Reading outside his research area and efficient chemistry helped 2022 Perkin Medal winner Dennis Liotta develop groundbreaking drugs.
There has been an explosion of statistics in football, but one of the most influential figures in this revolution, Ramm Mylvaganam, didn’t care for the game. He worked for the confectionary company Mars. He sold chairs. He knew nothing about football.
However, this key figure outlined in Rory Smith’s recent book, Expected Goals: The story of how data conquered football, came into the field of football analysis and changed the game forever – partly because he approached the game with the fresh perspective of the outsider.
So, what do football statistics have to do with a chemist who came up with life-saving medications? Well, Dr Dennis Liotta, who came up with AIDS antivirals that have saved thousands of lives, may not have entered medicinal chemistry as a complete outsider. He was a chemist, after all. However, like Ramm Mylvaganam, his broad breadth of knowledge from different areas gave him a unique perspective on a new field.
Dr Liotta didn’t take the standard path into medicinal chemistry. In fact, he wasn't a diligent chemistry student at first – and that, in an odd way, contributed to his later success.
For the first couple of years at university, he was more interested in his extracurricular activities; but in his third year, he realised he needed to catch up. He worked hard and burnt the midnight oil. He also did something unusual.
‘I did something that’s kind of ridiculous-sounding,’ he said. ‘I had this big fat organic chemistry book, and I would just open it up randomly to some page and read 10 or 12 pages and close it back up. Over time, I ended up covering not only the things I missed, but actually learning about a lot of things that wouldn't have been covered.’
As his career progressed, Dr Liotta realised the importance of not just working harder, but working smarter. On Sundays, he would sit down with a bunch of academic journals to stay abreast of developments. However, as he read them, he discovered other papers – ones outside his research area – that piqued his interest.
Dennis Liotta in one of his lab spaces at Emory. Image by Marcusrpolo.
‘I’d see something intriguing. And so I’d say, that’s interesting, let me read. I started learning about things that I didn’t technically need to know about, because they were outside of my immediate interest. But those things really changed my life. And, ultimately, I think they were the differentiating factor.’
This intellectual curiosity led to more than 100 patents, including a groundbreaking drug in the fight against AIDS that is still used today and a hand in developing an important hepatitis C drug.
‘In science, many times the people who actually make the most significant innovations are the people who come at a problem that’s outside of their field,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘Without realising it, we all get programmed in terms of how we think about problems, what we accept as fact.’
‘But when you come at a problem that’s outside your field… you aren't immersed in it. So, you think about the problems differently. And many times, in thinking about the problems differently, you’ll come up with an alternative solution that people in the field wouldn’t.’
We’ve often heard the stories of Steve Jobs wandering into random classes while at university when he should have been attending his actual course. Apparently, a calligraphy class inspired the font later used in Apple’s products. In other words, early specialism can sometimes hinder creativity.
‘I've looked into people who have made really some amazing contributions, and many times there’s been an intellectual stretch,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘They’ve gone out there and done something that they weren’t really trained to do. You can fall on your face from time to time, but it’s really nice when we're able to make contributions in areas where we don’t really have any formal training.’
Of course, there’s so much more to creating life-saving drugs than intellectual curiosity and a different way of thinking. Dr Liotta and his colleagues had the technical skill to turn their ideas into something real. He was a skilled chemist who teamed up with an excellent virologist, Raymond Schinazi. The result of this blend of their skills gave them an edge over others developing AIDS therapeutics.
Dr Liotta invented breakthrough HIV drug Emtricitabine.
‘The very first thing we did was we figured out a spectacular way of preparing the compounds – very clean, very efficient,’ he said. ‘And that [meant we could] explore all sorts of different permutations around the series of compounds that others couldn’t easily do, because their methods were so bad for making [them].
‘So, even though we were competing against some very important pharmaceutical companies that had infinitely more money than we had – dozens of really smart people they put on the project – we were able to run circles around them because we had a really efficient methodology and that enabled us to make some compounds.’
The amazing thing is that the very first compound and the third compound the pair came up with led to FDA-approved drugs. It is a fine thing, indeed, when skill and serendipity meet.
‘Chance favours the prepared mind,’ Dr Liotta said, ‘or, as my colleagues say: you work hard to put yourself in a position to get lucky.’
From luminescent polymer nanoparticles that improve rural healthcare to compostable plastic packaging, Dr Zachary Hudson and his research group at the University of British Columbia are developing solutions to pressing issues.
For those of us who live in cities, we take easy access to hospitals for granted, but what about those in remote areas? What if there were an easier way to diagnose diseases and improve healthcare for those in secluded rural areas?
Luminescent dyes used to make fluorescent Pdots.
Well, Dr Zachary Hudson and his group at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada are developing luminescent polymer nanoparticles that could provide portable, low-cost tools for bio-imaging and analysis in rural areas. These nanoparticles are so bright that they can be detected by smartphone, helping clinicians quantify chemical substances of interest such as cancer cells.
Dr Hudson’s work spans other areas too, including working with industry to develop compostable plastics and ongoing research in opto-electronics. His creativity in applied polymer science was recognised recently with the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award, organised by SCI, the Editorial Board of Polymer International, and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry).
We caught up with Zac to ask about these luminous Pdots, compostable plastics, and how it felt to be recognised by his peers.
Dr Zachary Hudson
Tell us about the nanoparticle and remote diagnostic technologies you are developing to boost rural healthcare.
Our group is working with Professor Russ Algar, an analytical chemist at UBC, to develop fluorescent nanoparticles that are bright enough to be detected by a handheld smartphone camera.
The concept is to design nanoparticles that can quantify biological analytes of interest, such as cancer cells or enzymes, and provide a signal that a smartphone can measure. In this way, we hope to create portable, low-cost tools for bioanalysis for use in remote or low-income regions.
Why is the capacity to conduct remote diagnostics so important for those in remote areas?
Coming from Vancouver, I have ready access to sophisticated lab facilities and hospitals that are only a short distance from where I live. This gives me access to some of the world’s most advanced techniques in molecular medicine with relative ease.
For most of the world’s population, however, geography or resources limit their access to these advanced tools that can have a real, positive impact on human health. Expanding access to molecular diagnostic technologies can help more people get the diagnosis they need without a dedicated lab.
How did the ideas for the Pdots come about?
We became interested in Pdots due to Professor Algar’s groundbreaking work using quantum dots for smartphone-based bioanalysis. We learned that by tapping into the versatility of polymer chemistry, we could create polymer nanoparticles, or Pdots, that combined many advanced functions into a single particle.
>> From Covid-19 to the two World Wars, how has adversity shaped innovation? We took a closer look.
How have you worked with other partners to turn these ideas into a reality?
We are currently planning a major initiative with rural health organisations in British Columbia to help move these tools toward practical use. Stay tuned for more info!
You’ve also worked with local industry to reduce the use of single-use plastics. How have you gone about this?
There has been a major push in Canada to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, and many companies are currently developing new products to respond to this need. Our lab has worked with local industry to formulate and test compostable plastics that can act as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics in consumer packaging.
The Nexe Pod, a fully compostable, plant-based coffee pod created by NEXE Innovations, with Zac as Chief Scientific Officer, received a $1m funding grant from the Canadian government in 2021.
You’ve helped develop compostable materials. How tricky is this from both a material and an environmental perspective?
Compostable plastics are challenging for a few reasons: the demand for them is skyrocketing, so robust supply chains are needed to help companies get away from petroleum feedstocks. The regulatory framework around compostable plastics also varies widely by country, which poses challenges for international commercialisation.
Finally, most machinery for the high-speed manufacturing of plastic packaging is highly optimised for petroleum-based plastics, so new equipment and techniques that are suitable for processing compostable plastics need to be developed alongside the plastics themselves.
>> Do you work in pharmaceutical development? Check out our upcoming events.
What’s next for these innovations, and are you working on anything else interesting?
I've spent most of my career working on light-emitting materials for display technologies and bioimaging, and we’ve recently learned that many of these same materials make useful photocatalysts with applications in the pharmaceutical industry.
We recently partnered with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop all-organic photocatalysts with performance on par with some of the expensive iridium-based catalysts that industry is currently using. I'm looking forward to developing this area further.
What was it like to win the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science?
It was a great feeling to have our group’s work recognised by the international polymer community. The award lecture at the IUPAC conference also gave us the perfect venue to highlight some of the research directions I’m most excited about in the years ahead.
Those with the blood group O reportedly have the lowest likelihood of catching Covid-19, and the new top-up jab should provide relief against sub-variants of the disease.
By now, most of us have been stricken by Covid, but 15% of people in the UK have evaded the virus. According to a testing expert at the London Medical Laboratory, the great escape is down to three factors: blood group, vaccines, and lifestyle.
Having assessed the findings of recent Covid-19 blood type studies, Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory (LML), believes that people with the blood group O are less likely to be infected than those with other blood groups, while those with blood type A are far more likely to contract the virus.
‘There have now been too many studies to ignore which reveal that people have a lower chance of catching the virus, or developing a severe illness, if they have blood group O,’ he said.
Indeed, research from the New England Journal of Medicine had previously found that those with blood type O were 35% less likely to be infected, whereas those with Type A were 45% more vulnerable. A further benefit of type O blood is the reduced risk of heart disease compared to those with type A or B blood.
Staged stock images are not thought to increase your chances of contracting Covid-19.
According to the NHS, almost half of the population (48%) has the O blood group; so, clearly, other factors come into play in terms of our susceptibility. Dr Fivelman said: ‘By far the most important factor is the number of antibodies you carry, from inoculations and previous infections, together with your level of overall health and fitness.’
So, those who are more careful about visiting crowded places, who eat well, and are fortunate enough not to have an underlying illness have better chances of avoiding Covid-19. According to LML, having been vaccinated also helps, though these benefits have slowly worn off. That is why the new top-up jab with the Omicron variant could provide some relief for those who take it.
‘The new Omicron jab has come none-too-soon, so many people are now suffering repeated Covid infections,’ he added. ‘That’s because the new Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants do not produce as high an immune response as the previous strains, so re-infection is more likely to occur.
‘Higher levels of antibodies are important to neutralise the virus, stopping infection and limiting people transmitting the virus to others.’
In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Rebecca Stevens, Industrial PhD student with GSK and the University of Strathclyde, talks about the potential of PROTACS.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the third of this year’s winning essays, Rebecca Stevens discusses her work in developing a multistep synthetic platform for Proteolysis Targeting Chimeras (PROTAC) synthesis and the potential of PROTACS in general.
Pictured above: Rebecca Stevens
PROTACs are a rapidly evolving new drug modality that is currently sparking great excitement within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.
Despite the first PROTAC only being reported in 2001, 12 of these potential drugs have already entered phase I/II clinical trials. In fact, a handful of new biotechnology companies have launched in the last two decades with a primary focus on these molecules. So, what’s so special about them?
Traditional drug discovery relies on optimising small-molecules to inhibit the action of a protein target and subsequently elicit a downstream effect on cellular function. However, many proteins are not tractable to this approach due to their lack of defined binding sites. This is where PROTACs offer a unique opportunity to target traditionally ‘undruggable’ parts of the proteome; instead of inhibiting the protein, PROTACs simply remove it altogether.
PROTACs are heterobifunctional molecules made up of two small-molecule binders attached together via a covalent linker; one end binds to the protein of interest and the other to an E3 ubiquitin ligase.
Rebecca is working on a multistep platform for PROTAC synthesis.
By bringing these two proteins into close proximity, PROTACs exploit the body’s own protein degradation mechanisms to tag and degrade desired proteins of interest in a method known as ‘targeted protein degradation’.
This different mechanism of action offers some revolutionary advantages over small-molecule drugs. Alongside potentially accessing ‘undruggable’ targets, PROTACs can overcome resistance mechanisms from which other drugs suffer, as well as acting in a catalytic manner, ultimately requiring less compound for therapeutic effects and maximising profits.
>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.
While great in theory, the reality is that with two small-molecule binders and a linker, PROTACs are typically double the size and complexity of normal drugs, so their synthesis is far from simple.
Classic drug discovery programmes often make many bespoke analogues alongside their use of library synthesis, using a design-make test cycle to optimise hits and find a lead molecule. With PROTACs, linear synthetic routes are much longer for bespoke compounds, underlining an even greater need for new PROTAC parallel synthesis platforms.
>> Read Marina Economidou’s winning essay on palladium recovery
Additionally, the design of PROTACs is more challenging as there are three separate parts of the structure to optimise, and small changes can have a large impact on their biological activity. As such, very simple chemistry is used to connect the three parts of the molecule, resulting in limited chemical space for exploration, causing potentially interesting bioactive compounds to be missed.
My PhD project seeks to develop a multistep synthetic platform for PROTAC synthesis, using modern chemical transformations such as C(sp2)-C(sp3) cross-couplings and metallaphotoredox chemistry.
Starting from already complex intermediates in the synthetic route, methods for late-stage functionalisation are under development to complete the final synthetic steps. By making elaborate changes at a late stage, a variety of structurally diverse PROTACs can be synthesised from a single building block, offering an economical and sustainable approach to optimisation for the industries involved.
Furthermore, the purification step prior to testing will be eliminated, with crude reaction mixtures taken into cells in an emerging ‘direct-to-biology high-throughput-chemistry’ approach. This removes a key bottleneck associated with hit identification and lead optimisation, delivering biological results in very short turnaround times.
The synthetic methods developed in the project will offer new capabilities for efficient and sustainable synthesis of PROTACs and other related modalities. Increasing the pace of data generation could accelerate the exploration of structure-activity relationships and deployment in large parallel arrays could provide a significant quantity of data to inform new machine learning models.
Ultimately, for industry, this ‘PROTAC-tical’ approach offers a huge opportunity for rapidly progressing PROTAC projects and discovering novel PROTACs with clinical potential.
>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.
What is the best posture to adopt when taking a pill, and why does it help your body to absorb the medicine quicker?
Was Mary Poppins wrong? A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but does it do so in the most delightful way? Not according to Johns Hopkins University researchers in the US.
They say the body posture you adopt when taking a pill affects how quickly your body absorbs the medicine by up to an hour. It’s all down to the positioning of the stomach relative to where the pill enters it.
