UZH researchers working in various fields have proven highly successful in obtaining funding from the European Union. As in past years, three researchers and their projects have now won highly competitive Consolidator Grants by the European Research Council (ERC). However, the three researchers, with a scientific track record of between seven and 12 years, will not receive their funding directly from the EU, as in the past. Since Switzerland is no longer a fully associated member of the Horizon Europe research and innovation program, the Swiss federal government has decided to step in with a transitional funding scheme. The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) will cover the close to 2 million euros for each project over the next five years.
From this year, researchers at Swiss universities can no longer apply for ERC funding with their individual projects. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) will provide additional funds – however, Swiss researchers will no longer be competing on the international stage. “This is harmful to UZH’s reputation, since our researchers will no longer be as able to compete with Europe’s leading universities and, more importantly, collaborate with them as we did in the past,” says Michael Schaepman, President of the University of Zurich. “Horizon Europe is the largest research and innovation program in the world. If we can’t take part in this competition for excellence, we’ll lose out on innovation in the long run.” This is why the UZH President is advocating that Switzerland return to the Horizon Europe as a fully associated member.
Three outstanding projects
The fact that no fewer than three promising projects were awarded Consolidator Grants this year speaks of the quality of research conducted at the University of Zurich:
Better understanding neurodegenerative diseases
Magdalini Polymenidou from the Department of Quantitative Biomedicine wants to understand the molecular basis of neurodegenerative diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which affects the motor nervous system, and frontotemporal dementia, a special form of dementia that manifests itself through changes in personality and behavior. No cure is currently available for either disease, and those affected inevitably succumb to their condition. The project focuses on TDP-43, a tightly regulated RNA-binding protein with crucial functions that are disturbed in patient neurons. Using patient-derived cultured human neural networks, Magdalini Polymenidou and her team will employ a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to identify the molecular switches that trigger these neurological diseases.
Cutting-edge genome editing tools
Gerald Schwank, professor at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, focuses on the development of genome editing tools for treating genetic diseases. His team will explore a novel set of genome editing technologies, base and prime editors. Unlike in the CRISPR-Cas method, which functions as molecular scissors, base and prime editors are able to directly modify the genetic code without generating DNA double-strand breaks. This makes them highly accurate and ideally suited for application in patients. The researchers will employ protein design and protein evolution to increase the efficacy of base and prime editors and develop efficient delivery technologies for the brain.
Unraveling the social-cognitive development of humans
Anthropologist Andrea Migliano is investigating which social-cognitive developments are generally human characteristics and which are due to social contexts. Humans have lived as hunter-gatherers for over 95% of their evolutionary history. There are only a handful of groups of hunter-gatherers that still face environmental pressures similar to those of our ancestors. There is extreme pressure for cooperation and sharing in a way that we do not experience today. Children are brought up communally with the investment of all, but without schools. By understanding how these characteristics shape child cognition in hunter-gatherers today, we will understand how past ecological conditions have shaped the cognition of all of us.
ERC Consolidator Grants 2021
Prof. Magdalini Polymenidou for the research project “Analysis of structure-function transitions of TDP-43 for mechanistic understanding of neurodegenerative diseases”
Amount awarded: EUR 1,992,060
Department of Quantitative Biomedicine, University of Zurich
Prof. Gerald Schwank for the research project “Establishing DNA double-strand break independent genome editing approaches to treat monogenetic brain disorders”
Amount awarded: EUR 2,000,000
Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Zurich
Prof. Andrea Migliano for the research project “Adaptive history of human socio-cognitive development”
Amount awarded: 1,999,748 EUR
Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich