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ERC Starting Grants for Two Researchers of the MDC

Two researchers of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch will receive more than 3 million euros in research funding from the European Research Council (ERC) in Strasbourg. Cancer researcher Dr. Michela Di Virgilio and systems biologist Dr. Baris Tursun of the Berlin Institute for Medical Systems Biology (BIMSB) of the MDC will receive an ERC Starting Grant endowed with 1.9 million euros and 1.5 million euros respectively. They were selected from 3,273 applicants. The ERC grants are for a period of five years and will begin in spring 2015.

In her ERC project, Dr. Di Virgilio focuses on the repair of DNA double-strand breaks. These cytotoxic DNA lesions arise following exposure to ionizing radiation and several chemicals, but they also occur in B lymphocytes as intermediates of physiological processes essential for antibody production. Accurate repair of DNA double-strand breaks is therefore essential not only for the maintenance of our genome integrity but also for the establishment of a proper immune response. Dr. Di Virgilio will investigate the regulatory mechanisms that ensure efficient and accurate repair of these lesions in B lymphocytes. By elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying DNA repair in B cells, Dr. Di Virgilio hopes to advance the understanding of the molecular basis of immunodeficiencies and cancer predisposition.

Dr. Michela Di Virgilio

Dr. Di Virgilio began work in September this year as Helmholtz junior research group leader at the MDC, a research institution of the Helmholtz Association. She came from The Rockefeller University in New York City, USA, where she had worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of the immunologist Professor Michel C. Nussenzweig. There she investigated repair mechanisms in B cells. In the field of DNA repair, her results are considered to be groundbreaking. She received her doctorate from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Milan, Italy, for the work she performed at Columbia University in New York City in the laboratory of the geneticist and developmental biologist Professor Jean Gautier.

In his ERC project Dr. Tursun Baris wants to investigate how cells can be directly reprogrammed, thus circumventing the use of embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells and generating tissues for the treatment of severe diseases in the future. However, to date, direct reprogramming is successful in only a few cells types, and it is not well understood why most cells are refractory to this process. Recently, his group identified factors which inhibit direct conversion of germ cells into neurons or muscle cells. In this project his group wants to further understand mechanisms which restrict direct reprogramming. For their investigations they use C. elegans, a roundworm widely used as a model system in genetics and systems biology. It was the first animal to have its genome completely sequenced. Also, its developmental program is understood at the single-cell level.

Dr. Baris Tursun

Baris Tursun joined the BIMSB at the MDC in February 2012 as Independent Junior Group leader, working on gene regulatory mechanisms of the direct conversion of cell types. He received his PhD at the Center for Molecular Neurobiology at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and then worked as a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist at Columbia University in the laboratory of Professor Oliver Hobert. In spring 2014, Baris Tursun co-organized the first European C. elegans conference, which took place at the MDC in Berlin.

Altogether thirteen researchers at the MDC have been awarded one of the highly endowed ERC grants. Besides Dr. Di Virgilio and Dr. Tursun they are: Professor Thomas Willnow and Dr. Oliver Daumke (both grants started in 2014), Dr. Zsuzsanna Izsvák (2013), Professor Gary Lewin, Professor Thomas Jentsch (MDC, Leibniz Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie, FMP), Professor Michael Gotthardt and Dr. Jan Siemens (now University of Heidelberg) (all in 2012), Dr. James Poulet and Professor Klaus Rajewsky (both in 2011), Dr. Matthew N. Poy (2010) and Dr. Francesca Spagnoli (2009).

Established in 2007 by the EU, the European Research Council is the first pan-European funding organization for cutting-edge research. Since 2007, the ERC has funded over 4,500 projects throughout Europe.


Barbara Bachtler
Press Department
Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin-Buch
in the Helmholtz Association
Robert-Rössle-Straße 10
13125 Berlin
Phone: +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 96
Fax:  +49 (0) 30 94 06 - 38 33

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