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Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

Professor Róisín Owens, who leads the Bioelectronic Systems Technology group, has been awarded the €150,000 European Research Council grant for a collaborative project with CN Bio, a leading Organ-on-a-chip (OOC) company that designs and manufactures single- and multi-organ microphysiological systems (MPS), also based in Cambridge.


Owens’s group recently patented their 3D tissue model technology that combines OOC concepts with electrochemical devices. Using this technology, they can build a 3D model of the human gut – composed of the different cells that make up the human intestine – that is embedded with electrodes, allowing them to continuously monitor what’s happening in the tissue.

The grant will enable Owens and her team to integrate their 3D human gut tissue model with CN Bio’s PhysioMimix MPS; a next-generation lab benchtop-ready system that reliably bridges the gap between traditional cell culture assays and human studies, to optimise the accuracy and efficiency of bringing new medicines to market. The resulting technology can be used to run fast, automated screening of how drugs or potential drug candidates interact with human gut tissue.

The researchers can also introduce a microbiome to the system, creating an accurate mimic of the environment within the human intestine. They can then monitor how microorganisms in the gut affect, and are affected by, different treatments, including live biotherapeutics – essentially therapeutic probiotics – that are becoming an increasing area of interest in healthcare.

The overall aim of the project is to enable faster and more accurate screening of potential treatments, using human tissue in an environment that closely mimics that found in the human body. The group hope their technology will eventually reduce the need for animal testing in drug development.

Dr Tomasz Kostrzewski, Vice President of Science and Technology at CN Bio, said: “The microbiome’s contribution to human disease processes is becoming a research area of increasing interest. Animal and in vitro cell-based models have provided some insights, however, until now, investigations into the gut have been limited due to cross-species differences and an insufficient understanding of underlying disease pathophysiology. This collaborative project with Professor Owens to integrate electrochemical devices and the PhysioMimix microphysiological system is cutting-edge, to not only investigate microbiome-gut interactions, but wider complex effects within the human body.”

This Proof of Concept grant is part of a wider European Research Council funded project called IMBIBE, in which Owens and collaborators are seeking to develop technological solutions to explore the effects of the microbiome on the intestine and brain pathophysiology.

The interaction of the microbiome with the so-called gut-brain axis has been linked with many diseases, including colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, obesity, diabetes, as well as neuropathologies such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), stress and anxiety. The IMBIBE project will focus on using engineering and materials science approaches to develop complete in vitro models to truly capture the human situation associated with this complex system.

Owens’s previous ERC PoC grant in 2014 led her to co-found spin-out company Panaxium, based in France, which now has 18 full-time employees.

About the ERC PoC grants

166 researchers funded by the European Research Council (ERC) were awarded Proof of Concept Grants in this cycle. Worth €150,000 each, this top-up funding will help them bridge the gap between the results of their pioneering research and the early phases of its commercialisation. The grants are part of the EU's research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. 

ERC grantees use this Proof of Concept funding in several ways, for example to verify the practical viability of scientific concepts, explore business opportunities, or prepare patent applications.

Next funding round is coming soon 

ERC grantees can apply for Proof of Concept funding in one of three rounds of the call in 2022; the first deadline is on 15 February 2022. Information on applying for ERC PoC grants

About the ERC

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four main grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. Since 1 November 2021, Maria Leptin is the President of the ERC. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than €16 billion, as part of the Horizon Europe programme, under the responsibility of the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel.


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