt adverse remodelling of the heart, leading to improved patient quality of life. PiezoMac will extend to other incidences of injury to guide improved healing, while providing structural support to damaged tissues. The work will be highly multidisciplinary; biomedical engineering and its crossover into computer science and immunology, while employing novel imaging technologies that will be a first in Ireland. 

Commenting on the ERC Consolidator award, Assoc Prof Michael Monaghan stated: “I am incredibly grateful to receive this funding and the enormous opportunity it provides to pursue this project, while training talented PhD students and Post-doctoral researchers to work on a project that I have been building towards for the last few years. I’m especially thankful for the support of friends, colleagues, and collaborators who contributed during the development of the grant and to TCD’s RDO for their continued support. The ERCs support of blue skies research is a lifeline towards pursuing this frontier research, and this research will have a significant impact in materials chemistry and medical devices. Previous internal funding support from TCD and research funding support of our national agencies has led to this award, which underlines the significance of national endorsement in securing non-exchequer funding. I’d like to specifically acknowledge past and present lab members who inspire me with their motivation, creativity and dedication, and I’m very excited to being this next chapter in our lab.”