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Prestigious HFSP grants demonstrate IMBA’s excellence in Stem Cell Research

Two IMBA stem cell groups receive prestigious grants from the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization: Kikue Tachibana is the project lead of a prestigious HFSP program grant, Bon-Kyoung Kooa receives HFSP young investigator grant

On 28 March, the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) announced the 31 winning teams of the 2018 competition for its Research Grants. The successful teams had gone through a rigorous, year-long competition. Out of 771 applicants, eight Young Investigator Grants and 23 Program Grants were awarded - a success rate of four percent. These collaborative Research Grants fund cutting-edge, risky projects, foster collaborative efforts “without borders”, and appeal to the innovative and creative potential of the applicants. 2 grants were secured by IMBA researchers.

Mechanisms of chromatin reprogramming to totipotency

Kikue Tachibana received a prestigious HFSP program grant for an intercontinental consortium, worth 1.2 million dollars, to pinpoint the mechanisms of reprogramming to totipotency, the potential to give rise to every cell type in the body.

“Our aim is to understand how chromatin is reprogrammed within hours after a sperm fertilizes a mammalian egg to generate a totipotent one-cell embryo, special in its ability to produce an entire new organism”, says IMBA group leader and EMBO Young Investigator Tachibana, who has pioneered mechanistic cell biology and studies of spatial chromatin organization in zygotes. This question has been one of the ‘holy grails’ of the life sciences and has fascinated (not only) biologists for generations. To this day, hardly anything is known about the underlying mechanism, partly due to the extreme sparsity of mammalian zygotes and their transient existence. Besides, sophisticated methods for the analysis of genome regulation have only recently been developed.

Tachibana is the project lead and is collaborating with IMP’s scientific director Jan- Michael Peters, Mitinori Saitou (Kyoto University), and Leonid Mirny (MIT). Their project includes innovative ideas that are only possible by the unique combination of expertise from different disciplines. “The composition of the consortium is an “all-star team” that will for the first time combine single-cell genomic approaches, three-dimensional chromatin structure, polymer physics, ovary organoids, biochemistry and single-molecule imaging to uncover principles of reprogramming to totipotency. We are very excited to be part of this great collaboration” says Kikue Tachibana.

Investigating clonal evolution of gastric cancer

Bon-Kyoung Koo, who has installed his lab at IMBA last October, was awarded an HFSP Young Investigator Grant worth 1 Million dollars. Together with Young Seok Ju (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), and Hugo Snippert (University Medical Center Utrecht), he will explore mutagenesis in the clonal evolution of gastric cancer. The Koo lab has been investigating the regulatory mechanisms that govern homeostatic turnover and how disorders during this process contribute to the development of diseases such as stomach and colon cancer. “Knowledge from this work may shed light on our understanding of cancer evolution and will help us to find new therapeutic strategies,” says Koo. In addition to securing the HFSP Young investigator grant, Koo´s lab is also one of the shortlisted teams to the final stages of Cancer Research UK's Grand Challenge – an ambitious series of global grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research. Together with an international and interdisciplinary team, led by Meritxell Huch from the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, the consortium will investigate the link between fat accumulation and cancer causes, and involves clinicians and experts in organoid culture technology, mouse and human genetics and epigenetics, computational biology and genetic engineering.  By bringing together a variety of expertise, the research consortium aims to target the mechanisms by which fat accumulation leads to cancer predisposition, with special attention to liver, colon and breast tumors. The winners of the Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge will be announced in fall and will be awarded up to £20 million for each project.

“The HFSP grants are amongst the most prestigious and competitive research grants in life sciences. I am very happy to see that two labs at IMBA were able to secure HFPS funding which will allow them to pursue cutting-edge research projects and to follow innovative approaches. Their great success highlights the role of IMBA in promoting young talents and also demonstrates our increasing success in the field of stem cell biology. ,” Jürgen Knoblich, deputy scientific director at IMBA, coordinator of IMBA´s stem cell initiative, and co-founder of Austria’s Society for Stem Cell research.

About HFSP:
The Human Frontier Science Program is an international program of research support implemented by the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) based in Strasbourg, France. Its aims are to promote intercontinental collaboration and training in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research focused on the life sciences. HFSPO receives financial support from the governments or research councils of Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, UK, USA, as well as from the European Union.