The team identified this after creating StomachSim – a model that simulates drug dissolution mechanics in the stomach. The model works by blending physics and biomechanics to mimic what’s going on when our stomachs digest medicine and food.
Looks like we’ve got a pro here.
Without further ado, here are the four contenders for taking the pill: standing up, lying down on your right side, lying down on your left side, and swallowing the pill on your back.
>> What’s next in wearables? We looked at a few Bright SCIdeas.
According to the researchers, if you take a pill while lying on your left side, it could take more than 100 minutes for the medicine to dissolve. Lying on your back is next in third, the narrowest of whiskers behind swallowing a pill standing up. This time-honoured method takes about 23 minutes to take effect.
However, by far the most effective method (and, therefore, the most delightful way) is lying on your right side, with dissolution taking a mere 10 minutes. The reason is that it sends pills into the deepest part of the stomach, making it 2.3 times faster to dissolve than the upright posture you’re probably taking to swallow your multi-vits.
Your posture is key in ensuring your body absorbs medicine quickly. Image: Khamar Hopkins/John Hopkins University.
‘We were very surprised that posture had such an immense effect on the dissolution rate of a pill,’ said senior author Rajat Mittal, a Johns Hopkins engineer. ‘I never thought about whether I was doing it right or wrong but now I’ll definitely think about it every time I take a pill.’
Next week, we will investigate more of the medical approaches espoused by much-loved fictional characters, starting with George’s Marvellous Medicine, before moving onto the witches in Macbeth. No one is safe.
In the meantime, you can read the researchers’ work in Physics of Fluids.
In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Marina Economidou, first year PhD Student at GSK/The University of Strathclyde, talks about palladium recovery.
Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.
This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the second of this year’s winning essays, Marina Economidou explains the need for palladium recovery and making it more efficient.
Pictured above: Marina Economidou
U-Pd-ating the workflows for metal removal in industrial processes
Palladium-catalysed reactions have great utility in the pharmaceutical industry as they offer an easy way to access important functional motifs in molecules through the formation of carbon-carbon or carbon-hetero-atom bonds.
The superior performance of such reactions over classical methodologies is evident in modern drug syntheses, where Buchwald-Hartwig, Negishi or Suzuki cross-coupling reactions are frequently employed.
However, the demand for efficient methods of palladium recovery runs parallel to the increased use of catalysts in synthesis. The interest in metal extraction can be attributed to several reasons.Cross-coupling steps are usually situated late in the synthetic route, resulting in metal residues in the final product. In addition to possessing intrinsic toxicity, elemental impurities can have an unfavourable impact on downstream chemistry.
Hence, their limit must be below the threshold set by the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH).
The need for palladium recovery
However, the importance of palladium recovery does not only arise from the need to meet regulatory criteria. The volatility of palladium supply as a result of geopolitical instabilities has been a focus of attention this year, with Russia producing up to 30% of the global supply and prices reaching an all-time high of £81,179 per kilogramme.
Therefore, aside from the need to remove metals from the product for regulatory reasons, there is a desire to recover metals from waste streams as effectively as possible due to their finite nature and high costs.
The sustainability benefits of recovery for circular use are an additional incentive for an efficient extraction process, as catalysts can be regenerated when metal is returned to suppliers.
The increasing pressure for greener processes and more ambitious sustainability goals – such as GlaxoSmithKline’s environmental sustainability target of net zero impact on climate by 2030 – also contribute to the need for further refinement of working practices.
>> SCI's Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.
Palladium has many uses including in catalytic converters, surgical instruments, and dental fillings.
Improving extraction processes
It is essential to have well-controlled and reproducible processes for pharmaceutical production, as redevelopment requires further laboratory work and additional time and resources.
With several industry reports on the inconsistent removal of palladium following catalytic synthetic steps, there seems to be a knowledge gap as to which factors affect the efficiency of extraction and why there can be significant differences between laboratory and plant conditions.
The focus of my PhD is investigating the speciation of palladium in solution in the presence of pharmaceutically relevant molecules, to offer an insight into the efficiency of metal extraction at the end of processes.
By understanding the oxidation state and coordinative saturation of the palladium species formed in the presence of different ligands, a better relationship could be established between the observed performance of metal extraction processes under inert and non-inert conditions.
With the wide breadth of ligands and extractants that are now commercially available for cross-coupling reactions, my ambition is to generate a workflow for smart condition selection that not only achieves selective metal recovery, but is scalable and can be transferred to plant with consistent performance.
The cost and preciousness of metal catalysts are both factors that prohibit their one-time use in processes. Understanding how palladium can be extracted and recovered in an efficient manner will not only deliver reliable processes that meet the demands of the market in the production of goods, it will also lead to economic and environmental benefits.
>> Read Angus McLuskie’s winning essay on replacing toxic feedstocks.
>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.
From the Black Death to the Covid-19 pandemic, great adversity has also led to great advances. So, which inventions have emerged from times of hardship? Eoin Redahan finds out.
‘World events shape innovations. The World Wars shaped innovation, and the pandemic has shaped innovation,’ said Paul Booth OBE, in his outgoing speech as SCI President.
‘It is possible to accelerate innovation – we’ve demonstrated that.’ Paul Booth OBE, outgoing SCI President at SCI’s AGM, July 2022. Image: SCI/Andrew Lunn
The pandemic taught us a lot about ourselves. It taught me that eating my body weight in sweets was a great way to destroy my teeth, and it brought home to many the futility of the five-day commute. On a more abstract level, it taught governments and policy makers just how much can be achieved in a short space of time when necessity demands it. The vaccines that swam around our veins bore testament to this.
The pandemic has shaped innovation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in medicine. It isn’t the first awful event to provide a hotbed for change, and it won’t be the last. ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation,’ Paul said. ‘We’ve demonstrated that.’
As bad as the Covid-19 pandemic was, the Black Death makes it look very tame indeed. It is estimated that the Plague, which was its worst from 1346-53, took up to 200 million lives in Eurasia and North Africa.
Amid the carnage, it is also said to have given us a system to mitigate infectious diseases with which we are familiar, including isolation periods. According to Britannica, ‘public officials created a system of sanitary control to combat contagious diseases, using observation stations, isolation hospitals, and disinfection procedures.’
The terrifying doctor will see you now.
The Plague also said to have inspired greater experimentation in pharmacology. In a sense, it also helped democratise medicine, with medical textbooks shifting from Latin to the vernacular. As John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, noted: ‘Both medical and religious practice now shifted toward the laity.’
But perhaps the most memorable advance from this time was the strange, beak-like masks worn by some doctors during the Plague. These masks were a crude (and frankly terrifying) way to protect the doctors from the disease in the air. The doctors even filled these masks with herbs in an effort to protect against pathogens.
Of course, wars have also led to military innovation at breakneck speed. During the American Civil War, the Minié ball was created. It spun faster than other bullets and could travel half a mile – unlike pre-Civil War bullets, which went a mere 300 feet.
Officers of a monitor-class ironclad warship, photographed during the American Civil War.
This war also led to the ironclad warship, with plates riveted together to protect against cannonballs. However, it should also be noted that many of the most interesting war-borne inventions have ended up having little or nothing to do with military application.
The ‘cotton-like-texture’ of cellucotton led to its brand name Kotex. According to this 1920 advertisement, this ‘wardrobe essential of Her Royal Daintiness’ was available at any shop that catered to women. Different times.
World War I gave us the blood bank, the Kleenex, the trench coat, and the sanitary pad. The sanitary pad has peculiar origins. In 1914, the war resulted in cotton shortages and substitutes were needed. Kimberly-Clark executives duly discovered a processed wood pulp material that was five times more absorbent than cotton, and cheaper to make. The material was used for bandages, and Red Cross nurses realised that this material could be used as makeshift sanitary pads. The company then developed a sanitary pad – branded Kotex – made from cellucotton and a fine gauze.
Material substitution also led to ground-breaking innovation in World War II. According to the National WWII Museum New Orleans, in 1942 Japan cut off the US supply of natural rubber. With the demand for rubber high, US President Franklin Roosevelt invested $700m to make synthetic rubber from petrochemical byproducts at 51 new plants. By 1944, these synthetic rubber plants were producing 800,000 tonnes of the material a year.
Duct tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson during the Second World War, and by 1972 the ubiquitous tape had reached the moon. This makeshift wheel fender repair helped the Apollo 17 mission’s lunar rover to keep lunar dust at bay.
We use many other products invented during the Second World War, including duct tape, which was developed by Johnson & Johnson to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. A fellow called Harry Coover discovered cyanoacrylates – the active ingredient in Super Glue – while he tried to create a clear plastic for gun sights.
And the next time you reheat your dinner, spare a thought for Percy Spencer, the US physicist who noticed the candy bar melting in his pocket when he stood next to an active radar set. This moment of epiphany led to an invention you might know: the humble microwave.
Just as these trying times lead to extraordinary leaps in technology, they also lead to the large-scale rollout of said discoveries. A prime example of this is penicillin. It was first used to treat an eye infection in 1930, but it was only with the horrific fall-out of war that experiments with deep tank fermentation led to its widespread production.
A soldier recuperates in hospital thanks to penicillin in this Second World War poster. Note the not-quite-so-life-saving hospital bed cigarette. Different times, again.
The Penicillin Production through Deep-tank Fermentation paper in ACS notes that: ‘During World War II, the governments of the United States and the UK approached the largest US chemical and pharmaceutical companies to enlist them in the race to mass produce penicillin […] One of these companies, Pfizer, succeeded in producing large quantities of penicillin using deep-tank fermentation.’
The speed of development and global-scale rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 was unprecedented. Science, business and governments worked together to get the world moving again.
And, as we all know, Pfizer was back at it again during the Covid-19 pandemic. Along with AstraZeneca, Moderna, and essentially the entire pharmaceutical industry, it created vaccines that saved countless lives. Governments and policymakers were also reminded just how quickly life-saving technologies can be pushed through when needed.
But the legacy of Covid-19 treatment will stretch further, be it in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or other fields – who knows what else will come from it?
As Paul Booth said: ‘It is possible to accelerate innovation. We’ve demonstrated that.’
By rethinking the way our products are designed and changing the way we use plastics, we can tackle the blight of marine litter and the general accumulation of plastic waste. But, as Professor Richard Thompson said in our latest SCItalk, systemic issues and historical excesses have made this no easy task.
Contrary to popular perception, plastic is not the villain. When it comes to marine littering, we are the ogres, with our single-use bottles bobbing in the oceans and the detritus of our everyday lives littering the coastline.
We are the reason why 700 species are known to encounter plastic debris in the environment. It is because of us that plastics have beaten us to the bottom of the deepest oceans and glint in the sun near the summit of Mt. Everest.
According to Richard Thompson, of the Marine Institute School of Biological and Marine Sciences at the University of Plymouth: ‘Plastic debris is everywhere. Its quantity in the ocean is likely to triple between 2015 and 2025.’
As Professor Thompson pointed out all of these facts to his audience in our latest SCItalk on 23 March, he outlined potential solutions. However, there is no ignoring the depth of the issues at hand when it comes to the litter in our seas.
Society has gradually woken up to the menace of discarded plastics and, laterally, to the threat of microplastics and nanoplastics. The problem is that we left the barn door open decades ago. So, all of those plastic microbeads from shower gels, fibres from clothing, and tyre wear particles polluted our seas for many years before it came to public and scientific attention.
Professor Thompson said that 300 papers were published globally on microplastics in the last academic year alone, but research in the area was relatively thin on the ground before Thompson and his colleagues released their pioneering study on microplastics in Science in 2004.
‘The business model for the use of plastics hasn’t really changed since the 1950s,’ Professor Thompson said. According to him, we have had 60 years of behavioural training to just throw products away, and our waterways reflect this attitude.
According to Professor Thompson, 50% of shoreline litter items recorded during the 2010s originated from single-use applications. Without a sea change in our attitude towards single-use items, this problem will persist.
Microplastics have been subject to great scrutiny, but much of the research is quite recent.
The problems with larger plastics and even microplastics are now well documented. The worrying thing, according to Thompson, is that there are knowledge gaps when it comes to nanoplastics in the natural environment. What are the effects of nanoplastic ingestion? What are the effects of human health? Time will tell, but Thompson was keen to ask if we really need that information before we take action.
He was more sanguine about the effects of microplastics. ‘The concentration of microplastics is probably not yet causing widespread ecological harm,’ he said, ‘but if we don’t take measures, we’ll pass into widespread ecological harm within the next 50-100 years.’
It seems counterintuitive to think of petrochemical plastics as a sustainable solution; and yet, despite the environmental problems posed by their durability, they do have a role to play in a greener approach.
‘If used responsibly, plastics can reduce our footprint on the planet,’ Thompson noted. Indeed, the lightweight plastic parts in our cars and in aviation can actually help reduce carbon emissions. But despite their merits, how do we keep plastic litter from our seas?
To illustrate a flaw in the way we design plastic products, Professor Thompson gave the example of an orange coloured drinks bottle. While the bright colour may help sell juice drinks, there is an issue with recycling these coloured plastics because their value as a recyclate is lower. Clear plastics, on the other hand, are much more viable to recycle.
He argues that many products aren’t being designed with the whole lifecycle in mind. ‘We’re still failing to get to grips with linking design to end of life,’ he said, before highlighting the importance of communicating how products should be disposed of right from the design stage.
Basically, our products should be designed with end of life in mind. ‘If we haven’t even designed a plastic bottle properly,’ he lamented, ‘what hope do we have with something that’s more complicated?’
Those brightly coloured plastic bottles look nice and fancy, but they can be challenging to recycle in a circular economy.
Professor Thompson argued that better practices are needed to help divert materials away from our seas (and it should be noted that there are other types of discarded materials to be found there). If we recycle greater quantities of end of life plastic products and bring them into a circular economy, he said, ‘we’d decouple ourselves from oil and gas as the carbon source for new production because the carbon source we use would be the plastic waste’.
He said more could also be done with labelling so that customers know whether, for example, a product is compostable and which waste stream it needs to be placed in to achieve that. He also noted that addressing our single-use culture would be a good place to start if we want to change the business model of linear use.
