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A new collaborative European network on age-related diseases

As Europe’s population grows older, the burden of age-related diseases is rising. A promising avenue of research is understanding how protein dysfunction can drive cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. The EU-funded PhasAGE project created a research centre focused on protein phase separation, growing Europe’s research capacity to prevent and treat age-related diseases.

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The growing elderly population in Europe has triggered concerns about the rising burden of age-related diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. In response, the PhasAGE project built a collaborative European network that offers research and training on the biomolecular processes underlying these conditions. Of specific interest is the emerging field of protein phase separation, which examines the behaviour of proteins in living cells.

“Investing in the diseases associated with ageing is crucial,” says PhasAGE project coordinator, Sandra Ribeiro. “We want to reinforce the link between how these unique proteins behave, and why they misbehave in neurodegenerative diseases.”

Portugal’s Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMC/i3S) is at the centre of the PhasAGE project and is already highly regarded for its research in cell and molecular biology. However, researchers at IBMC/i3S needed to improve their skills in systems biology, bioinformatics and advanced biophysics to complement ongoing research on how proteins assemble and evolve as we get older.

“Although we were studying diseases and cellular function at IBMC/i3S, there was no active research on protein phase separation,” explains Ribeiro. “Other European researchers were advancing quickly in this field, so we decided to bring this knowledge to our students and colleagues.”

A consortium of researchers from four European universities was established. The institutes collaborated on different aspects of research, combining results to advance the field. The scientific focus was on how the structural properties of proteins affect their biological functions, and how dysfunction in this area can lead to disease.

The goals were structured into work packages that focused on four main objectives: improve the research capacity and training quality; design and implement a workflow with novel technologies and tools; establish collaborations and sustain an open research network; and extend scientific knowledge through dissemination and outreach activities.

The power of collaboration

The most crucial component of the PhasAGE project is the collaboration between IBMC/i3S, the University of Padua in Italy, the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium. This network hoped to enhance research and training at IBMC/i3S, while also improving the research and teaching capabilities of their partners’ staff.

“We decided to establish a couple of training schools in Porto, which led to solid collaborations beginning from there,” adds Ribeiro. “Increasingly, students and postdocs were working together, and it was crucial for us to begin joint projects and bring some of our ideas to life.”

PhasAGE not only focused on research itself, but also aimed to increase awareness by sharing information with citizens as well as the scientific community. The initiative established workshops, conducted social media activities for outreach and published numerous papers to create a better understanding. The project has also seen an increase in student demands for PhD programmes at all four research institutes.

Ribeiro notes: “PhasAGE even set up workshops specifically for biology students who were pre-university age, to get them interested in protein structure, because we want to increase the number of researchers we have working in this field.”

Progress to success

So far, key scientific outcomes include the creation of strategies to target aberrant phase separation, and the investigation of a potential dopamine treatment for Machado-Joseph disease, a genetic condition which leads to the progressive loss of muscle function.

PhasAGE also boasts 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals, the organisation of three international conferences, and five training schools. The initiative further focused on building partnerships outside of academia to secure future funding possibilities.

While the project’s success undoubtedly lies in its research outcomes, it has also enhanced the visibility and capability of the project host, IBMC/i3S, cementing the university’s position as a hub of excellence. As PhasAGE continues to evolve, it is expected to provide even more valuable insights into age-related diseases.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Portugal
Project participants:
Total cost
€ 899 741
EU Contribution
€ 899 741
Project duration

See also

More information about project PhasAGE

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