Major investment in bioelectronics against serious diseases

Magnus Berggren, director of research in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, has been awarded a personal European Research Council Advanced Grant of around EUR 3 million, for research in the borderland between medicine and electronics.

Magnus Berggren, professor in organic electronics. Thor Balkhed

In this year’s round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grants, 2,052 applications were received. Of these, 222 scientists received awards – most of them from Great Britain, Germany and France. Six applicants from Sweden were successful. The research grants are generally between EUR 2.5 and 3.5 million. One of those selected is LiU’s Magnus Berggren, professor of organic electronics and director of research in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Campus Norrköping.

“It’s extremely gratifying and we are aware how fortunate we are to be given this opportunity”, says Magnus Berggren.

The grant is to be used to reinforce one of the areas in which the Laboratory of Organic Electronics is already a major player: organic bioelectronics. The research targets neurodegenerative diseases, such as ALS, Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, and epilepsy. These diseases arise when the nerve cells of the brain or spinal cord degenerate or become overactive, as is the case in epilepsy.

Both types of signal are affected

“The nervous system uses both chemical and electrical signals. If something goes wrong, both types of signal are affected, since they are closely linked. All medicines, however, are purely chemical, with very few exceptions. We want to connect the chemical medicines with organic electronics”, says Magnus Berggren.

“Electronic equipment is currently used in a few applications such as pacemakers, and electrodes in the brain that mitigate the tremors of Parkinson disease.”

The scientists at the Laboratory of Organic Electronics who work with electronic plants have managed to produce plants that themselves incorporate electronic components into various parts of the plant structure. It should be possible, given the right material, to produce self-organising electronic components in human brain tissue in the same way. These components can subsequently be stimulated in order to both counteract the breakdown of nerve cells and prevent them from becoming overactive.

“We are approaching pharmacology from a new direction; we want to combine electronics with chemical medicines. If we are successful, it will have enormous consequences in medical research. Even if we’re not, we hope to be able to learn a great deal through the work”, says Magnus Berggren.

The goal is an effective treatment

“We are collaborating with scientists in Lund, testing electronic materials in the nervous system of insect models and in some fish models to determine whether these materials have an effect on neurodegenerative diseases.”

The long-term goal of the research is to find an effective treatment for diseases of this type.

The research group in organic bioelectronics currently consists of around 30 people, and the ERC grant will enable it to expand, with both new doctoral students and senior researchers. Part of the research grant has been ear-marked for equipment, and a laboratory is to be set up at Campus Norrköping, specially designed for the purpose.

The ERC has awarded research grants for a total of EUR 540 million to researchers from 29 countries, both European countries and countries outside of Europe that participate in projects within Horizon 2020. The grants will not only enable top-flight scientists to develop their best ideas: they will also create 2,000 new postdoctoral and research student positions, says the ERC in its press release.

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