Ivo Vellekoop and Álvaro Marín have each been awarded an ERC Starting Grant worth one and a half million euros. This prestigious European Union personal research grant helps talented young scientists establish their own line of research. Dr Vellekoop, of the university’s MIRA research institute, will be using his grant to fund research into a new generation of microscopes capable of imaging structures located much deeper inside biological tissue than is currently possible. Dr Marín, who is currently working at the Universität der Bundeswehr in Munich, will be returning to the University of Twente, where he will use his grant to fund research into a completely new method of detecting diseases at an early stage.
Microscopes are essential for biomedical research. Unfortunately, however, today’s microscopes can not look deep inside biological tissue. This is because tissues such as skin, fat, muscle or bone, tend to scatter incoming light. Deep inside the tissue, this light is no longer travelling straight ahead, making it impossible to obtain a sharp focus. As a result, the microscope is unable to create a sharp image.
Despite hundreds of years of innovation and improvement, this problem remains unresolved. The amount of usable light decreases exponentially, the further you try to look into the tissue. As a result, with regular optical microscopes, it is impossible to see more than a fraction of a millimetre into tissues.
However, Dr Ivo Vellekoop has previously shown that it is indeed possible for scattered light to be sharply focused. In 2008, the American Institute of Physics hailed this study (which was conducted at the University of Twente) as one of the most remarkable discoveries of the year. The study showed that, in principle, it is possible to view structures located beneath several centimetres of tissue. Since then, this research area has undergone turbulent development, and the first applications are not far off.
In a new research project, entitled ‘DEEP VISION’, Ivo Vellekoop will develop the knowledge and technology needed to create a new generation of microscopes, microscopes that will work with the aid of scattered light. The ERC Starting Grant will enable Dr Vellekoop to set up his own line of research in this area. He will be using the grant to purchase equipment, to employ two PhD students and one postdoctoral researcher, and for various other purposes. Ivo Vellekoop holds the post of Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Photonic Imaging (BMPI) at the University of Twente’s MIRA research institute.
From 2008 to 2011, Dr Álvaro Marín worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Physics of Fluids department, which is part of the university’s MESA+ and MIRA research institutes. In 2012, he took up the post of Research Associate at the Universität der Bundeswehr’s Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering, in Munich. Early next year, Dr Marín will return to his old department at the University of Twente, where he will put his ERC Starting Grant to good use.
Álvaro Marín was awarded the Grant for his NanoPacks research project. In the context of this project, he will work on a completely new method of detecting diseases at an early stage. Through the emergence of new technologies, it is now possible to detect a range of molecules (including those produced by some pathogens) at extremely low concentrations. These techniques detect molecules when they bind to a surface that has been formed into a nanostructure. However, the creation of such structures has its limitations, as it is based on a process of self-assembly, in which the various components must slot into place by mutual attraction.
Dr Marín is going to work on a completely different way of creating these detector nanostructures. This involves bringing the molecules to be analysed together with metal nanoparticles in minuscule droplets, which are then allowed to evaporate. By carefully controlling the way these droplets evaporate, you can determine the form of the resultant nanostructure.
The European Research Council’s Starting Grant is a prestigious European personal grant. It is not awarded purely on the basis of the submitted research proposal. The quality of the researcher in question, and of their previous research, is also taken into consideration. In this round, European researchers submitted a total of 2920 research proposals, only ten percent of which were approved.