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Money for a risky idea


Daring research projects are supported by the Volkswagen Foundation with a funding format known as “Experiment!”. Now, Würzburg scientist Dr. Bhupesh Prusty has received one of the coveted grants. Prusty believes that a virus is the trigger for a series of diseases affecting the nervous system.

Scientists with extremely unusual and risky research ideas that may also run counter to conventional thinking struggle these days to obtain money for their projects from the usual funding institutions, such as the German Research Foundation (DFG). So, last year, the Volkswagen Foundation established the funding initiative “Experiment!”.

Since then, the foundation has received 700 applications; only 13 have been approved to date. Now, in the second round, in 2014, a scientist has been awarded one of the few grants. Dr. Bhupesh Prusty is a research associate working under Professor Thomas Rudel, who runs the Department of Microbiology.

Bacteria activate a virus

Prusty believes that he has found a mechanism that might be responsible for the onset of a whole series of disorders of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease. In Prusty’s opinion, human herpesvirus 6 might play a key role in this.

According to the normal school of thought, this virus is integrated in the human genome in an inactive state; however, it may be that this is not entirely true. For example, an additional infection with chlamydia, common bacterial pathogens in humans, is enough to activate the virus, as Prusty’s work shows.

Bhupesh Prusty is set to receive EUR 100,000 to spend on substantiating his current initial hypotheses over the coming 18 months to see whether these can be developed into a viable research concept. After that, ideally, he will be able to receive regular funding from the Volkswagen Foundation.

Personal profile

Bhupesh Prusty was born in India, in Raisungura in the state of Odisha, in 1976. He obtained a bachelor’s degree (1996) and master’s degree (1998) from Sambalpur University. He earned a doctorate at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, before joining Professor Harald zur Hausen’s team at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg as a post-doctoral researcher from January 2006 to December 2008. Since January 2009, he has been conducting research under Professor Thomas Rudel at the Department of Microbiology at the University of Würzburg’s Biocenter.

The funding initiative

The funding initiative entitled “Experiment!” supports research projects in science and engineering as well as in the life sciences, including behavioral biology and experimental psychology. It targets “radically new research ideas that fundamentally challenge established knowledge, seek to establish unconventional hypotheses, methodologies, or technologies, or focus on entirely new research approaches,” as the Volkswagen Foundation writes. The initiative funds “fundamentally new research topics with an indefinite outcome” over a limited period of time.

Gunnar Bartsch | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
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