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A multi-million grant to keep the biological clock healthy

Dutch researchers are joining forces to conduct research together with a series of societal partners to keep the biological clock healthy in our modern 24-hour society. The BioClock consortium will receive a research grant of no less than 9.7 million euros for this. It is one of the projects that receive funding within the program of the Dutch National Research Agenda of the Dutch National Research Council (NWO), to which the public could submit their questions.

Our biological clock is disrupted by the 24-hour society in which we now live. The goal of the BioClock consortium is to restore and preserve the health of the biological clock. The plans cover the society as a whole: from human health and disease to the natural environment and protection of biodiversity. Topics such as the health effects of shift work, the integration of the biological clock into the educational system, optimal timing of cancer immunotherapy and flu vaccinations, chronotherapy for depression, and the consequences of light pollution on insects and other light-sensitive animals are all covered in the six-year research program.

From fundamental research to society

BioClock is internationally unparalleled in the scope and applicability of biological clock research. Many of the academic consortium members have contributed to years of fundamental research on this topic. With the grant that has now been awarded, they will elaborate on this and work on concrete applications for society.

Leiden contribution to the consortium

With the biological clock at the center, the partners from the consortium will jointly develop strategies to contribute to a sustainable future for our planet and its inhabitants. The project leader is Joke Meijer, professor of neurophysiology at the LUMC. The research consortium also consists of dozens of members from the public and semi-public sectors and the business community. These include the Leiden institutes for environmental research (CML), biology (IBL) and drug research (LACDR), Leiden Bio Science Park companies CHDR and Janssen Pharmaceuticals , and Naturalis.

Environmental research

At the Institute of Environmental Sciences CML, researchers Martina Vijver and Ellen Cieraad will map out the influence of artificial air on biodiversity with new colleagues to be recruited. They plan to study how animals are attracted to light and what the ecological consequences are, says Vijver. They also want to know which physiological disturbances organisms experience, because street lighting lengthens the days, and how this affects species and communities.

They will conduct this research in the Living Lab test facility, where they will measure the influence of different colours of light on, for example, mosquitoes and damselflies in and near the ditches. They will also collect data in urban environments, where, for example, moths, butterflies, insects, bats and leaf plants undergo changes as a result of artificial light. There too they will vary the lighting conditions. At the same time, residents can indicate via their telephone how they experience the adjusted light intensity. Together with medical data from other lines of research, this will result in an optimal light situation, Vijver hopes, which benefits both people and the environment.

Biology research

Christian Tudorache (IBL) is involved as co-principal investigator of a study on the effect of a disrupted biological clock on migration and reproduction of nocturnal fish and mammal species. In his research, he will put special focus on the enigmatic European eels, nocturnal migrators to their spawning places in the Sargasso sea, and the highly endangered European Hamster (korenwolf).

Clinical Psychology

At the department of Clinical Psychology and LUBEC, researchers Niki Antypa and Willem van der Does will optimise bright light therapy for depression, using morning social rhythm therapy, establishing the right timing of therapy and integrating night time glasses in the lives of depressed patients. The ultimate goal is to restore patients’ biological clock. Furthermore, together with professor Joke Meijer, project leader of the BioClock consortium, they will investigate the effects of light on the depressed brain using functional neuroimaging techniques.

In collaboration with Caring Universities, Niki Antypa and Philip Spinhoven will also develop and evaluate interventions that target the biological clock in university students. The aim is to improve the sleep patterns of students and their biological clock functioning in order to prevent the development/exacerbation of mental health problems.

Drug research

The team consisting of LACDR’s Laura Heitman and Ad IJzerman and LUMC’s Paul Geurink and Stephan Michel will drive the ‘clock medicines’ ambitions of BioClock. Through a variety of chemical biology approaches they will do three things. Firstly, the team will screen dedicated compound libraries in newly developed cellular clock assays. Secondly, they will make novel molecules that improve the amplitude of the biological clock. Thirdly, they shall identify novel targets that make the clock tick, which will be validated in so-called knock-out studies.

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