Early recognition for Aston-led training project

Catarina Afonso achieved a Young Investigator Award
Aston-based Catarina Afonso, pictured front left, achieved a Young Investigator Award

8 August 2017

  • First cohort to be trained in advanced and novel research techniques to fill skills gap
  • In future, patients could do home tests to detect early stages of inflammatory diseases
  • Project is working across six EU countries with range of partners

A four-year EU project led by Aston University to train a new generation of scientists to detect and study inflammation in common conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, has achieved early recognition. 

MASSTRPLAN is a €3.5million initiative to train 14 early stage researchers in six countries in advanced and novel research techniques to fill a current skills gap in this area.

At the annual conference of the Society for Free Radical Research and the Oxygen Club of California’s world congress jointly held in Berlin recently, Catarina Afonso, an early career researcher based at Aston University, achieved a Young Investigator Award for her poster presentation.   

Project co-ordinator, Corinne Spickett, Professor of Biochemistry in the School of Life and Health Sciences at Aston University, said: “We are all delighted with Catarina’s success, which both recognises her abilities and the importance of the MASSTRPLAN project which is training our future research leaders in biomedicine. The award includes €800 in funding and an invitation to speak at the Society’s annual conference in Lisbon in June 2018.” 

The MASSTRPLAN project has received funding from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie EU Framework for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020, under grant agreement no: 675132.

Professor Spickett explained the purpose of the project: “Diabetes and obesity are the cause of major health problems in modern society, with more than a quarter of the UK population now being classed as obese. These conditions are part of something called metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, insulin resistance and high blood LDL cholesterol levels, all of which increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and kidney diseases.

“These diseases are linked to increased inflammation, which occurs when the immune system becomes activated and produces lots of damaging compounds.  Some of these damaging compounds attack molecules in the human body by a process that involves adding oxygen atoms - referred to as oxidation.

“In situations where there is excess fats or lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides circulating in the blood, the lipid molecules can be attacked and oxidized. These oxidized lipids become sticky, like old cooking oil, and react with the proteins and cells in the body, changing their function.”

The early stage researchers are studying the proteins most susceptible to attack by sticky lipids, how this changes the function of these proteins, and why this makes cells behave in a way that causes disease.

“As the sticky lipids and sticky-lipid-proteins are thought to be potential markers for early stages of disease, the project is also developing new methods of detecting them, mainly using an advanced technique called mass spectrometry that measures the mass of molecules, but also by making specific antibodies to be used in simple tests, similar to pregnancy test kits, for use in patients’ homes or GPs surgeries,” she added. 

Chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are major causes of mortality and are hugely costly to the EU economy in terms of healthcare and lost working days.

Cardiovascular disease alone is estimated to be responsible for 47 per cent of deaths and to cost the EU €196 billion a year. Therefore, the earlier the disease can be diagnosed, the earlier treatment can begin and patients can make lifestyle choices to help them improve and manage their condition.

The researchers are based at universities, hospitals, a research institute and commercial companies in England, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Belgium and Spain. They began working on the MASSTRPLAN project in October 2016 and have just completed the first year of their programme.   



Notes to the editor 

MASSTRPLAN stands for Mass Spectrometry Training for Protein Lipid Adduct Analysis. For more information go to the websiteor MASSTRPLAN’s Facebook page.

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