January 2017 sees the start of the largest European project ever coordinated at IBEC, Pere Roca-Cusachs’ MECHANOCONTROL, which aims to come up with new therapeutic or diagnostic approaches for cancer and other diseases.
Funded under Horizon 2020’s FET Proactive programme, which helps new research communities to be developed by encouraging researchers from different disciplines to work together, MECHANOCONTROL will focus on understanding and controlling how cells transmit and detect mechanical forces.
“Most solid tumors have altered mechanical properties, such as a stiffness higher than that of normal tissue. This increased stiffness promotes tumor progression,” explains Pere. “This doesn’t just apply to cancer: other diseases, such as fibrosis, are also driven by increased stiffness. If we can understand and control this process, this has a huge potential for new therapies across a wide range of diseases.”
Mechanical forces and stiffness are detected through specific molecular bonds at the nanoscale, but this is integrated first within cells, then within tissues, and finally within organs and organisms. “Understanding this process at all those different scales is a huge endeavour that requires multiple disciplines,” says Pere. “MECHANOCONTROL will do precisely this, gathering a team of biologists, biophysicists, engineers, modellers and chemists to understand and control cellular mechanics from the scale of the molecule right up to the entire organism.”
As well as IBEC, the MECHANOCONTROL consortium comprises the UPC and Mind the Byte S.L. in Spain, the Universitair Medisch Centrum Utrecht and Noviocell B.V in the Netherlands, Germany’s Leibniz-Institut, and King’s College London.
The project is one of only 12 projects selected out of 210 submissions across Europe. Among all the calls of the FET project so far, it is one of only four projects coordinated in Spain. With its grant of €7m over five years, it is over three-fold larger than the prestigious European Research Council grants.
“Understanding cellular mechanics and their effects is also crucial for the design of biomaterials and in regenerative medicine,” adds Pere, who was recently accepted into the prestigious EMBO Young Investigator Programme and was a finalist of the American Society for Cell Biology’s Gibco Emerging Leader Prize.