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Tibor Harkany awarded ERC Proof of Concept Grant

MedUni Vienna neuroscientist researches drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder
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(c) MedUni Wien/Matern

(24 May 2022) Tibor Harkany, Head of the Division of Molecular Neurosciences at MedUni Vienna's Center for Brain Research, has been awarded a substantial European Research Council (ERC) Proof of Concept Grant. Tibor Harkany and his team are working on the "SECRET-DOCK" project, aimed at developing drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Harkany is one of 55 people to receive Proof of Concept Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) in this call. The grants are to be used to explore the commercial or societal potential of their frontier research projects.
Stress has become an ever-increasing problem due to the many sensory and social challenges that the past few decades have brought. Prolonged or severe stress induces maladaptive changes in the brain that manifest clinically as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although around 4% of the population suffers from PTSD, only symptomatic therapies are available.
In the ERC project entitled "SECRET-CELLS", researchers led by Tibor Harkany have identified novel neuronal subtypes that underpin brain-wide sensitisation to stress via their sequential recruitment into a large circuit. This extends over hypothalamic-midbrain-cortical regions and thus has endocrine, emotional, and cognitive impact. The original trigger for this circuit lies in the hypothalamus, particularly in its neuroendocrine command cells that contain corticotropin-releasing hormone.

Testing pharmacological agents against PTSD
The researchers will use the "SECRET-DOCK" ERC Proof of Concept Grant to test drug candidates to modulate neuronal communication between the hypothalamus and midbrain and between the midbrain and cortical regions by targeting cell-type-specific processes they have identified in the "SECRET-CELLS" project. They will venture well beyond neuroscience into structural biology, high-throughput molecule screening and computer modelling to find highly efficient, selective inhibitors that could be used to specifically limit stress-induced changes in neuronal communication and information processing.
"Currently, treatment for PTSD is based on psychotherapy in combination with antidepressants, anxiolytic drugs or antipsychotics," explains Tibor Harkany, "but these approaches are limited to modulating symptoms such as nightmares and insomnia. There is currently no drug available to target the neural circuitry that is the primary cause of PTSD. We hope that the 'SECRET-DOCK' project will succeed in remedying this situation."

ERC Proof-of-Concept Grants
The European Research Council (ERC) awards so-called Proof of Concept (PoC) grants within the framework of several calls. The €150,000 lump-sum grants are to be used to explore the commercial or societal potential of funded frontier ERC research projects. This additional funding is part of the EU's Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. The selected projects cover a variety of different areas and issues, such as a more efficient way to produce cells used in immunotherapies to fight cancer, new technologies to reduce energy consumption, and a faster way for companies to change the ingredients of everyday consumer products to make them more environmentally friendly. The PoC grant competition is only open to Principal Investigators already awarded an ERC grant.

About the ERC
Established by the European Union in 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) is the main European funding body for outstanding frontier research. The ERC offers four main funding programmes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. The total ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is over €16 billion under the Horizon Europe programme.