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06.09.2023 | כ אלול התשפג

Bar-Ilan University Researchers Awarded ERC Starting Grants

Prestigious grants will advance cutting-edge research at BIU in the areas of chirality, and cancer treatment


Two outstanding Bar-Ilan University researchers - Dr. Assaf Ben-Moshe, of the Department of Chemistry, and Dr. Shahar Alon, from the Kofkin Faculty of Engineering - are the recipients of European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants totaling 14 million NIS for their groundbreaking research, the ERC has announced.

European Research Council (ERC) is awarding 400 Starting Grants to young scientists and scholars across Europe. Totaling €628 million, the grants support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

Chirality Research
Dr. Ben-Moshe, who was awarded a €1.5 million grant, studies chirality, a fundamental geometric property of objects that exist as two mirror-images that cannot be overlapped in space. One example of this is our left and right hands: When holding the right hand in front of a mirror, the left hand will show in the mirror. Yet, one can never overlap the two, no matter how hard one tries. This property is fundamental across many different hierarchies of nature and is studied in different fields of biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. It plays a pivotal role in our understanding of the natural world. Nearly all biological molecules, including those within our bodies, exist in chiral forms, with each mirror image behaving differently. This phenomenon poses a significant challenge in the pharmaceutical sector, where controlling chirality can impact drug efficacy and safety.

Dr. Ben Moshe's project explores an innovative theory suggesting that the chiral shapes of crystals may not be solely determined by the shapes of constituent molecules, but rather by intricate defects influencing their structure. These defects, previously overlooked, may hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of chirality in crystals.

This cutting-edge research utilizes advanced electron microscopy techniques to examine nanoscale crystals – structures a billionth of a meter in size. By focusing on these minute crystals, researchers can unveil critical structural details often concealed when studying larger crystals through traditional methods. Dr. Ben Moshe's project could pave the way for controlling chirality in a wide range of materials, with far-reaching implications for optoelectronics, spintronics, asymmetric catalysis, and more.

Cancer Treatment Research

Despite vigilant immune surveillance, tumors often evade the body's defenses, a phenomenon that has challenged experts for years. Dr. Shahar Alon, awarded a grant of nearly €2 million, aims to unravel the enigmatic interactions occurring at the cellular level between tumors and the immune system, bringing to light the crucial insights that can potentially reshape the landscape of cancer treatment.

The focus of this cutting-edge research is on the often-overlooked "detection-without-activation" events that transpire when immune cells, particularly T cells, encounter tumor cells. While extensive research has concentrated on the mechanisms of immune cell activation, little attention has been paid to deciphering the implications of these non-activating encounters.

The primary question at the heart of Dr. Alon's study is, how do immune cells encode information when they come into physical contact with tumor cells, even when the immune response isn't triggered? Could this interaction serve as the elusive key to understanding the evasion tactics employed by tumors? Dr. Alon suggests that the mechanism of evasion may manifest as discernible physical changes in immune cells upon contact with tumor cells. To unveil this hidden process, the research team will scrutinize biopsies searching for alterations in the gene expression program of immune cells that have come into contact with tumor cells.

What sets this research apart is the utilization of an innovative technology developed by Dr. Alon enabling in situ sequencing with super-resolution. This groundbreaking technology will pave the way for the creation of the first-ever dataset of super-resolved spatial genomics mapping of human biopsies. By scrutinizing tens of thousands of individual interactions between physically touching immune and tumor cell types, this dataset will shed light on previously uncharted territory.

Furthermore, Dr. Alon's team will develop an advanced imaging technology capable of in situ sequencing of T cell and B Cell receptors, pinpointing tumor-specific receptors and providing insight into the immune-tumor dialogue. A sophisticated computational framework will be employed to identify the genes and pathways central to this intricate crosstalk.

The potential impact of this research is profound, promising to unveil insights into tumor evasion and offering new directions for potential interventions.