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Wednesday 27 November 2013

One Million in Prizes! Ten years of LRI Innovative Science Awards

The recent LRI Annual Workshop in Brussels on 21 November was the occasion to celebrate ten years of the LRI Innovative Science award. The event saw the presentation of this prestigious award for younger scientists to its tenth recipient: Dr. Sabine Langie of VITO. Dr Langie received her prize of € 100 000 from Prof. Ellen Fritsche of the University of Dusseldorf: herself a previous winner and now a member of LRI’s External Scientific Advisory Panel (ESAP).

The Cefic-LRI award programme has been hugely successful over the past decade. The LRI Innovative Science Award was established in 2004 to inspire highly innovative and industry relevant projects in biomedical toxicology and ecotoxicology led by promisingly early career scientists.

The prize of € 100 000 has been awarded annually ever since - boosting the careers of ten younger European scientists in the challenging fields with which LRI is engaged.

This year’s award – making a total of one million euros distributed to research projects under this element of the Cefic-LRI programme so far – was presented by Prof Fritsche (below, left) to Dr Sabine Langie (below, right) of the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO) at the LRI Annual Workshop.

Dr. Langie will use the award to broaden her current work on the analysis of DNA methylation patterns in the saliva of children participating in two significant birth cohort studies in Flanders. She is exploring the hypothesis that prenatal chemical exposures can alter foetal DNA methylation patterns and predispose the child to develop allergic diseases later in life.

The use of saliva is less burdensome for the children in study and easier to collect than, for example, blood samples. The ultimate aim of the study is to develop prevention strategies (including reduction of chemical exposure), particularly in children, and reduce the societal burden associated with allergic diseases.

Career boost
Reviewing the history of the award Prof. Fritsche, who won the award in 2006, described the prize as: “Nitromethane for an Early Career – the LRI award was a big accelerator for my career - a rocket!” This view was echoed by contributions from other awardees over the years.

Dr Roman Ashauer of York University won the award in 2007 and says: “The Cefic-LRI Award allowed me to pursue my own ideas. It was motivation, encouragement and the crucial bit of extra fuel in the tank to push the envelope.”

Similarly Prof Paul van den Brink of Wageningen University, the winner in 2005, commented: “The award gave me the first sense of academic freedom. It was a real push to my career and opened doors for further funding.”

The first ever winner of the award in 2004 Prof Roger Godschalk of Maastricht University is still feeing the effects of the award saying: “With the LRI-award, I was able to put my ideas into practice. It eventually evolved in to my own research line at our institute, which I can continue to build even 10 years after winning the CEFIC LRI-award.”

“Winning this award has been a pivotal factor in my research and professional career. It has allowed me to create my research group, managing my own research budget and having two PhD students working alongside me in the project,” said 2010 winner Dr Maria Saborit of Birmingham University.

Data mining
Delegates to the LRI workshop also got an update on the work of 2012 winner Dr Andreas Bender of the University of Cambridge who is looking to determine biologically relevant effects of compound exposure by chemical, biological and phenotypic data integration.

The in-silico prediction of in-vivo toxicology of a particular compound is a non trivial problem due to the lack of direct correlations between structural features and toxicity. However chemical, protein target and phenotypic data provide complementary bioactivity data and Dr Bender’s work is based on the hypothesis that more accurate toxicity predictions could be made by integrating these data. His core expertise is in data mining and the research has had success in predicting likely protein targets for compounds based on their structure in areas such as mode of action analysis, modelling of bioactivities, natural products and traditional medicines.

The performance of the model algorithm used is increasing all the time and Dr Bender is looking to the ultimate objective of automated prediction of targets given only their chemical structure. These techniques will be useful in future personalised medicine scenarios and he has recently received a € 1.5 million ERC Starter Grant to extend the work towards bioactive mixture modelling.

More information
Details of the next LRI Innovative Science Award will be released in early 2014. The focus of this eleventh competition will be in one of the environmental areas of research covered by LRI. For more details keep an eye on the Cefic-LRI website and to find out more about all previous winners click here.

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