The good news is that there is an appetite for change. ‘Ten years or so ago there was no consensus that there was a problem,’ Thompson noted. ‘I would argue that this has changed.’ However, he also feels that it is essential to gather reliable, independent evidence to inform interventions, rather than espousing solutions that could make things worse.
‘We need to gather that evidence from different disciplines,’ he said. ‘We need to have at the table product designers and couple them with the waste managers. We need to have economists at the table. We also need to bring in social scientists to look at behaviour. We’ve got to think about this in the round.’
He also felt that policy measures – such as mandating recycled content – could be a good option, along with better design and disposal.
The tools we need to tackle plastic pollution are already at our disposal. We just need to act more responsibly – which, unfortunately, has been part of the problem all along.
As Professor Thompson said: ‘It’s not the plastics per se that are the problem – it’s the way we’ve chosen to use them.’
>> For more interesting SCI talks like Professor Thompson’s, check out our YouTube channel.
>> Find out more about the work of Professor Thompson and his colleagues here: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter.
We caught a tantalising glimpse of the next generation wearable technology at this year’s Bright SCIdea challenge final.
When we look at our FitBits or Apple Watches, we wonder what they could possibly monitor next. We know the fluctuations of our heartbeat, how a few glasses of wine affect our quality of sleep, and the calories burnt during that run in the park. But what’s next?
If the amazing wearable devices pitched by just three of our Bright SCIdea finalists are anything to go by, then we can look forward to not just next generation health monitoring but possible in-situ treatment too.
In recent times, medics have learnt far more about stress and its effect on our health. Indeed, stress was the focus of Happy BioPatch (from Oxford University and Manchester University) technology. The second place team has incorporated an IP-protected enzyme within a patch that measures your stress levels (by detecting the levels of cortisol in your sweat) throughout the day.
This information migrates from body to phone and notifies you if your stress levels are too high. One of many exciting aspects of this technology is that it could be used by physicians to check if patients need treatment for depression and prevent the serious consequences of stress. As one of the judges said, ‘I like it because it’s preventative.’
From mental health to physical health, two of the other finalists use wearable devices to address maladies in in-situ. BioTech Inov, from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, has developed plans for a subcutaneous biomedical device that tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. This technology would enable the wearer to track their blood sugar levels and let them know if trouble is lurking.
The latest smart watches track your body temperature, sleep quality, and can even detect electrodermal activity on your skin to gauge stress levels. | Editorial image credit: Kanut Photo / Shutterstock
Another intriguing development was the in-device treatment developed by the Hatton Cross team (comprising students from the University of Warwick, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London). The team is developing wearable technology that can detect wrist pain from sport, or the types of repetitive stress injuries arising from typing or writing too much.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the technology is the potential for in-device treatment. On the preventative side, the device could use vibration to alert users that their wrists are under strain. They also mentioned using heat from the device, or the release of a 0.05 Tesla magnetic field, to relax the muscles.
Another really insightful comment on the technology came from one of the judges. Dr Sarah Skerratt suggested that this type of technology - which is subtly attuned to the movements of the hand and wrist - could theoretically be used in the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. That is not to say there aren’t regulatory issues with developing wearable technologies for medical purposes, as the judges pointed out, but the potential of such devices is huge.
Wearable devices could be used to help diabetes sufferers, such as this Insulin Management System used by those with type 1 diabetes. | Editorial image credit: Maria Wan / Shutterstock
The staggering thing is that the technologies pitched by the Bright SCIdea finalists are just three of the myriad innovations being developed around the world at the moment.
Thirty years ago, few of us could have imagined that we would have a personal computer, music system, TV, watch, video, phone, camera, and games console all encapsulated within a single box that fits in our pockets. In 30 years’ time, we will scarcely be able to believe the health capabilities of the devices worn on our wrists and bodies.
Perhaps you will have heard of them first during the Bright SCIdea challenge?
How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.
There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.
Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.
Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).
Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.
Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.
The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.
Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.
Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.
Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.
Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.
Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
The clichés we use become so downtrodden that we often say them without thinking. How many times, for example, have you said you went with your gut on a certain decision?
As with many of these aphorisms, there appears to be genuine wisdom behind it. Scientists are learning all the time about the links between our guts and our brains, and recent findings from a California Institute of Technology-led (Caltech) study have added to our understanding of what’s going on behind our belly buttons.
This research contends that a particular molecule, produced by our gut bacteria, has contributed to anxious behaviour in mice. The Caltech researchers say that a small-molecule metabolite that lives in the mouse’s gut can travel up to the brain and alter the function of its cells. This adds further grist to the belief that there is a link between our microbiome, brain function, and mood.
The researchers behind the Nature paper say previous studies found that people with certain neurological conditions have different gut bacteria communities. Furthermore, studies in mice revealed that manipulating these communities can alter neurological states.
Their study investigated the bacterial metabolite 4-ethylphenyl sulphate (4EPS) that is produced in the intestines of humans and mice and circulates throughout the body. In particular, they focused on the effect of 4EPS on mouse anxiety. For the sake of the study, mouse anxiety measured the creature’s behaviour in a new space - whether it hid in a new space as if from a predator or whether it was willing to sniff around and explore it.
The researchers compared two groups of lab mice: those colonised with pairs of bacteria that were genetically engineered to produce 4EPS, and a second group that was colonised with similar bacteria that couldn’t produce 4EPS. They then observed the rodents’ behaviour after being introduced to a new area.
Some mice become anxious when introduced to new spaces, and this is reflected both in the gut and the brain.
The results were very interesting indeed. The researchers observed that the group of mice with 4EPS spent far less time exploring this new place and more time hiding compared to the second group of non-4EPS mice. They also found that brain regions associated with fear and anxiety were more activated within this first group.
>> Interested in drug discovery? Why not attend our upcoming event at the Francis Crick Institute, London, UK.
When the mice were treated with a drug that could overpower the negative effects of 4EPS, their behaviour became less anxious. A similar study in Nature Medicine also found that mice were less anxious when treated with an oral drug that soaked up and removed 4EPS from their bodies.
The Caltech-led research could inform our understanding of anxiety and mood conditions.
‘It’s an exciting proof-of-concept finding that a specific microbial metabolite alters the activity of brain cells and complex behaviours in mice, but how this is happening remains unknown,’ says researcher Sarkis Mazmanian, in whose laboratory much of the research took place.
‘The basic framework for brain function includes integration of sensory and molecular cues from the periphery and even the environment. What we show here is similar in principle but with the discovery that the neuroactive molecule is of microbial origin. I believe this work has implications for human anxiety or other mood conditions.’
So, our predecessors were right: there’s a lot more to those gut feelings than you think.
>> Read the Nature paper on the Nature magazine website.
The plant-based meat alternative market is growing rapidly, and cell-cultured meats could be coming soon to your dinner plate once they receive regulatory approval. Gavin Dundas, Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose, provides his expert perspective on the state of the meat alternative market.
Which is receiving more emphasis based on patent activity: lab-grown meat or plant-based meat alternatives?
Comparing cultivated meat to plant-based meat is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.
Plant-based meat is here - it’s in shops, and it’s in growing numbers of restaurants and fast-food outlets. Even McDonald’s – arguably the world’s most well-known hamburger outlet – released its first plant-based burger in the UK on 13 October 2021: the aptly-named McPlant. The McPlant has been accredited as vegan by the Vegetarian Society, and includes vegan sauce, vegan cheese and a plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat.
Cell-cultured meat is a very different prospect, as cellular agriculture is more high-tech, so companies entering that sector require a higher degree of specialised technical expertise. Companies delving into cultivated meat also require a fair bit of funding, as cultivated meat has not been approved for sale in any country other than Singapore, so it is not yet possible to sell their products to consumers.
The reality at the moment is that plant-based meat alternatives have a huge head-start in the marketplace, while cultivated meat is not yet on sale in most countries. So, for most new companies looking to make money in the alternative protein market, plant-based products are likely to be the easier way to start.
On the other hand, this means that the plant-based meat market is more crowded already, while cultivated meat companies are investing in the hope of getting a bigger share of that market once it matures.
In which food types have you seen a particular surge in patent applications, for example plant-based meat alternatives or lab-grown meat?
Based on searches using patent classification codes commonly used for plant-based meats and lab-grown meat (known as ‘cell-cultured meat’ or ‘cultivated meat’), it appears that there are significantly more patent applications in the field of plant-based meats, but that patent filings relating to cultivated meat are growing more quickly.
Of all the patent publications relating to plant-based meats, 15.2% were published since the start of 2020. Of the patent publications relating to cultivated meats, 27.6% were published since the start of 2020.
This outcome is probably not surprising. Plant-based meats have been around much longer and are now widely established in the market, so many more companies have had time and opportunity to file patent applications for innovations in this area. Cultivated meats are at an earlier stage in their development, but with a large number of new companies having been formed in this area in the last few years, it is not surprising that this has resulted in a high growth rate of patent applications as cultivated meat gets closer to commercial reality.
Beyond Meat’s plant-based meat substitutes have reached the mainstream. | Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock
How much movement has there been on the equipment and other innovations that will facilitate large-scale meal alternative manufacturing?
There is a huge difference between small-scale production of cultivated meat in a laboratory, and the large-scale manufacturing that would be needed to supply supermarkets and restaurants throughout whole countries and - eventually - the whole world.
Growing meat using cellular agriculture involves the use of animal cell lines to grow animal products in bioreactors, where the cells are immersed in a growth medium that feeds nutrients to the cells as they develop. Over the last decade there have been huge advances in these processes, but as demand for cultivated meat grows there will definitely be continued innovation to improve efficiency and scale-up manufacturing capacity.
Commercial growth medium is currently costly, so the development of more cost-effective growth media is likely to be an area of much research. Another ongoing challenge is the development of high-quality cell lines and scaffold materials that are suitable for high-quality, large-scale production.
Bioreactor design is also expected to be a big area of innovation - up until now, bench-top bioreactors have in most cases been sufficient to meet the demands of cultivated meat R&D, but as demand increases bigger and better bioreactors will be needed. A particular challenge will be to design bioreactors capable of growing thick tissue layers on a commercially viable scale.
While there is scope for innovation in all of these areas, some companies are already ready to manufacture their cultivated meat products on a large scale. Future Meat Technologies, for example, opened its first industrial cultivated meat production facility in June 2021 in Rehovot, Israel - that facility is reportedly capable of producing 500kg of cultivated meat products every day. In November 2021, Upside Foods opened its first large-scale cultivated meat production plant in Emeryville, California, with the capacity to produce 22,680kg of cultured meat annually.
At the moment, however, a lack of regulatory approval is holding back cultivated meat production. While there are a number of companies that apparently have products ready for market, many will be unwilling to plough huge amounts of money into large-scale manufacturing facilities until they have regulatory approval that lets them actually sell their products.
Thinking of filing a chemistry patent in 2022? Here’s what you need to know.
The UK has cutting-edge companies in the cultivated meat field.
Have any innovations or areas of innovation struck you as particularly exciting? If so, could you tell us more about them?
I am a meat-eater trying to cut down on my consumption of meat, due to a mixture of environmental and ethical motivations. So, as a consumer I’ve been very excited to see the arrival of plant-based meat into the mainstream.
I am particularly excited to try cultivated meat once it is approved for sale. Not long ago ‘lab-grown’ meat seemed like science-fiction, so to get to a point where you can go out and buy it will be incredible. So many people are unwilling to cut down on meat because they like the taste, and because their favourite meals are meat-based, so cultivated meat might hopefully give that same experience with fewer of the drawbacks of animal meat.
I am also excited to see the diversity of cultivated meat products. Cultivated meat chicken nuggets and beef burgers are the products that spring to mind when cell-cultured meat is mentioned, but there are companies out there developing cultivated bacon, pork belly, salmon and tuna, to name a few.
What are the chemistry challenges for those creating plant-based meat alternatives? Find out here.
Given what you know about the patent landscape, where do you think the meat alternative industry is heading, and at what sort of pace do you foresee significant change?
I think the meat alternative industry is only going to continue to grow, as concern over the environmental impact of our eating habits is growing, and the quality and availability of meat alternatives is getting better.
The plant-based meat industry is already doing well, and I expect it to continue on its upward trajectory. I expect companies in this field to continue to file patent applications for their innovations, and eventually we might see some of those patents being enforced to safeguard valuable market shares for the patent owners.
Cultivated meat is the sector that seems to be poised for the most significant change. At the moment, the lack of regulatory approval seems to be the thing holding it back, but if that hurdle is removed there are UK companies aiming to get cultivated meats into shops by 2023. The UK is lucky enough to be home to a number of cutting-edge companies in the field, and a recent report by Oxford Economics researchers forecast that cultivated meat could be worth £2.1 billion to the UK economy by 2030.
The idea of cultivated meat is unlikely to appeal to everyone, so I imagine that it will start out as something of a novelty, but I’d expect to see the availability and range of cultivated meat products grow significantly over the next decade.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can read more of his work here.
A sprig of thyme to fight that cold… Turmeric tea after exercising… An infusion of chamomile to ease the mind… As we move with fresh resolution through January, Dr Vivien Rolfe, of Pukka Herbs, explains how a few readily available herbs could boost your health and wellbeing.
The New Year is a time when many of us become more health conscious. Our bodies have been through so much over the last few years with Covid, and some of us may need help to combat the January blues. So, can herbs and spices give us added support and help us get the new year off to a flying start?
The oils in chamomile have nerve calming effects.
We may wish to ease ourselves into the year and look for herbs to help us relax. The flowers from these herbs contain aromatic essential oils such as linalool from lavender (Lavandula) and chamazulene from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) that soothe us when we inhale them (López et al 2017). Chamomile also contains flavonoids that are helpful when ingested (McKay & Blumberg 2006).
If you have a spot to grow chamomile in your garden, you can collect and dry the flowers for winter use. Lavender is also a staple in every garden and the flowers can be dried and stored. Fresh or dry, these herbs can be steeped in hot water to make an infusion or tea and enjoyed. As López suggests, the oils exert nerve calming effects. Maybe combine a tea with some breathing exercises to relax yourselves before bed or during stressful moments in the day.
Thyme is a handy herbal remedy. Generally, the term herb refers to the stem, leaf and flower parts, and spice refers to roots and seeds.
>> The plant burgers are coming. Read here about the massive growth of meat alternatives.
