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Three doctoral candidates in biology receive the 2019 Pelican Grant

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Publié le mardi 17 décembre 2019

Borja Gomez Ramos, Nadège Minoungou and Mina Tsenkova, three PhD students from the Life Sciences Research Unit (LSRU) at the University of Luxembourg, have recently been awarded the Pelican Grant from the Fondation du Pélican de Mie et Pierre Hippert-Faber. They will use the grant for their research activities in the fields of Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and colorectal cancer.

The Fondation du Pélican awards a number of doctoral candidates affiliated with the programme in systems and molecular biomedicine of the Doctoral School in Science and Engineering (DSSE) at the University of Luxembourg with the “Pelican Grant” each year. This grant can be used to finance their research. It can cover additional experiments, travel expenses to participate in conferences and training workshops, as well as short-term stays abroad as part of research collaborations.

This year, Borja Gomez Ramos, Nadège Minoungou and Mina Tsenkova have been awarded for their outstanding research work. Borja works in the Systems Biology group with Dr. Lasse Sinkkonen and in the Clinical and Experimental Neuroscience Group with Prof. Rejko Krueger from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB), Nadège in the Signal Transduction group with Prof. Iris Behrmann and Mina in the Molecular Disease Mechanims group with Dr. Elisabeth Letellier. They told us more about their projects and how they will use the grant for their PhD studies.

What is your research project about?

Borja: “We seek to identify Parkinson’s disease (PD) genetic variants that could make their carriers more prone to developing the disease. We are using human stem cells and differentiate them into central nervous system relevant cell types. Assessing their epigenome and gene expression, we can identify their main regulatory mechanisms and regulators in a cell-type-specific manner. Using that information, we can predict if the PD genetic variants perturb cellular homeostasis in silico for the subsequent validation in vitro. With this approach, we will also identify novel factors controlling cell fate and cell identity.”

Nadège: “Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is the most common form of liver cancer and the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. HCC arises in a context of chronic liver disease which has been associated with the action of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL6. We are interested in long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), a family of RNA molecules linked to cancer development, including HCC. We found that several of these molecules respond to IL6 stimulations in liver cells. Combining computational and experimental approaches, we aim at characterising those IL6-associated lncRNAs in the context of HCC onset and progression.”

Mina: “We study tumor initiation and progression, host-microbiome interaction and the influence of diet on these processes. First, we will analyse microbiome composition and metabolites present in tumors and healthy tissues from colorectal cancer (CRC) patients in an in house Luxembourgish CRC cohort, in order to identify top CRC-associated bacteria. Then, using a fiber-deprived diet and a low-carb high-fat diet, we will evaluate the influence of diets representative of developed countries, on the complex interplay between microbiome, metabolome and host in CRC initiation and progression in vivo. The results of this study might lead to a better understanding of how different bacteria and the products we consume affect CRC development and help in developing strategies to circumvent the harmful effects of CRC-associated bacteria.”

What will you do with the grant?

Borja: “I am going to use the grant to increase my knowledge and skills in the bioinformatic and computational side of my project. I will attend the course in Statistical Methods for Functional Genomics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York, followed by a research stay in the laboratory of Prof. Marcel Schulz at Goethe University Frankfurt. Thus, I will be able to go deeper into the integration of different datasets and learn how to use that data to prioritise non-coding variants for functional validation.”

Nadège: “I will use the grant to perform a research stay in the ‘Genomics of Long noncoding RNA and Disease’ laboratory headed by Prof. Rory Johnson at the University of Bern. Moreover, I will attend courses in order to learn techniques allowing for the detection and functional characterisation of this specific family of RNA molecules.”

Mina: “I will use the grant for a research stay at the RWTH in the University Hospital of Aachen to learn how to process various patient samples and give my project a more clinical translational aspect. I will also attend a conference in the United States on Molecular Mechanisms Linking the Microbiome and Human Health."   

About the Fondation du Pélican

The Fondation du Pélican de Mie et Pierre Hippert-Faber was founded in 2010 by Pierre Hippert and is managed by the Fondation de Luxembourg. The foundation seeks to provide long-term support in the field of scientific and academic research, as well as in the area of the arts and letters. In particular, the foundation finances research projects at the University of Luxembourg by giving scholarships and/or purchasing equipment in biomedicine in order to promote research activities in Luxembourg and develop the reputation of the University in this field.