IBEC researcher wins ERC Consolidator Grant for research into intestinal diseases

SONY DSCElena Martinez, head of IBEC’s Biomimetic Systems for Cell Engineering group, has been awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant to engineer models of the intestinal epithelium, an essential tool for understanding disease and tissue regeneration.

The highly sought-after ERC Consolidator grants are awarded to EU-based Principal Investigators with talent and proven potential who are still consolidating their own independent research team or programme. In this call, nearly 2528 proposals were submitted, of which 372 have been selected for funding.

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With the grant, which will be supplied for up to five years, Elena will aim to develop functional, in vitro models of the intestinal epithelium, which protects the area against physical, chemical and microbial damage. As this is one of the most actively renewing tissues in the body, as well as a major site of carcinogenesis, achieving working models of the the intestinal epithelium would be invaluable for basic research into intestinal disease modelling, drug discovery and tissue replacement, among other things, as well as providing essential tools for adult stem cell research.

“By taking advantage of the self-organizing properties of intestinal stem cells, researchers have already been able to create intestinal organoids that display a cell renewal ability similar to that which really happens in the body,” says Elena, who is a Junior Group Leader at IBEC under the institute’s Tenure Track scheme. “However, the development of in vitro 3D tissue equivalents with the same dimensions, architecture and access to the luminal contents of real human intestinal tissue, together with its self-renewal properties and cell complexity, remains a challenge.”

Elena’s group will combine microfabrication techniques, tissue engineering components and recent advances in intestinal stem cell research, exploiting stem cell self-organizing characteristics to recreate the 3D morphology, spatio-chemical gradients and dynamic microenvironment of the living tissue. “The achievement of such models will be a step beyond state-of-the-art organoid models, helping boost our understanding of cell physiology, adult stem cell behaviour and organ development, as well as opening up new areas of research on human intestinal diseases,” says Elena. “I’m very proud to have had the potential of this work recognized by the ERC.”

Elena’s grant is the 9th ERC award to be won by an IBEC researcher. With it, she joins the ranks of Xavier Trepat (3 grants), Pau Gorostiza (2), Damien Lacroix, Samuel Sánchez and Nuria Montserrat.