Many people may experience seasonal colds throughout the winter months and there are different herbal approaches to fighting infection. Andrographis paniculata is used in Indian and traditional Chinese medicine and contains bitter-tasting andrographolides, and in a systematic review of products, the herb was shown to relieve cough and sore throats symptoms in upper respiratory tract infection (Hu et al 2017).
Gargling with herbal teas is another way to relieve a sore throat, and the benefits of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have been explored (Ide et al 2016). I’m an advocate of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) which contains the essential oil thymol and is used traditionally to loosen mucus alongside its other cold-fighting properties.
You could experiment by combining thyme with honey to make a winter brew. I usually take a herbal preparation at the sign of the very first sneeze that hopefully then stops the infection progressing.
Shatavari (pictured) is said to improve strength, and ashwagandha can help recovery.
We may start the new year with more of a spring in our step and wishing to get a little fitter. As we get older, we may lose muscle tissue which weakens our bones and reduces our exercise capability. Human studies have found that daily supplementation with shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) can improve strength in older women, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can enhance muscle strength and recovery in younger males (O’Leary et al 2021; Wankhede et al 2015).
These herbs are known as adaptogens and traditionally they are used in tonics or to support fertility. The research to fully understand their adaptogenic activity or effects on muscle function is at an early stage. Other herbs such as turmeric may help muscle recovery after exercise. I brew a turmeric tea and put it in my water bottle when I go to the gym.
>> How is climate change affecting your garden? Find out here.
Lemon balm is easy to grow but might want to take over your garden.
Depending on your resolutions, you could use herbs and spices to add lovely flavours to food to try and reduce your sugar and salt intake. Liquorice is a natural sweetener, and black pepper and other herbs and spices can replace salt.
You could also bring joy to January by growing herbs from seed on a windowsill or in a garden or community space. Mint, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, and sage are all easy to grow, although mint and balm may take over!
All make lovely teas or can be dried and stored for use, and research is also showing that connecting with nature – even plants in our homes – is good for us.
You can read more about medicinal and culinary properties of herbs at https://www.jekkas.com/.
If you wish to learn more about the practice of herbal medicine and the supporting science, go to https://www.herbalreality.com/.
>> Dr Viv Rolfe is head of herbal research at Pukka Herbs Ltd. You can find out more about Pukka’s research at https://www.pukkaherbs.com/us/en/wellbeing-articles/introducing-pukkas-herbal-research.html, and you can follow her and Pukka on Twitter @vivienrolfe, @PukkaHerbs.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.
Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.
Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.
Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.
Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).
Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.
Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.
Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.
The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).
Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.
When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.
Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
As we build up to the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery, we spoke to Dr Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University, about designing drug delivery systems to treat infection, creating a positive atmosphere in her lab, the challenges facing professionals in her industry, and much more.
Anita Shukla, Associate Professor of Engineering at Brown University
Tell us a bit more about the work being done in your lab.
All of what my lab works on is very biomedically orientated. The major thing we focus on is treating bacterial and fungal infections. We have a lot of interest in designing drug delivery systems to treat all sorts of bacterial and fungal infections, from localised infections to more systemic infections. We design nanoparticles, polymeric nanoparticles, self-assembled structures, surface coatings and larger-scale materials such as hydrogels that can be used as bandages.
We work on the material design for delivering antimicrobial therapeutics – antibiotics, antifungals and other antimicrobial components – and we study a lot about the properties of these materials. What sets us apart is that we’re trying to make materials that are smart, that are in some way targeted or responsive to the presence of bacteria or fungi.
So, to give you an example, we are working on making hydrogel wound dressings. These wound dressings are smart and can respond to the presence of bacteria and fungus. They know when bacteria and fungi are present, based on the enzymes that are there in the localised local environment of the hydrogel. They actually degrade only in the presence of those enzymes and release encapsulated nanotherapeutics.
And that’s really important because of antimicrobial resistance. So, we are trying very hard to provide effective therapies but limit exposure to antimicrobial therapeutics only to times that they’re needed. That’s the kind of work we’ve been doing over the past five or six years.
You’ve done some really interesting work on pregnancy care too. Tell us more about that.
So, that work was inspired by a graduate student who was very interested in women’s health and prenatal health. What we noted was that a lot of pharmaceutical agents that you must use when you’re pregnant don’t have enough information associated with their potential toxic side effects on a growing fetus. A lot of that testing is very difficult to do, so we thought: ‘Can we come up with model systems that could be used for the testing of pharmaceutical agents, toxins, and toxicants?’
The placenta really is the interface between the fetus and the mother and a lot of the nutrient and waste exchange happens through this organ. We wanted to come up with a model system that represents a placenta that was cell free and didn’t involve using an animal. So, what we did was we first studied cells taken from a placenta and the lipid composition of these cells, and then we made lipid bilayers out of synthetic lipids that mimicked the composition of placental cells at different trimesters during the pregnancy. And then we looked at how different small molecules (some of them were actually antimicrobial therapeutics) interact with these synthetic lipid bilayer models.
We noted the differences between the different trimesters and compositions of the placental cells in terms of the lipid content and how these toxicants, small molecules and pharmaceutical agents interacted. It’s early stage work but that same technology could be adapted for the purpose of high throughput testing in a cell-free environment for a range of applications.
What you do in your lab has a real-world effect. How important is that?
We’re very real-world application driven. I think the science is great, and we do a lot of fundamental science in the lab too, but the purpose is to solve real-world problems. Right now, with the pandemic, the work we’re doing on antimicrobial drug delivery is very relevant. The data show that bacteria and fungal co-infections for patients that have Covid-19 are increasing greatly and that’s heavily problematic. The antimicrobial resistance issue is just going to be exacerbated because these patients can also receive antibiotics and antifungals at the same time.
Finding solutions to real-life problems at the Shukla Lab. Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering
How did you get to this point in your career?
The one big factor in where I ended up is my family. My family has always supported me tremendously and I’ve had a very positive role model of an academic and researcher in my father. That definitely got me early exposure, which exemplifies and solidifies the fact that early exposure is really important, which can come from your family, friends, teachers, and other role models.
When I started my undergraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University, I thought I wanted to go into medicine at first, but then when I got there. I really enjoyed designing solutions that physicians would use. As an undergrad, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in terms of the exact field of research; so, every summer I did a different research experience. In the first summer, I worked at the University of Rhode Island in a Mechanical Engineering lab. For the second summer, I worked at MIT in a materials science lab. And for my third summer, I worked in Columbia University in applied physics and mathematics. I also did research at Carnegie Mellon University with a faculty member in chemical engineering and just tried to get mentors and different experiences under my belt so I could get better informed in what I wanted to do. I then went to MIT to study chemical engineering for my graduate degrees.
Did any specific people help you along the way?
I worked with a faculty member at MIT, Paula Hammond, who’s now the department Head in Chemical Engineering at MIT. She was really an amazing influence for me. I definitely had strong female role models as an undergrad, but my graduate supervisor at MIT happened to be a strong black female scientist and that was hugely influential to me – to see that you can be a minority in STEM, really successful, and do it all. At the same time, she was very open about challenges for women in chemical engineering and not afraid to talk about it at all. She did a great job in promoting us and making sure we had the right mentoring during the five years of my PhD. So, I’m very grateful to her.
I did my postdoc at Rice University in the bioengineering department, and I worked with another really strong female mentor there. My postdoctoral advisor, Jennifer West – who is now the Dean of Engineering at the University of Virginia – was really amazing. I learnt a whole new set of things from her. In all of this, I can pinpoint that I’ve had many mentors. I would highly advise that regardless of what you are interested in doing in life, find those people who are out there to support you.
How did you end up at Brown?
I ended up at Brown in the School of Engineering as a tenure track assistant professor in the summer of 2013. Since then, all the time has gone into setting up my lab and advancing our science. It’s pretty much flown by. I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve had amazing students and postdocs in my lab. They really produce everything that comes out of it. I’m just the spokesperson.
I love working with them. We have a very inclusive environment. We talk about a lot of diversity, equity, and inclusion-related concerns. I think that’s really important. We try to self-educate and educate each other on these topics. We have a welcoming environment and genuinely care that everyone in the lab feels respected. Because you can only do good science and good work if you work in a place where you are happy and respected and can be yourself.
What does a given working day look like?
It varies. A given day is chaotic due to work and having two small kids. My husband is also a professor at Brown so we both have similar demands on our time but a lot of my time goes into research and proposal writing. We need to raise funds to run a lab so we definitely spend a lot of time on that. Paper writing to get out work out is also super important.
My favourite things are meeting with my grad students and postdocs about research. I love meeting with them and talking with them about their data and generating new ideas together. This semester I am also teaching a class about advances in biomedical engineering over the past couple of years. Preparing those classes and making sure I am devoting time to them is important to me.
‘One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try.’ Image courtesy of Brown University School of Engineering
What challenges have you had to overcome in your career?
I've been extremely lucky, but there has been the two-body situation. It’s essentially having a working spouse and trying to figure out how to make it work so that you both have the careers you want in the same location. That took me and my husband five years to figure out.
My husband was in Texas and I was in Rhode Island and I had two babies with me while doing this academic career on my own. That’s incredibly challenging, but it’s extremely common. In general, I think industry and academia need to work harder to make it easier for individuals to figure out this situation and smoothen the transition.
There are other little things that come up that are challenging. I do often feel that I have to prove myself to my older male colleagues at times when I shouldn't have to. If I get into an elevator with a male colleague who’s exactly the same age as me, a senior male colleague might ask that colleague about his research, and I might be asked about my kids. I often think it’s not intentional – and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – but I think there’s a lot of education that still needs to be done.
>> Interested in the latest on antimicrobial drug discovery? Register to attend the 3rd SCI-RSC symposium on antimicrobial drug discovery on 15 and 16 November.
What’s the current state of play in your sector with respect to diversity, equality, and inclusion?
There's a lot to do but there’s a lot more awareness now. We’re far from where we need to be in terms of representation of all sorts of individuals in academia. Really, it’s ridiculously appalling if we look at numbers of black individuals, women in STEM academics, or the grant funding that goes to these individuals. But I have seen over the past two years or so that there’s just been more people talking about it. In biomedical engineering, a group of around 100 faculty or so academics around the US gets together periodically over Zoom to talk about these topics, and there’s more awareness and content in our scientific forums.
What’s the greatest challenge for people developing antimicrobial materials or in biomedical areas?
With therapeutics, it’s the FDA approval timeline. It’s years later by the time they’re used. A lot of the time people shy away from working in therapeutics because they know how hard it is going to be to commercialise something in that area.
On an academic level for me as an engineer, it’s critical to figure out what the important challenges and problems are. We’re very lucky at Brown that we have a great medical school so we can talk to clinicians, but cross-talk between disciplines is super important right now.
What advice would you give to young professionals in your area?
One thing I always tell students is don’t doubt yourself. Go ahead and try. You can’t win a game if you don’t play it. I constantly run into individuals who say: ‘I didn’t apply for that because I didn’t think I was qualified’. Basically, I just tell them to apply – you have nothing to lose.
What are you and your students working on that you’re most excited about at the moment?
I really love everything we are doing! I love the fact that we are designing materials that are smart, so they respond to the presence of microbes. I think that could be groundbreaking in terms of prolonging the lifetime of our existing antimicrobial drugs. We also have some really great work going on in treating biofilms, which are incredibly problematic in terms of infections. It’s very hard to answer. I’m proud of everything we do.
Continuing our series on Black scientists, Dr George Okafo tells us about his journey from curious child, encouraged by family and mentors, to Global Director of Healthcare Data and Analytics with a leading pharmaceutical company.
What is your current position?
I am Global Director, Healthcare Data and Analytics Unit at Boehringer Ingelheim, and have been in this role for the past 10 months.
Right: Dr George Okafo
Please give us a brief outline of your role.
To build an expert team of data stewards, data scientists and statistical geneticists tasked with accessing and ingesting population-scale healthcare biobanks and then deriving target, biomarker and disease insights from this data to transform clinical development and personalise the development of new medicines.
What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
My interest in science stems from my parents. My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a senior midwife. As a child, I was always very curious and wanted to know why and how things worked. This curiosity has stayed with me all my life and throughout my career at GlaxoSmithKline and now at Boehringer Ingelheim. In my current role, I am still asking the same types of questions from Big Data and these answers could have a profound impact in the development of new medicines.
Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
Yes, my father and mother, who supported, encouraged and gave me the confidence to be curious, to keep trying and to never give up.
Dr Okafo held senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development while at at GSK.
Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
My career journey started at Dulwich College (London) where I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics at A Level. This took me to Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (London), where I completed my Joint BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and my PhD in Cancer Chemistry.
I then spent a year at the University of Toronto in Canada as a Postdoctoral Fellow, before embarking on my career in the Pharmaceutical Industry, starting at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). I spent 30 years at GSK, where I held many senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development. During my time, I made it my mission to learn as much about the R&D process and used this knowledge to understand how innovation can impact and transform drug research.
I have been very fortunate in my career to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational people who had the patience to share their knowledge with me and answer my many questions.
>> Curious to read more about some of the great Black scientists from the past? Here’s our blog on Lewis Howard Latimer.
Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who can inspire you. Look for people who you respect and can coach and mentor you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work hard and keep trying.
What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
No, I do not see colour as a barrier nor a hindrance to pursuing a career in science. I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you, to answer your questions and to encourage you.
What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!
Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path?
Not so much an experience, but a mindset – staying curious, inquisitive, always willing to learn something new, having courage that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), now referred to as the silent pandemic, is causing governments, regulatory and health bodies to make a lot of noise.
Issuing a statement in late August 2021, the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance called on countries to ‘significantly reduce the levels of antimicrobial drugs used in global food systems’. The Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance includes heads of state, government ministers and leaders from the private sector and civil society. It was established during 2020 to accelerate global political momentum, leadership and action AMR.
Co-chaired by Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados and Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the Group is calling for all countries to take action to tackle the issue. Steps include: Ending the use of antimicrobial drugs that are of critical importance to human medicine to promote growth in animals, eliminating or significantly reducing over-the-counter-sales of antimicrobial drugs that are important for medical of veterinary purposes, and reducing the overall need for antimicrobial drugs by improving infection prevention and control, hygiene, bio security and vaccination programmes in agriculture and aquaculture.
