The lab early career researcher Stefanie Grosswendt set up in 2021 will get a boost from the ERC Starting Grant. This prestigious grant provides about €1.5 million in funding over a period of five years. The peer reviewers of the European Research Council look for novel approaches that might open up new frontiers and spur significant advances (“groundbreaking” research). Candidates must also have two to seven years of experience since earning their doctorate and have promising scientific achievements to show for it. This year, 397 European scientists from a wide range of disciplines will receive ERC Starting Grants.
Dr. Stefanie Grosswendt leads a BIH junior research group that is part of the joint focus area “Single-Cell Approaches for Personalized Medicine” of the Berlin Institute of Health at Charité (BIH), Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). Her lab is also affiliated with Charité’s Department of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology, headed by Professor Angelika Eggert, and is based at the MDC’s Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB). In the project entitled “Cellmates,” Grosswendt plans to investigate which cells are neighbors in tissues, how exactly they exchange information, and what the consequences of such interaction are.
What should I become and where should I go?
The ability of cells to change their structure or function becomes obvious during an embryo’s development. A whole organism gradually develops from a fertilized egg cell. “But for this to happen, each individual cell must first know what it should become and in some cases where it still needs to migrate to,” Grosswendt says. “That’s why a cell continuously receives signals from its immediate environment – we want to decipher this interplay and understand the role it plays in cellular specialization and thus in helping cells find their way.”
The early career researcher is analyzing this delicately balanced process using cells from the neural crest of mouse embryos. These cells are initially multipotent, but they then develop into very different cell types – including the skin’s pigment cells, cells in jaw cartilage elements and adrenal medulla cells. If something goes wrong, neuroblastoma cancer cells may start to develop even before birth.
“We don’t know yet how complex cell-cell interactions can be and how this affects the fate of specific cells,” Grosswendt says. So she wants to further develop single-cell analysis technologies in order to be able to precisely identify neighboring cells in tissues, while at the same time determining which signals they send to each other and how they thereby influence each other’s properties.
Enormous potential for medical research
“One and the same signal can elicit different responses depending on the cell type,” Grosswendt says. The cells subsequently transcribe different genes than they had before and in some cases even change their identity. “These principles underlying cell-to-cell communication do not only play a role during development or in healthy tissue,” she explains. “Cells within a tumor also influence each other, which can alter the genetic activity of some cancer cells in ways that make them more difficult to treat.”
ERC’s peer reviewers also saw substantial potential for medical research. “I was particularly pleased that they found our scientific approach as exciting as we do,” Grosswendt says. “We will be able to apply our methods to a variety of model systems like model organisms, organ-like microstructures called organoids, and primary samples from patients.” That is precisely why they are such a good fit for the joint focus area “Single-Cell Approaches for Personalized Medicine” of the BIH, Charité and MDC. “I am very grateful for the support I had in the run-up to the ERC competition – and to my PhD students whose initial data analyses were incorporated into the project proposal,” she says. “Now we are really getting started.”
3 questions to Dr. Stefanie Grosswendt (in German)