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Special grants get new researchers off the ground

The benefits of special grants designed to give talented new researchers a ‘leg-up’ on the career ladder are bearing fruit.

A recently recruited scientist to The University of Nottingham has won a remarkable £870,000 of funding through two New Investigator Research schemes that help newly employed university researchers set up laboratories and establish their own track record.

The work of Dr Aziz Aboobaker, a Research Councils UK (RCUK) Academic Research Fellow in the School of Biology, focuses on the biology of stem cells in Planarians — immortal fresh water flat worms that have the ability to regenerate themselves from just small pieces of their own body.

The significance of Dr Aziz Aboobaker’s work, in the Institute of Genetics, has been recognised with awards through New Investigator Research schemes run by the Biotechnology and Biology Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). These schemes target talented early-career scientists and can provide a route into permanent academic positions or funding and ‘protected time’ in which to establish an independent research career.

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Professor David Greenaway, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, said: "Winning competitive awards such as these is especially challenging for early career researchers. Dr Aboobaker has done spectacularly well to have won two. This will give his important work on stem cells a real push."

Planarians have an amazing ability to regenerate whole animals from just small fragments — this includes a whole new brain as well as all the other structures that make an animal. The worm’s regenerative abilities are based on a pool of stem cells called neoblasts, collectively these cells are able to divide and change into any missing cell type.

Across the world the Planarian is becoming a model organism for the study of stem cell biology, with established laboratories in the USA, Japan, Spain and now Dr Aboobaker’s lab at Nottingham.

Dr Aboobaker who set up his laboratory in September 2006 said: “The awards have allowed us to get up and running quickly and build a very competitive team of researchers. To have your ideas funded at such an early stage is very encouraging. Our team here at the University has grown from one to 12 in little over a year. We are around six months into the project and we are already getting some really exciting data.”

Dr Aboobaker recently published some of his findings in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

The results of this research, in collaboration with a group in Barcelona, showed that the regeneration process requires a gene that is very similar to one implicated in cell death in humans. Their study indicated that removal of old tissues and structures is just as important as the production of new ones from dividing stem cells.

Dr Aboobaker said: “When planarians regenerate from small pieces much of what they do is remodeling. That small piece, which might be mostly muscle or nerves, not only has to make a whole new brain, mouth or gut, it has to get rid of the existing cells that aren’t appropriate anymore.”

Dr Cristina Gonzalez-Estevez, the lead author and a research fellow working in Dr Aboobaker’s laboratory hopes that studying the basics of this remodeling process in a simple animal that does it all the time as part of its normal day to day life will have important implications for regenerative biology in more complex animals like ourselves.

Professor David Brook, Head of the School of Biology said: "These New Investigator Research schemes are excellent as they make sure new talent isn’t overlooked and it is important for The University of Nottingham that our new researchers secure such 'blue chip' funding. The awards recognise the exciting ideas and projects that Aziz is generating.”

Emma Thorne | alfa
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