Leaders are calling for the reduction in the use of antimicrobial drugs.
Speaking at the second meeting of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director the United Nations Environment Programme said: ‘Already 700 000 people die each year of resistant infections. There are also serious financial consequences: in the EU alone, AMR costs an estimated €1.5 billion per year in health care and productivity costs…’ But Andersen added that now was an opportune moment to make change. ‘With concern over zoonotic diseases at an all-time high, governments can take advantage of the synergies available from tackling emerging disease threats concurrently. The Global Leaders Group has strategic access to forums to promote AMR integration in post-covid-19 plans and financing…It’s time to for us to act on the science and respond rapidly to AMR,’ Andersen said.
The Communiqué from the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting held in Oxford, UK during June also gave significant space the AMR issue and the link with the pandemic. ‘We reiterate the need for ongoing education and reinforced stewardship of the use of antimicrobials, including avoiding their use where there is no science-based evidence of effectiveness. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of infection prevention and control measures to tackle AMR, targeting both health-care associated and community-associated infections.’ Adding a sense of urgency the Communiqué continued: ‘We must act strongly and across disciplines if we are to curb the silent pandemic of antimicrobial resistance.’
A letter from the BactiVac Bacterial Vaccinology Network reminded the G7 Health Ministers that the 2016 O’Neill Report estimated that by 2050, 10 million lives each year and a cumulative US$100 trillion of economic output will be at risk due to increasing AMR unless proactive solution are developed now. In its letter to the G7, the Network issued this warning. ‘The headlines on AMR may have less immediate impact, but the news is no less stark. Over the long-term, AMR bacteria will cause more prolonged suffering than covid-19, with a more insidious impact on all our lives.’ Signatories to the letter included Professor Calman MacLennan, Senior Clinical Fellow and Group Leader, Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Professor of Vaccine Immunology, University of Birmingham.
Researchers are collaborating to understand how AMR is impacted by a range of factors
The G7 also stressed the need for collaborative efforts for a better understanding of how AMR is impacted by a range of factors. Taking up this challenge; several initiatives has been put in place to study this. Most recently the United Nations Environment Programme and the Indian Council of Medical Research have launched a project looking at ‘Priorities for the Environmental Dimension of Antimicrobial Resistance in India.’ The project aims to strengthen the environmental aspects of national and state-level AMR strategies and action plans. In a similar development the European Food Safety Agency published an assessment of the role played by food production and its environment in the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance. Publishing the findings in the EFSA journal, the report indicated that fertilisers of faecal origin, irrigation and water are the most significant sources of AMR in plant-based food production and aquaculture.
Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2021 saw Ineos donate £100 million to the University of Oxford to establish a new antimicrobials research facility. The Ineos Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance aims to create collaborative and cross disciplinary links involving the university’s department of chemistry and department of zoology. The Institute also intends to partner with other global leaders in the field of AMR.
Partnering with India, the UK has committed £4 million to the AMR fight. With a total investment of £8 million, the partners have established five joint research projects which aim to develop a better understanding of how waste from antimicrobial manufacturing could be inadvertently fuelling AMR.
If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?
These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.
And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.
There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.
Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.
Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.
In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.
>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.
So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.
‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’
And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’
Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.
Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’
We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.
But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?
As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”
>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.
This week SCI is joining with business and academia to mark #BlackInChem, an initiative to advance and promote a new generation of Black chemists.
Over the coming weeks, we shall be profiling past and present Black chemists, many of whom are unsung heroes, and whose work established the foundations on which some of our modern science is built. We start with the outstanding contribution made by Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).
Born on 11 April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, US, Percy L Julian was the son of a clerk at the United State Post Office and a teacher. He did well at school, and even though there were no public high schools for African Americans in Montgomery, he was accepted at DePauw University, Indiana, in 1916.
Due to segregation Julian had to live off campus, even struggling initially to find somewhere that would serve him food. As well as completing his studies, he worked to pay his college expenses. Excelling in his studies, he graduated with a BA in 1920.
Julian wanted to study chemistry, but with little encouragement to continue his education, based on the fact there were few job opportunities, he found a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1922 Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and received his MA in 1923. With no job offers forthcoming, he served on the staff of predominantly Black colleges, first at West Virginia State College and in 1928 as head of the department of chemistry at Howard University.
In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the chance to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He studied natural products chemistry with Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, at the University of Vienna and received his PhD in 1931. He returned to Howard University, but it is said that internal politics forced him to leave.
Physostigmine was synthesised by Julian
Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow during 1933. Collaborating with fellow chemist and friend Josef Pikl, he completed research, in 1935, that resulted in the synthesis of physostigmine. His work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Physostigmine, an alkaloid, was only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, the seed of a leguminous plant native to tropical Africa. Julian’s research and synthesis process made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It is said that this development was the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw.
Once the grant funding had expired, and despite efforts of those who championed his work, the Board of Trustees at DePauw would not allow Julian to be promoted to teaching staff. He left to pursue a distinguished career in industry. It is said that he was denied one particular position as a town law forbid ‘housing of a Negro overnight.’ Other companies are also said to have rejected him because of his race.
However, in 1936 he was offered a position as director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden. These included a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. Julian’s biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.
Percy Lavon Julian | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com
By 1953 Julian Laboratories had been established, an enterprise that he went on to sell for more than $2 million in 1961. He then established the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation. In 1967 he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees, and in 1973 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the second African American to receive the honour.
He was also widely recognised as a steadfast advocate of human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to major pharmaceutical companies until his death on 19 April 1975. Percy Lavon Julian is commemorated at DePauw University with the Percy L Julian Science and Mathematics Center named in his honour. During 1993 the United States Postal Service commemorated Julian on a stamp in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to science and society.
Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.
Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.
Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.
Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.
Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.
Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.
Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.
Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.
So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.
Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.
Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.
By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.
Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.
Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.
So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.
An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm
A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.
Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.
Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.
So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.
Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.
Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?
The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/
Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.
Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.
Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.
Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.
These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.
Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.
Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.
Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.
In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.
After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.
Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University
Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.
‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.
The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.
‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’
The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.
‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’
In this blog series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.
In our latest interview, we hear from Dan Smith, Head of Portfolio at CatSci Ltd.
Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I have more than six years’ experience at CatSci, an SME that specialises in process development for the drug development programmes of our partners. In my current role as Head of Portfolio, I oversee the delivery of our customer projects and support the technical qualification of new business and resourcing across our technical team. Previously, as Principal Scientist I led projects focused on route optimisation for Phase I-II and greatly enjoyed contributing to CatSci’s growth from four practical lab scientists to a current team of 24.
Prior to CatSci, I focused on both applied catalysis and fundamental research in both the UK and US as a postdoc for five years, including at the University of York and Texas A&M University. This provided an opportunity to explore and develop a range of skills such as computational modelling and basic programming that I have found useful since. In terms of earlier education, I have both PhD and Master’s degrees in Chemistry from Durham University.
What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
As one begins to specialise or diversify at the mid-career stage, often there is a less well defined path. However, that comes with a multitude of possibilities. A lot of my current learning is focused on broadening my skillset across disciplines, such as finance, that help contextualise a wide range of business activities. Relative to early career development, there can be fewer individuals to draw on for their greater experience, especially in smaller departments or organisations. Instead, actively engaging those outside of one’s day-to-day environment for their views can be very helpful.
What challenges are there around mid-career support?
One of the biggest challenges is around time, and setting aside time to reflect on larger strategic objectives. Ring fencing time is often difficult. However, conferences can provide this free space to focus on opportunities and engage others for different perspectives.
What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
In the evolving shift to a more virtual world, change has accelerated due to the pandemic, and digital technology is of even greater importance to virtually all areas of work. SCI members may benefit from support in these areas, specifically in relation to new ways of working in the chemical industry.
Many of us have contemplated buying a reconditioned phone. It might be that bit older but it has a new screen and works as well as those in the shop-front. I’m not sure, however, that any of us have thought of investing in a reconditioned liver – but it could be coming to a body near you.
Researchers based in São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences have been developing a technique to create and repair transplantable livers. The proof-of-concept study published in Materials Science and Engineering by the Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Centre (HUG-CELL) is based on tissue bioengineering techniques known as decellularisation and recellularisation.
The organs of some donors are sometimes damaged in traffic accidents, but these may soon be transplantable if the HUG-CELL team realises its goal.
The decellularisation and recellularisation approach involves taking an organ from a deceased donor and treating it with detergents and enzymes to remove all the cells from the tissue. What remains is the organ’s extracellular matrix, containing its original structure and shape.
This extracellular matrix is then seeded with cells from the transplant patient. The theoretical advantage of this method is that the body’s immune system won’t rile against the new organ as it already contains cells from the patient’s own body, thereby boosting the chance of long-term acceptance.
However, the problem with the decellularisation process is that it removes the very molecules that tell cells to form new blood vessels. This weakens cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. To get around this, the researchers have introduced a stage between decellularisation and recellularisation. After decellularising rat livers, the scientists injected a solution that was rich in the proteins produced by lab-grown liver cells back into the extracellular matrix. These proteins then told the liver cells to multiply and form blood vessels.
These cells then grew for five weeks in an incubator that mimicked the conditions inside the human body. According to the researchers, the results showed significantly improved recellularisation.
“It’s comparable to transplanting a ‘reconditioned’ liver, said Mayana Zatz, HUG-CELL’s principal investigator and co-author of the article. “It won't be rejected because it uses the patient’s own cells, and there’s no need to administer immunosuppressants.”
Extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver | Image Credit: HUG-CELL/USP
Obviously, there is a yawning gap between proof of concept and the operating theatre, but the goal is to scale up the process to create human-sized livers, lungs, hearts, and skin for transplant patients.
“The plan is to produce human livers in the laboratory to scale,” said lead author Luiz Carlos de Caires-Júnior to Agência FAPESP. “This will avoid having to wait a long time for a compatible donor and reduce the risk of rejection of the transplanted organ."
This technique could also be used to repair livers given by organ donors that are considered borderline or non-transplantable. “Many organs available for transplantation can’t actually be used because the donor has died in a traffic accident,” Caires-Júnior added. “The technique can be used to repair them, depending on their status.”
Even if we are at the early stages of this approach, it bodes well for future research. And for those on the organ transplant list, a reconditioned liver would be as good as a new one – complete with their very own factory settings.
Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0928493120337814
Variously known as zucchini, courgette, baby marrows and summer squash, this frost tender crop is a valuable addition for gardens and allotments. Originating in warm temperate America, the true zucchini was developed by Milanese gardeners in the 19th century and popularised in the UK by travellers in Italy. It quickly matures in 45 to 50 days from planting out in open ground by early May in the south and a couple of weeks later farther north.
Alternatively, use cloches as frost protection for early crops. Earliness is also achieved by sowing seed in pots of openly draining compost by mid-April in a greenhouse or cold frame. Courgettes have large, energy-filled seeds. Consequently, germination and subsequent growth are rapid.
Sow seed singly in 10cm diameter pots and plant out when the first 2-3 leaves are expanding (illustration number 1). Alternatively, garden centres supply transplants. These should be inspected carefully, avoiding those with yellowing leaves or wilting foliage. Each plant should have white healthy-looking roots without browning.
Illustration 1: Courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse.
Courgettes grow vigorously and each plant should be allocated at least 1 metre spacing within and between rows. They require copious watering and feeding with a balanced fertiliser containing equal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Botanically, they are dioecious plants, having separate male and female flowers, (illustration number 2). They are beloved by bees, hence supporting biodiversity in the garden. Slugs are their main pest, causing browsing wounds on courgette fruits; mature late-season foliage is usually infected by powdery mildew fungi that cause little harm.
Illustration 2: Bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower.
Quick maturing succulent courgettes are hybrid cultivars, producing harvestable 15-25 cm long fruit (berries) before the seeds begin forming (illustration number 3). Harvest regularly at weekly intervals before the skins (epicarps) begin strengthening and toughening. Skin colour varies with different cultivars from deep green to golden yellow. The choice rests on gardeners’ preferences.
Courgettes are classed and cooked as vegetables and their dietary value is retained by steaming thinly sliced fruits. Courgettes are a low-energy food but contain useful amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A (retinol). The latter boosts immune systems, helping defend against illness and infection and increasing respiratory efficiency. Eyesight is also protected by increasing vision in low light.
Illustration 3: Courgette fruit ready for the table.
Courgettes are, therefore, valuable dietary additions year-round. Courgette flowers are bonuses, used as garnishes or dipped in batter as fritters or tempura. Overall, the courgette is a most useful plant that provides successional cropping using ground vacated by over-wintered vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts or leeks.
Every day, there are subtle signs that machine learning is making our lives easier. It could be as simple as a Netflix series recommendation or your phone camera automatically adjusting to the light – or it could be something even more profound. In the case of two recent machine-learning developments, these advances could make a tangible difference to both microscopy, cancer treatment, and our health.
The first is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that improves the information gleaned from microscopic images. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have used this deep machine learning to enhance the accuracy and speed of analysis.
The tool uses deep learning to extract as much information as possible from data-packed images. The neural networks retrieve exactly what a scientist wants by looking through a huge trove of images (known as training data). These networks can process tens of thousands of images an hour whereas some manual methods deliver about a hundred a month.
Machine learning can be used to follow infections in a cell.
In practice, this algorithm makes it easier for researchers to count and classify cells and focus on specific material characteristics. For example, it can be used by companies to reduce emissions by showing workers in real time whether unwanted particles have been filtered out.
“This makes it possible to quickly extract more details from microscope images without needing to create a complicated analysis with traditional methods,” says Benjamin Midtvedt, a doctoral student in physics and the main author of the study. “In addition, the results are reproducible, and customised. Specific information can be retrieved for a specific purpose."
The University of Gothenburg tool could also be used in health care applications. The researchers believe it could be used to follow infections in a cell and map cellular defense mechanisms to aid the development of new medicines and treatments.
Machine learning by colour
On a similar thread, machine learning has been used to detect cancer by researchers from the National University of Singapore. The researchers have used a special dye to colour cells by pH and a machine learning algorithm to detect the changes in colour caused by cancer.
The researchers explain in their APL Bioengineering study that the pH (acidity level) of a cancerous cell is not the same as that of a healthy cell. So, you can tell if a cell is cancerous if you know its pH.
