Published on 30/03/2023
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Aquaporin 4 under microscope
Protein aquaporin 4 as seen under a microscope.
  • Leading scientist wins €2.2 million ERC Advanced Grant 
  • The five-year project will explore early dementia interventions through understanding how an aquaporin water channel regulates glymphatic clearance
  • ERC Advanced Grant funding is amongst the most prestigious and competitive of the EU funding schemes.

A world leading scientist in the College of Health and Life Sciences at Aston University has been awarded a €2.2 million ERC Advanced Grant to understand how the movement of a protein known as aquaporin-4 in the brain can help slow cognitive decline. 

The FORTIFY project, which will run for five years, is led by Professor Roslyn Bill in  the School of Biosciences. She will apply her discovery of the movement of aquaporin-4 to understand how the cleaning mechanism in the brain works during sleep. The research will focus on how aquaporin-4 controls the glymphatic system, which is the mechanism that allows us to clear waste products from our brains while we sleep. 

Her hypothesis is that the movement of aquaporin-4 in the brain changes the effectiveness of this cleansing mechanism - which lessens as people age. 

A greater understanding of this process could lead to an early intervention treatment that could slow the onset of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases. 

ERC Advanced Grant funding is amongst the most prestigious and competitive of the EU funding schemes, providing researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. 

Professor Bill said: “Every three seconds someone in the world develops dementia and there is no cure. I want to stop that from happening. By understanding the molecular mechanisms of brain waste clearance, we have an opportunity to develop medicines that can slow the onset of dementia, very much in the same way that statins are prescribed to control heart disease”.

Roslyn Bill discovered that the water channel protein aquaporin-4 increases the permeability of brain cells to water after a brain or spinal cord injury. Around 60 million people a year suffer such injuries following falls or accidents. For example, after a skiing accident in the French Alps in 2013, Michael Schumacher suffered a severe head injury. He was placed in a medically induced coma and underwent several surgeries to treat his injuries. 

Until now doctors have only been able to manage the symptoms of brain injury (swelling on the brain) through interventions that may require surgery. Professor Bill and her team are due to start clinical trials in summer 2023, to test a method to stop the swelling from happening in its tracks, building on her discoveries. Roslyn’s new ERC-funded project, FORTIFY, will focus on how aquaporin-4 controls fluid flow in the healthy, uninjured brain.

In this round of Advanced Grants, the European Research Council (ERC) is awarding €544 million to 218 outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the Horizon Europe programme. The grants will support cutting edge research in a wide range of fields, from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

The grant is awarded to established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant research achievements over the past decade. The funding will enable the researchers to explore their most innovative and ambitious ideas.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “ERC grants are a top recognition and a significant commitment from our best researchers. The €544 million funding puts our 218 research leaders, together with their teams of postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and research staff, in pole position to push back the boundaries of our knowledge, break new ground and build foundations for future growth
and prosperity in Europe”

Maria Leptin, ERC President, added: "These new ERC Advanced Grantees are a testament to the outstanding quality of research carried out across Europe. I am especially pleased to see such a high number of female researchers in this competition and that they are increasingly successful in securing funding. 

“We look forward to seeing the results of the new projects in the years to come, with many likely to lead to breakthroughs and new advances.”

Notes to editors

The laureates of this grant competition will carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 20 countries in Europe, with the highest number of projects in Germany (37), the UK (35), France (32) and Spain (16). The winners come from all over the world, with 27 nationalities represented, notably Germans (36 researchers), French (32), Italians (21), British (19).

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston University is a long established university led by its three main beneficiary groups – students, business and the professions, and the West Midlands region and wider society. Located in Birmingham at the heart of a vibrant city, the campus houses all the University’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Aleks Subic is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

In 2022 Aston University was ranked in the top 25 of the Guardian University Guide, based on measures including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects. The Aston Business School MBA programme was ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking.

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