ERC Starting Grant for Prof. v. Delius
Research from ion cages to the origin of life on Earth

Ulm University

Throughout his career as a scientist, Professor Max von Delius has locked up many a charged particle in cages – and very soon, certain ions could end up in a maximum-security prison. In his project SUPRANET, which was now ennobled with an ERC Starting Grant, von Delius seeks to develop high-security 'transport containers' for toxic cancer drugs made of chemical networks. The 36-year-old's ambition, however, doesn't end there: On the basis of such dynamic networks, von Delius is also exploring the origin of all life on Earth. For this endeavour, the chemist – who came out on top in a highly competitive application procedure for ERC Starting Grants – receives €1.5 million funding from the European Research Council over the next five years.

By using dynamic chemical networks, Professor Max von Delius from Ulm's Institute of Organic Chemistry II and Advanced Materials wants to achieve nothing less than to revolutionise transport processes of charged particles. These networks of orthoesters and diols can react to cages into which scientists introduce charged particles – for example for the transport and controlled release of medicinally active ions. 'Cages shield the charge of particles whilst they are being transported through the cell membrane. One potential medical application is the restoration of the malfunctioning chloride ion transport in the severe metabolic disease cystic fibrosis,' explains von Delius. The researcher was appointed as professor at Ulm University in 2016 at a mere 33 years old. The development of cages that self-assemble within chemical networks without external intervention is his speciality. With the newly acquired ERC Starting Grant, Max von Delius plans to develop even more secure transport containers for charged particles – 'ion prisons', if you will.

'Escape-proof' transport containers for cancer treatment

These new 'prisons' are supposed to encapsulate toxic particles in an escape-proof way – for instance during transport in the bloodstream. This is important, because the hazardous freight, such as calcium and beryllium in cancer treatment, must be released no sooner than at the target site. The release from the 'prison' can still be achieved through a 'back door', for example, by using acid or light. This way, toxic ions could target cancer cells exclusively. 'Such "prisons", from which charged particles can be released at the defined site of action, would be unique and have vast potential as medical drug carriers.'

On the trail of the origin of life on Earth

While the foundations for such transport containers are already in place at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Advanced Materials, the second part of project SUPRANET is considered high-risk research. Max von Delius and his research team plan to utilise high-performance analytical techniques to understand the fuel-controlled evolution of RNA oligomeres in chemical networks of phosphodiesters and ribose. Background is the so-called RNA World Hypothesis: many chemists are convinced that single-stranded RNA existed long before DNA, which is commonly known as the carrier of genetic information. They thus deem RNA the key ingredient for the development of life on Earth. 'It is unclear, however, how RNA's ability for self-recognition and self-replication evolved more than a billion years ago. Moreover, membranes would have had to emerge around the same time. With our research approach we hope to shed light on the chemical evolution of complex RNA strands,' says von Delius.

The chemist's references are outstanding: Max von Delius previously led an Emmy Noether junior research group at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. The researcher, who completed his doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, was also a postdoctoral scientist at the Canadian University of Toronto and a fellow at Leopoldina – the German National Academy of Sciences.

Highly selective process

European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants are given to early career scientists who are establishing their own research group up to seven years after completion of their doctoral degree. The grant recipients at European institutions are selected by a distinguished expert panel as part of the Horizon 2020 programme and furnished with up to €1.5 million for five years. 'I am delighted about the repeated funding of an early career scientist at Ulm University by the European Research Council. In his project, Professor von Delius combines application-oriented approaches for medical drug transport with fundamental questions of basic research. The fact that he succeeded in this highly competitive contest for a Starting Grant is evidence of the high quality of his scientific work as well as the professional support offered by our research support team,' summarises Professor Joachim Ankerhold, Vice President for Research and Information Technology at Ulm University.


Text and Media contact: Annika Bingmann

Prof. Max von Delius received an ERC Starting Grant for his research project (photo: Eberhardt/Ulm University)
Prof. Max von Delius received an ERC Starting Grant for his research project (photo: Eberhardt/Ulm University)
Crystal structure of 'cages' with caesium ions (figure: Oleksandr Shyshov)
Crystal structure of 'cages' with caesium ions (figure: Oleksandr Shyshov)