With this in mind, the researchers have treated cells with a pH-sensitive dye called bromothymol blue that changes colour depending on how acidic the solution is. Once dyed, each cell exudes its unique red, green, and blue fingerprint.
By isolating a cell’s pH, researchers can detect the presence of cancer.
The authors have also trained a machine learning algorithm to map combinations of colours to assess the state of cells and detect any worrying shifts. Once a sample of the cells is taken, medical professionals can use this non-invasive method to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside the body. And all they need to do all of this is an inverted microscope and a colour camera.
“Our method allowed us to classify single cells of various human tissues, both normal and cancerous, by focusing solely on the inherent acidity levels that each cell type tends to exhibit, and using simple and inexpensive equipment,” said Chwee Teck Lim, one of the study’s authors.
“One potential application of this technique would be in liquid biopsy, where tumour cells that escaped from the primary tumour can be isolated in a minimally invasive fashion from bodily fluids.”
The encouraging sign for all of us is that these two technologies are but two dots on a broad canvas, and machine learning will enhance analysis. There are certainly troubling elements to machine learning but anything that helps hinder disease is to be welcomed.
Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells:
Quantitative Digital Microscopy with Deep Learning:
Rising anxiety about air pollution, physical, and mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19 and concerns about public transport, has seen an increase in the popularity of cycling around Europe, leading many cities to transform their infrastructure correspondingly.
These days, Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling culture. Images of thousands of bikes piled up in tailor-made parking facilities continue to amaze and it is routinely held up as an example of greener, cleaner, healthier cities. Because The Netherlands is so flat, people often believe it has always been this way. But, in the 1970s, Amsterdam was a gridlocked city dominated by cars. The shift to cycling primacy took work and great public pressure.
For some cities, however, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity on the roads. Milan's Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, has explained that, "We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested". Now, however, numbers have increased from 1,000 to 7,000 on the main shopping street. "Most people who are cycling used public transport before”, he said. “But now they need an alternative”.
Creating joined up cycling networks is a major challenge for urban planners.
In Paris, the Deputy Mayor David Belliard does not seem concerned that the city’s investment since the start of the pandemic will go to waste. “It's like a revolution," he said. “Some sections of this road are now completely car-free. The more you give space for bicycles, the more they will use it.” They are committed to creating a cycle culture, providing free cycling lessons and subsidising the cost of bike repairs. The city intends to create more than 650km of cycle lanes in the near future.
The success in these two cities has been supported by local government but it has also been fuelled by an understandable (and encouraged) avoidance of public transport and fewer cars on the road generally. Going forward, however, it seems likely that those last two factors won’t be present. So how do you create a cycling culture in your city in the long run?
The answer is both simple and difficult: cyclists (and pedestrians) need to have priority over cars. In Brussels, where 40km of cycle track have been put down in the last year, specific zones have been implemented where this is the case, and speed limits have been reintroduced across the city.
In Copenhagen, in the late 1970s, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation arranged demonstrations demanding more cycle tracks and a return to the first half of the century, when cyclists had dominated the roads. Eventually, public pressure paid off — although there is still high demand for more cycle lanes. A range of measures, including changes made to intersections, make cyclists feel safer and local studies show that, as cyclist numbers increase, safety also increases. In many parts of the city, it is noticeable how little of the wide roads are actually available to cars: bikes, joggers, and pedestrians are all accommodated.
Segregated cycleways, like this one in Cascais, Portugal, make people more likely to cycle.
But, if you were starting from scratch, you might not simply add cycle lanes to existing roads and encourage behavioural changes on the road. Segregated, protected bike lanes like those introduced in Paris are the next level up and the results suggest they work — separated from the roads, more people are inclined to try cycling.
Dutch experts suggest, where possible, going even further. Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht, believes the best option is to create solitary paths, separated from the road by grass, trees, or elevated concrete. Consistency is also important. Cities need networks of cycle tracks, not just a few highways. Again, prioritising cyclists is key to the Dutch approach. Many cities have roads where cars are treated as guests, restricted by a speed limit of 30km/hour and not permitted to pass. Signage is also key.
In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target is for 80% of journeys to be made by walking, cycling, and/or public transport by 2041. Since 2018, the city has been using artificial intelligence to better understand road use in the city and plan new cycle routes in the capital. However, the experience of other European capitals suggests that, "if you build it, they will come" might be a better approach than working off current usage.
Broad beans are an undemanding and valuable crop for all gardens. Probably originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and grown domestically since about 6,000BC, this plant was brought to Great Britain by the Romans.
Header image: a rich harvest of succulent broad beans for the table
Capable of tolerating most soil types and temperatures they provide successional fresh pickings from June to September. Early crops are grown from over-wintered sowings of cv Aquadulce. They are traditionally sown on All Souls Day on 2 November but milder autumns now cause too rapid germination and extension growth. Sowing is best now delayed until well into December. Juicy young broad bean seedlings offer pigeons a tasty winter snack, consequently protection with cloches or netting is vital insurance.
From late February onwards dwarf cultivars such as The Sutton or the more vigorous longer podded Meteor Vroma are used. Early cropping is promoted by growing the first batches of seedlings under protection in a glasshouse. Germinate the seed in propagating compost and grow the resultant seedlings until they have formed three to four prominent leaflets. Plant out into fertile, well-cultivated soil and protect with string or netting frameworks supported with bamboo canes to discourage bird damage.
Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes
More supporting layers will be required as the plants grow and mature. Later sowings are made directly into the vegetable garden. As the plants begin flowering remove the apical buds and about two to three leaves. This deters invasions by the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae). Winged aphids detect the lighter green of upper foliage of broad beans and navigate towards them!
Allow the pods ample time for swelling and the development of bean seeds of up to 2cm diameter before picking. Beware, however, of over-mature beans since these are flavourless and lack succulence. Broad beans have multiple benefits in the garden and for our diets. They are legumes and hence the roots enter mutually beneficial relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria are naturally present in most soils. They capture atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into nitrates which the plant utilises for growth. In return, the bacteria gain sources of carbohydrates from photosynthesis.
Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria
Broad beans are pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects. They are good sources of pollen and nectar, encouraging biodiversity in the garden. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, fibre, folate, Vitamin B and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, therefore cultivating healthy living. Finally, they form extensive roots, improving soil structure, drainage and reserves of organic nitrogen. Truly gardeners’ friends!
Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science (ISBN 978-1-138-20906-0) published by Routledge 2019.
Thinking of popping to your nearest specialist store for some sesame oil, turmeric, or soy? Some things haven't changed in 3,700 years, it turns out...
At least, that's what a growing new field of research, palaeoproteomics, suggests. Human mouths are full of bacteria, which continually petrify and form dental calculus — which can entrap and preserve tiny food particles. These remnants can be accessed and analysed thousands of years later, providing remarkable insight into the dietary habits of our ancestors.
Philip Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), has worked with Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and a team of researchers to apply this new method to the eastern Mediterranean, including the Bronze Age site of Megiddo and the Early Iron Age site of Tel Erani.
“Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residues from human dental calculus is the first of its kind to study the cuisines of the ancient Near East,” said Warinner, explaining its significance. “Our research demonstrates the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.”
High-resolution analyses of ancient dental calculus have given us a whole new perspective on the diets of Bronze Age people.
The research team took samples from a range of individuals and analysed which food proteins and plant residues were preserved in their teeth. “This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” said Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”
Of course, it's not quite as simple as looking at the teeth of those who didn't thoroughly clean them nearly four millennia ago and hoping the proteins survived. “Interestingly, we find that allergy-associated proteins appear to be the most stable in human calculus”, remarked Ashley Scott, LMU biochemist and lead author. That might be because of the known thermostability of many allergens. For instance, the researchers were able to detect wheat via wheat gluten proteins, which they independently confirmed with a different method using a type of plant microfossil known as phytoliths.
This substance has previously been used to identify millet and date palm in the same area during the Bronze and Iron Ages but phytoliths are not plentiful or even present in many foods, which is why this research is so exciting — palaeoproteomics means foods that have left few other traces, such as sesame, can now be identified.
Research suggests that the humble banana was eaten throughout the Mediterranean far earlier than first thought.
The method has allowed the team to identify that people at these sites ate, among other things, sesame, turmeric, soy, and bananas far earlier than anyone had realised. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” explained Stockhammer.
The finds mean that we have direct evidence for a flourishing long-distance trade in fruits, spices, and oils, from East and South Asia to the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt as early as the second millennium BCE.
More than that, the analyses "provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” according to Stockhammer (although the sudden appearance of bananas in West Africa a few centuries later has previously led archaeologists to believe that such a trade might have existed, this is the first evidence).
The team acknowledged that other explanations are possible, including that the individuals concerned had travelled to East or South Asia at some point but there is evidence for other trade in food and spices in the Eastern Mediterranean — for instance, we know Pharaoh Ramses II was buried with peppercorns from India in 1213 BCE.
But it certainly seems like some foods might have been popular in the Mediterranean for much longer than we realised, which might be an interesting thought to accompany you next time you add some spices or bananas to your shopping basket.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.
Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance
To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.
Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.
ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.
The blue economy is linked to green recovery
In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’
The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.
But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.
With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.
Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.
But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.
The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.
The world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change was published on 27th January, covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Oxford. Of the respondents, 64% believe climate change is a global emergency, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and sought broader action to combat it. Earlier in the month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
It is possible that the momentum, combined with the difficulties many countries currently face, may make many look again to geoengineering as an approach. Is it likely that large scale engineering techniques could mitigate the damage of carbon emissions? And is it safe to do so or could we be exacerbating the problem?
The term has long been controversial, as have many of the suggested techniques. But it would seem that some approaches are gaining more mainstream interest, particularly Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for the UN suggested were worth further investigation (significantly, it did not use the term "geoengineering" and distinguished these two methods from others).
One of the most covered CDR techniques is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS), the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide, usually from carbon intensive industries, and storing (or first re-using) it so it will not enter the atmosphere. Since 2017, after a period of declining investment, more than 30 new integrated CCUS facilities have been announced. However, there is concern among many that it will encourage further carbon emissions when the goal should be to reduce and use CCS to buy time to do so.
CDR techniques that utilise existing natural processes of natural repair, such as reforestation, agricultural practices that absorb carbon in soils, and ocean fertilisation are areas that many feel could and should be pursued on a large scale and would come with ecological and biodiversity benefits, as well as fostering a different, more beneficial relationship with local environments.
A controversial iron compound deposition approach has been trialled to boost salmon numbers and biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.
The ocean is a mostly untapped area with huge potential and iron fertilisation is one very promising area. The controversial Haida Salmon Corporation trial in 2012 is perhaps the most well-known example and brings together a lot of the pros and cons frequently discussed in geoengineering — in many ways, we can see it as a microcosm of the bigger issue.
The trial deposited 120 tonnes of iron compound in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean 300k west of Haida Gwaii over a period of 30 days, which resulted in a 35,000km2, several month long phytoplankton bloom that was confirmed by NASA satellite imagery. That phytoplankton bloom fed the local salmon population, revitalising it — the following year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific went from 50 million to 226 million. The local economy benefited, as did the biodiversity of the area, and the increased iron in the sea captured carbon (as did the biomass of fish, for their lifetimes).
Small but mighty, phytoplankton are the laborers of the ocean. They serve as the base of the food web.
But Environment Canada believes the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit. Much of the fear around geoengineering is how much might be possible by rogue states or even rogue individuals, taking large scale action with global consequences without global consent.
The conversation around SRM has many similarities — who decides that the pros are worth the cons, when the people most likely to suffer the negative effects, with or without action, are already the most vulnerable? This is a concern of some of the leading experts in the field. Professor David Keith, an expert in the field, has publicly spoken about his concern around climate change and inequality, adding after the latest study that, "the poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that."
But he doesn't believe anywhere near sufficient research has been done into the viability of the approach or the possible consequences and cautions that there is a need for "an adequate governance system in place".
There is no doubt that the research in this field is exciting but there are serious ethical and governance problems to be dealt with before it can be considered a serious component of an emissions reduction strategy.
The theme of the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda was ‘The Great Reset’ and how the world might recover from the effects of Covid-19. Because of the current circumstances, the forum was split into two parts, with a virtual meeting held January 25-29 and an in-person gathering planned for May 13-16, in Singapore.
Each day of the January summit was dedicated to discussing a key area for recovery. On Monday, January 25, the focus was on designing cohesive, sustainable and resilient economic systems. On Tuesday, delegates discussed how to drive responsible industry transformation and growth, while on Wednesday they spoke about enhancing the stewardship of our global commons. Thursday's talks centred on harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and on Friday attendees discussed ways to advance global and regional cooperation.
With the International Labor Organization jobs report, published at the start of the week, stating that at least 225 million jobs vanished worldwide over the past year (four times more than the 2008 global financial crisis) and concerns that vaccine nationalism will see the pandemic continue to ravage many less wealthy nations, much of the talk was around equality and unity.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, spoke in Monday's meeting. ‘Once we’re through to the "second phase" of the 2021 Covid-19 recovery,’ Lagarde said, ‘it is most likely going to be a new economy, which will be associated with positive developments and also with challenges.’ Many advanced economies, she noted, particularly in Europe, have jumped forward in terms of digitalisation, some by up to seven years.
Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, has called for continued support for the digital-centred, post-pandemic economy. | Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
She added that it is likely that there will be a 20% increase in the amount of people working from home post-pandemic, which will have an impact on many economies, and claimed that technological changes are already having positive effects. She said that it is critical to continue ‘favouring and supporting investment into this new economy’ and that on the fiscal and monetary policy front, authorities will have to stay the course and continue to support. At the same time, investment will have to be focused on laying the ground for a new economy.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), agreed about the increase in digitalisation, and reported that the EU hopes ‘the 2020s can finally be Europe’s Digital Decade’, highlighting a number of investments to boost this process, including the startup scenes in cities such as Sofia and Lisbon.
However, she warned that there is a ‘darker side of the digital world,’ noting the assault on Capitol Hill in the US and making clear that ‘The immense power of the big digital companies must be contained. She spoke of the EC's plans ‘to make internet companies take responsibility for content, from dissemination to promotion and removal, and highlighted the Commission’s new rulebooks, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, believes the 2020s can be Europe’s ‘Digital Decade’. | Credit: John Smith Williams / Shutterstock.com
She invited the US to work together to: ‘Create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: it goes from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: Human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy.’
Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, made a noteworthy intervention in his panel discussion, claiming, ‘There has been a mantra for too long that the business of business is business, but today the business of business is improving the state of the world.’ He added that, while there were many CEOs who had been ‘bad actors,’ others had used their considerable resources to help fight the pandemic.
Many speakers noted a shift towards sustainability in investments, with others demanding more change and faster. Of the latter, Mark Carney, Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance to the UN, said bluntly, ‘if you are part of the private financial sector and you are not part of the solution […] you will have made the conscious decision not to be aligned to net zero […] if you’re not in, you’re out because you chose to be out.’
It could be concluded that there was a great deal to feel positive about, but the circumstances are difficult. Now we will see whether the attendees of the World Economic Forum can deliver on their inspiring rhetoric.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its Science Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021: Time of Crises and Opportunity report.
Published at the beginning of 2021, the report focuses on the ‘unparalleled mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community’ in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The report indicates that newly funded research initiatives have been established by public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, while the health sector has similarly invested in an array of research programmes worth billions of dollars in record time.
The pandemic has led an unprecedented mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community
However, the report also exposes gaps in overall system resilience to future crises. ‘It’s a wake-up call that highlights the need to recalibrate science, technology and innovation (STI) policies, so that they better orient research and innovation efforts towards sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency goals,’ the report asserts.
Highlighting the rapid response by governments around the world, the report indicates that in the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies spent around $5 billion on emergency financial support. This includes $300 million in Asia-Pacific, excluding China, over $850 million in Europe and more than $3.5 billion in North America. At the same time, research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020, the report says. The largest share came from the US, followed by China and the UK. Research databases and scientific publishers removed paywalls so that covid-19 related information could be quickly shared.
Research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020
‘These developments mark important changes that could accelerate the transition to a more open science in the longer run,’ the report says. It is also noted that not only have researchers continued their work with more than three quarters of scientists indicating that they had shifted to working from home at some point in 2020, but almost two thirds experienced, or expected to see, an increase in the use of digital tools for research as a consequence of the crisis. The report also mentions the contribution of the general public, with so called ‘frugal innovations’ in response to shortages of medical equipment and emergency supplies.
Looking to the future of the research community, the report says that postgraduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths. ‘The crisis has shown that the need for STI expertise is not limited to the public laboratory; it is also important for business, government and NGOs […] Reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential for improving societies’ ability to react to crises like covid-19 and to deal with long-term challenges like climate change that demand science-based responses […] There has been a 25% increase in the number of people with PhDs in OECD countries over the past decade with no corresponding increase in academic posts. The pandemic is expected to make matters worse, more than half of the scientists participating in the OECD Science Flash Survey expect the crisis to negatively affect their job security and career opportunities,’ the report says.
Post-graduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths
While still in the midst of the pandemic, the report stresses that STI policies now need to be reoriented to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency. ‘In the short-term governments should continue their support for science and innovation activities that aim to develop solutions to the pandemic and mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to its uneven distributional effects. Science for policy will remain in the spotlight as governments seek to strike the right balance in their response to covid-19. This will effect public perceptions of science that could have long term implications for science-society relations.’
The report concludes that governments now have the task of developing public sector capabilities to deliver more ambitious STI policy. This will require engagement from stakeholders and citizens in order to capture a diversity of knowledge and values.
Galen (129-216 CE) is one of the most famous and influential medical practitioners in history but he was also a scientist, an author, a philosopher, and a celebrity. He wrote hundreds of treatises, travelled and studied widely, was the physician to three emperors, and left a legacy of scientific thought that lasted for fifteen hundred years — even today, his work has an influence.
Header image Editorial credit: Eray Adiguzel / Shutterstock.com
He grew up in Pergamum, an intellectual centre of the Mediterranean world, in a wealthy family that encouraged him to pursue academia and funded his travels to learn in the best environments available, acquiring the latest techniques in medicine and healing.
He understood that diet, exercise, and hygiene were essential for good health and put that into practice in the four years he spent working for the High Priest of Pergamum's Gladiator School. This was a high profile and high pressure role and we know he reduced the death rate dramatically in his four years there. The recommendation he got helped secure him a position in Rome, capital of the empire.
He was not popular in the city — at one point, he seems to have been chased out by the local physicians, who strenuously disagreed with his methods — but he was eventually summoned by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to be his personal physician. He was described by the emperor as, “First among doctors and unique among philosophers".
Galen; Line engraving | Credit: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons
Galen continued to navigate the difficult political environment of the imperial capital and was personal physician to two more emperors, while publishing prolifically and becoming one of the most well-known figures in the Roman Empire. Much of his work is lost to us but we still know a great deal about him, including that he had a flair for showmanship and controversy.
In the Greek world where he grew up, dissections had been common — of animals and humans. In Rome, this was not the case. In fact, human dissections were banned across the empire shortly before Galen arrived in the city. Undaunted, he gave a number of public anatomical demonstrations using pigs, monkeys, sheep, and goats to show his new city what they were missing (this was one of many incidents that contributed to local dislike of his methods as well as his increasing fame).
His legacy was huge, both because he recorded and critiqued the work of others in his field and because of the huge volumes of his own observations and theories. His texts were the foundation for much of medical education in the Islamic, Byzantine, and European worlds until the 17th Century.
The ban on human dissection likely limited his progress in some areas and many of his theories have (eventually) been disproved, such as the theory of the four humours — blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm — based on Hippocrates' system and elaborated, as well as the efficacy of bloodletting.
Galen observed that cataracts could be removed.
In other areas, however, he was remarkably successful. He observed that the heart has four valves that allow blood to flow in only one direction, that a patient's pulse or urine held clues to their disease, that urine forms in kidneys (previously thought to be the bladder), that arteries carry liquid blood (previously thought to be air), that cataracts could be removed from patients' eyes, among others. He also identified seven of the 12 cranial nerves, including the optic and acoustic nerves.
His focus on practical methods such as direct observation, dissection, and vivisection is obviously still relevant to modern medical research. Indeed, scientists who disproved his theories, such as Andreas Vesalius and Michael Servetus in the 16th century, did so using Galen's own methods.
The study of his work remains hugely important to the history and understanding of medicine and science, as well as the ancient world. The Galenic formulation, which deals with the principles of preparing and compounding medicines in order to optimise their absorption, is named after him.
More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.
Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’
Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.
Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.
Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.
Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’
Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’
EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com
The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.
A year after the world was put on alert about the rapidly spreading covid-19 virus, mass vaccination programmes are providing a welcome light at the end of the tunnel.
However, for many people vaccination remains a concern. A World Economic Forum – Ipsos survey: Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine, indicates that while an increasing number of people in the US and UK plan to get vaccinated, the intent has dropped in South Africa, France, Japan and South Korea. The survey was conducted in December 2020, following the first vaccinations in the US and the UK.
This study shows that overall vaccination intent is below 50% in France and Russia. ‘Strong intent’ is below 15% in Japan, France and Russia.
Many cities are still in lockdown
Between 57% and 80% of those surveyed cited concerns over side effects as a reason for not getting a covid-19 vaccination. Doubts over the effectiveness of a vaccine was the second most common reason cited in many countries, while opposition to vaccines in general was mentioned by around 25% those who will refuse a vaccination.
The survey was conducted among 13,542 adults aged 18–74 in Canada, South Africa, and the US, while those surveyed in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the UK were aged 16–74.
A previous survey, Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine carried out in July and August 2020, indicated that 74% of those surveyed intended to get vaccinated. At that time the World Economic Forum said that this majority could still fall short of the number required to ‘beat covid-19.’
Commenting on the newest data Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum said; ‘As vaccinations roll out, it is encouraging to see confidence improve most in countries where vaccines are already made available. It is critical that governments and the private sector come together to build confidence and ensure that manufacturing capacity meets the global demand.’
World Economic Forum-Ipsos Survey indicates a rise in number of people in US and UK intending to get vaccinated.
With the imperative now to move towards some sort of ‘normality’, as well as getting economies moving, fears over vaccination need to be allayed. However, what also needs to be considered is what underlies those fears. Misinformation, no doubt, has a part to play. This highlights a lack of trust in governments and a sector that has worked tirelessly to develop vaccines in record time.
As different companies bring their vaccines to the market, care now needs to be taken to reassure people around the world that whichever manufacturer’s vaccine they are given, they are in safe hands. As any adverse reactions occur – an inevitability with any vaccine rollout – these ought to be made known to the wider public by companies and governments as soon as it is feasible, preventing space for the spread of rumour and misinformation, which could undo the hard work of the scientists, businesses and governments bringing vaccines to the public.
Researchers have worked tirelessly to bring vaccines to the market
Chemists have created a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with other parts of the body. A study, published in Science Advances this month, describes a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with living cells.
“This work begins to bridge the divide between more theoretical ‘what is cellular life’ type of work and applicative, useful technologies,” said Sheref Mansy, Chemistry Professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.
The artificial cells are made using an oil-water emulsion, and they can detect changes within their environments and respond by releasing protein signals to influence surrounding cells. This work is the first that can chemically communicate with and influence natural living cells. They started with bacteria, later moving to multicellular organisms.
“In the future, artificial cells like this one could be engineered to synthesizes and deliver specific therapeutic molecules tailored to distinct physiological conditions or illnesses–all while inside the body,” explained Sheref Mansy, professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemistry,
Though the initial study was undertaken using a specific signalling system, the cells have applications in therapeutic use, going beyond traditional smart-drug delivery systems and allowing for an adaptable therapeutic.
Since the start of 2020 the world has been a different place. During March the UK Government instigated a lock down, with those who could required to work from home, this included scientists. Completing my PhD studying insect olfaction during a global pandemic was not something I expected, but how did I spend my days?
As a scientist I spend a portion, if not the majority of my time in a lab doing experiments. Pausing this work created several challenges, and as a final year student induced a serious amount of panic! To adapt, I focused more on computational experiments and extensive data analysis. Thankfully, I had some small computational projects already, which could be extended and explored further. This also included attending online courses and webinars to develop new skills – I really enjoyed SCI’s webinar series on computational chemistry and found it useful when completing my protein docking experiments!
Writing, Writing, Writing
As a final year PhD student, there was one task at the beginning of this year that was high on the agenda – writing my thesis. Many past PhD students will tell horror stories about how they were rushing to finish lab work and writing up in a mad dash at the end. Being forced to give up lab work, and having no social activities, meant a lot more focus was put on writing during this time. Personally, I have been privileged to be in a house with other final year PhD students, creating a distraction free zone, and managed to crack down on thesis writing!
Despite in-person events, including many large international conferences, being cancelled, many organisers were quick to move meetings online. This made so many events more accessible. Though I am sad to have missed out on a trip to San Francisco, during lockdown I have attended numerous webinars, online seminars, two international conferences and even given outreach talks to the public and school children.
Getting back to ‘normal’
It is safe to say the world, and the way science works, is never going to be the same. But scientists are slowly migrating back to the lab, adorned with a new item of PPE. On top of our lab coats, goggles and gloves we can add…a mask. Despite the stressful time, I managed to get my thesis finished handing it in with a lot more computational work included than I had initially planned!
It’s quite likely that most people who end up in the vicinity of a scorpion will more than likely beat a hasty retreat, not least because they can impart a potentially life threatening dose of venom should one get stung.
But scientists are now finding that the venom from these creatures, along with snakes and spiders, could be beneficial in treating heart attacks. Scorpion venom in particular contains a peptide that has been found to have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system of rats with high blood pressure. Reporting their findings in Journal of Proteome Research, scientists from Brazil, Canada and Denmark say that they now have a better understanding of the processes involved.
Scorpion venom is a complex mixture of molecules including neurotoxins, vasodilators and antimicrobial compounds, among many others. Individual venom compounds, if isolated and administered at the proper dose, could have surprising health benefits, the researchers say.
One promising compound is the tripeptide KPP (Lys-Pro-Pro), which the researchers say is part of a larger scorpion toxin. KPP was shown to cause blood vessels to dilate and blood pressure to decline in hypertensive rats.
A blood vessel on organic tissue
To understand how KPP worked, the researchers treated cardiac muscle cells from mice, in a Petri dish, with KPP and measured the levels of proteins expressed by the cells at different times using mass spectrometry. They found that KPP regulated proteins associated with cell death, energy production, muscle contraction and protein turnover. In addition the scorpion peptide triggered the phosphorylation of a mouse protein called AKT, which activated another protein involved in production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator.
Treatment with KPP led to dephosphorylation of a protein called phospholamban, which led to reduced contraction of cardiac muscle cells. Both AKT and phospholamban are already known to protect cardiac tissue from injuries caused by lack of oxygen. The researchers said that these results indicate that KPP should be further studied as a drug lead for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
Conceptual image for cardiovascular problems .
According to two studies published in The BMJ, higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grain foods is linked with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In the first study, a team of European researchers examined the link between vitamin C, carotenoids and type 2 diabetes.
The findings were based on 9754 participants with type 2 diabetes, compared with a group of 12,622 individuals who were free of diabetes. All of the participants were part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort totalling 340 234 people.
The results revealed that individuals with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of developing diabetes by up to 50%.
Fresh fruit and vegetables
The results also showed that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables by 66g per day was linked with a 25% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In the second study, researchers in the United States examined the association between whole grain food intake and type 2 diabetes.
Their research involved 158,259 women and 36,525 men who were diabetes, heart disease and cancer free and who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.
Those with the highest intake of whole grains had a 29% lower rate of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who consumed the least amount. With regards to individual whole grain foods, those with an intake of one or more servings a day of whole grain cold breakfast cereal or dark bread, were associated with a 19% or 21% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, compared with the participants consuming less than one serving a month.
Although both studies took into account several well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary health, both studies are observational, therefore it should be considered that some of the results may be due to unmeasured factors.
These new research findings provide more evidence that increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain foods can lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Generally, food intake measurement relies on an individual’s ability to recall what and how much they ate, which has inherent limitations. This can be overcome using biomarkers, such as urine, which contains high amounts of data, and looks to be a promising new indicator of nutritional status.
Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Health Data Research UK, the group of scientists analysed levels of 46 different metabolites in the urine of 1,848 people in the U.S, publishing their findings in the journal Nature Food.
The team illustrated the effectiveness of using metabolites in urine as an alternative approach to obtaining information on dietary patterns. Analysing the urinary metabolic profile of the individuals, they found that the 46 metabolites in urine accurately predicted healthy / unhealthy patterns, making the link between 46 metabolites in urine, as well as the types of foods and nutrients in the diet.
Urine test sample
The team believes that this technology could inspire healthy changes as health professionals could be better equipped to provide dietary advice tailored to their individual biological make-up. As Dr Isabel Garcia-Perez, author of the research also from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction explained: ‘Our technology can provide crucial insights into how foods are processed by individuals in different ways.’
To build on this research, the same Imperial team, in collaboration with Newcastle University, Aberystwyth University, and Murdoch University, developed a five-minute test to measure the health of a person’s diet.
This five-minute test can reveal differences in urinary metabolites, generating a dietary metabotype score for each individual. As part of this research, 19 people were recruited to follow four different diets ranging from very healthy to unhealthy. The experiments indicated that the healthier their diet, the higher the DMS score, associating higher DMS score with lower blood sugar and a higher amount of energy excreted in the urine.
Heart in hands
Professor John Mathers, co-author of research and Director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University said: ‘We show here how different people metabolise the same foods in highly individual ways. This has implications for understanding the development of nutrition-related diseases and for more personalised dietary advice to improve public health.’
The week provides the opportunity for participants to promote overall awareness for the wide ranging aspects of wellbeing, including social, physical, emotional, financial, career and environmental.
This week, 22-26 June, 2020 is World Wellbeing Week. The observance began in Jersey, the Channel Islands in 2019 and has since been taken up across the world.
Wellbeing and healthy lifestyle concept
Since the beginning of the global lockdown, people have been encouraged to maintain some sort of physical activity or exercise. While it is known that exercise is beneficial for overall physical and mental health and wellbeing, researchers from the University of Cambridge and University of Edinburgh UK, have released a study in which they say that physical activity prevents 3.9 million early deaths each year.
Publishing their work in The Lancet Global Health the researchers said that there is often too much focus on the negative health consequences of poor levels of physical activity, when we should be celebrating what we gain from physical activity.
Exercises and warm up before run
Researchers from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge looked at previously published data for 168 countries which covered the proportion of the population meeting WHO global recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity throughout the week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.
By combining these data, with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active people compared to inactive people, the researchers were able to estimate the proportion of premature deaths that were prevented because people were physically active.
They found that globally, due to physical activity, the number of premature deaths was an average 15% lower than it would have been, equating to 3.9 million lives saved each year. Despite the considerable variation in physical activity levels between countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was remarkably consistent across the globe, with a broad trend towards a greater proportion of premature deaths averted for low and middle income countries.
Hands holding red heart representing healthy heart and wellbeing
The researchers argue that the debate on physical activity has often been framed in terms of the number of early deaths due to the lack of exercise, currently estimated at 3.2 million each year. But showing how many deaths are averted it might be possible to frame the debate in a positive way which could have benefits for policy and population messaging.
Dr Tess Strain from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge said; ‘We’re used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity – whether that’s sports or a gym or just a brisk walk after lunch time. But by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved…We hope our finding will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in these challenging times.’
Fan of milk and cheese? Here’s some good news - researchers have associated dairy-rich diets to reduced risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.
According to a large international study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, a research team has found that eating at least two daily servings of dairy is associated with lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Dairy products; milk and cheese
To see if this link exists across a range of countries, researchers drew on people taking part in the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, in which involves participants from 21 countries aged 35–70. Information on dietary intake over a period of 12 months was collected using food frequency questionnaires. Dairy products included milk, yoghurt, yoghurt drinks, cheese, and dishes prepared with dairy products. Butter and cream were assessed separately as they are not so commonly eaten.
The results demonstrated that total and full fat dairy were associated with a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, which was not the case for a diet with no daily dairy intake. Two dairy servings a day was associated with a 24% lower risk of metabolic syndrome, rising to a 28% lower risk for a full fat dairy intake.
It was also noted that consuming at least two servings of full fat dairy per day was linked to an 11%–12% lower risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, whilst three servings of full fat dairy intake per day decreased the risks by 13% -14%.
Heart and stethoscope
The researchers stated that ‘If our findings are confirmed in sufficiently large and long term trials, then increasing dairy consumption may represent a feasible and low cost approach to reducing (metabolic syndrome), hypertension, diabetes, and ultimately cardiovascular disease events worldwide.’
Here is a roundup on some of the most recent research and scientific efforts against the coronavirus.
Novartis has reached an agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration to proceed with a phase III clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized Covid-19 patients. The large trial will be conducted at more than a dozen sites in the US and tested on approximately 440 patients to evaluate the use for this treatment.
Additionally, Norvatis plans to make its hydroxychloroquine intellectual property available to support broad access to hydroxychloroquine. Read more here.
Causaly, an innovative technology company that harnesses AI to interpret vast databases of biomedical knowledge, is collaborating with UCL academics to increase research on potential therapeutic agents and the identification of biomarkers.
Several researchers and research groups within UCL have been granted access to Causaly technology, allowing them the access to rapidly analyse and derive insights from biomedical literature.
Read more here.
As part of the UK’s wider efforts to support the development of a vaccine, a new government-led Vaccine Taskforce will soon be launched to drive forward the manufacturing and research efforts to fight the virus.
The government will review regulations to facilitate fast and safe vaccine trials, as well as operational plans, to ensure a vaccine can be produced at a large scale when it becomes available. Industry and academic institutions will be given the resources and support needed.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said, ‘UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts. The Vaccine Taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine.’ Read more here.
A new biosensor for the COVID-19 virus
Research teams at Empa and ETH Zurich have developed an alternative test method in the form of an optical biosensor. The sensor made up of gold nanostructure, known as gold nonoislands on a glass substrate, combines two different effects to detect covid-19: an optical and a thermal one.
According to the release, ‘Artificially produced DNA receptors that match specific RNA sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 [virus] are grafted onto the nanoislands,’ and researchers will then use the optical phenomena, - localised surface plasmon resonance - to monitor the presence of the virus.
The biosensor is not yet ready to be used to monitor and detect COVID-19, however tests showed the sensor can distinguish between very similar RNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus and its relative, SARS-Cov. Read more here.
For more information and more updates on the coronavirus, please visit our hub here.
As the COVID-19 outbreak increases pressure on the UK’s NHS services and frontline staff, leading scientists and businesses are taking on new initiatives to tackle the outbreak. As there is currently no treatment or vaccine for this virus, researchers are working at unprecedented speed to accelerate the development of a treatment. Businesses are putting in more effort to help those on the frontline of this global crisis.
INEOS has managed to built a hand sanitzer plant in the UK and will soon open the facility in Germany, aiming to produce 1m bottles per month each to address a supply shortage across the UK and Europe.
BASF will soon be producing hand sanitizers at its petrochemicals hub in Germany to address the shortage in the region.
Ramping up the supply of PPE, AstraZeneca is donating nine million face masks to support healthcare workers around the world. Alongside this, AstraZeneca is accelerating the development of its diagnostic testing capabilities to scale-up screening and is also partnering with governments on existing screening programmes.
Pharmaceutical company Novartis UK, along with several others, is making available a set of compounds from its library that it considers are suitable for in vitro antiviral testing.
GSK has announced that is donating $10 million to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The Fund was created by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help WHO and its partners to prevent, detect and manage the pandemic
Alongside the efforts and initiatives from industries, to continue to aid those on the frontline of this global crisis, social distancing interventions must remain to flatten the curve.
Research and data modelling has shown that policy strategies, such as social distancing and isolation interventions which aim to suppress the rate of transmission, might reduce death and peak healthcare demand by two-thirds.
Stopping non-essential contact can flatten the curve. Suppressing the curve means we may still experience the same number of people becoming infected but over a longer period of time and at a slower rate, reducing the stress on our healthcare system.
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, the traditional feast day before the start of Lent. Also known as Pancake Day, many people will have returned to traditional recipes or experimented with the myriad of options available for this versatile treat.
But you may not realise pancakes are helping to advance medicine. Here we revisit some interesting research
The appearance of pancakes depends on how water escapes the batter mix during the cooking process. This is impacted by the batter thickness. Understanding the physics of the process can help in producing the perfect pancake, but also provides insights into how flexible sheets, like those found in human eye, interact with flowing vapour and liquids.
Illustration of a healthy eye, glaucoma, cataract
The researchers at University College London (UCL), UK, compared recipes for 14 different types of pancake from across the world. For each pancake the team analysed and plotted the aspect ratio, i.e. the pancake diameter to the power of three in relation to the volume of batter. They also calculated the baker’s percentage, the ratio of liquid to flour in the batter.
It was found that thick, almost spherical pancakes had the lowest aspect ratio at three, whereas large thin pancakes had a ratio of 300. The baker’s percentage did not vary as dramatically, ranging from 100 for thick mixtures to 175 for thinner mixtures.
Co-author Professor Sir Peng Khaw, Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology said; ‘We work on better surgical methods for treating glaucoma, which is a build-up of pressure in eyes caused by fluid. To treat this, surgeons create an escape route for the fluid by carefully cutting the flexible sheets of the sclera.’
‘We are improving this technique by working with engineers and mathematicians. It’s a wonderful example of how the science of everyday activities can help us with medicinal treatments of the future.’
Classic american pancakes
Who is Dmitri Mendeleev?
Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev was born in 1834 in a Siberian village. His early life has been described as tumultuous; his father lost his sight and died when Dmitri was thirteen, leaving his family in financial difficulties.
His mother prioritised Dmitiri’s academic potential, taking him and his sister to St Petersburg, where he studied at the Main Pedagogical Institute. When his mother died, he carried out his doctoral research in St Petersburg where he explored the interactions of alcohols with water.
Between 1859 and 1861 he went to Paris to study the densities of gases, and he travelled to Germany where he studied capillarity and surface tension that subsequently led to his theory of ‘absolute boiling point.’ In 1861 he returned to Russia to publish everything he knew on organic chemistry in a 500-page textbook, and by 1864 he became a professor at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute and Saint Petersburg State University.
As he continued his research, he tried to classify the elements according to the chemical properties. He became aware of a repeating pattern – elements with similar properties appeared at regular intervals. He arranged the elements in order of increasing relative atomic mass and noticed the chemical properties of these elements revealed a trend, which led to the formation of the periodic table.
Beyond his work in chemistry, during the 1870s, he devoted time to help the Russian industry, particularly in strengthening the productivity in agriculture. He became very active in exploring the Russian petroleum industry and developed projects in the coal industry in the Donets Basin. Additionally, he was responsible for creating and introducing the metric system to Russia.
A growing population is placing greater pressure on limited resources including land, oceans, water and energy. If agricultural production continues in its present form, water degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change will continue. As a result, people are adopting an increased interest in the environmental impact of food choice, choosing alternatives like insects.
This round-up explores examples of the various insect-based alternative foods.
According to data from Grand View Research, a US-based market research company, the global healthy snacks market is expected to reach $32.88 billion by 2025. Companies across Europe are developing healthy snack products based on insects, tapping into our desire for a variety of foods and tastes.
Eat Grub, established in 2013 and based in London UK, developed an insect snack made from house crickets, which are farmed in Europe. They are a sustainable, nutritious and tasty source of food, rich in protein. Research has indicated that insects are good for gut health due to their high chitin content. Chitinous fibre has been linked to increased levels of a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health.
A start-up Belgian beer company, Belgium Beetles Beer, described their drink as a real Belgium blond beer enriched with insect vitamins and proteins.
Upon ‘accidentally’ developing this product, they realised that the dry beetle powder offered a rich, light sweet, slightly bitter flavour.
A growing number of companies are now focusing their efforts on producing a product that looks and tastes like a traditional meat-based burger.
Bugfoundation’s burgers are based on buffalo worms, which are the larvae of the Alphitobius Diaperinus beetle. The company’s founders said that they decided to use buffalo worms because of their ‘slightly nutty flavour.’
The idea stemmed from a trip to Asia, where co-founder, Max Charmer came across fried crickets. His experience inspired him to bring these flavours to the west, hoping to please western tastes and comply with evolving European regulations.
Concerns regarding the livestock system have prompted novel inventions in the food space; insects, considered a source of protein, could outperform conventional meats to reduce environmental impacts.
So, will consumers soon be able to introduce insects to their everyday diets? Only time will tell.
Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins, Apollo 11’s brave astronauts were the first humans with the privilege of viewing Earth from another celestial body. These men uniquely wondered “what makes Earth special?” Certainly, within our Solar System, planet Earth is very special. Its environment has permitted the evolution of a panoply of life.
Green plants containing the pigment, chlorophyll either in the oceans as algae or on land as a multitude of trees, shrubs and herbs harvest energy from sunshine. Using a series of chemical reactions, known as photosynthesis, light energy is harvested and attached onto compounds containing phosphorus.
Captured energy then drives a series of reactions in which atmospheric carbon dioxide and water are combined forming simple sugars while releasing oxygen. These sugars are used further by plants in the manufacture of larger carbohydrates, amino acids and proteins, oils and fats.
The release of oxygen during photosynthesis forms the basis of life’s second vital process, respiration. Almost all plants and animals utilise oxygen in this energy releasing process during which sugars are broken down.
Released energy then drives all subsequent growth, development and reproduction. These body-building processes in plants are reliant on the transfer of the products of photosynthesis from a point of manufacture, the source, to the place of use, a sink.
Leaves and shoots are the principle sources of energy harvesting while flowers and fruits are major sinks with high levels of respiration.
Figure 1: Photosynthesis vs respiration, drawn by James Hadley
Transfer between sources and sinks occurs in a central system of pipes, the vascular system, using water as the carrier. Water is obtained by land plants from the soils in which they grow. Without water there would be no transfer and subsequent growth. Earth’s environment is built around a ‘water-cycle’ supplying the land and oceans with rain or snow and recycles water back into the atmosphere in a sustainable manner.
Early in Earth’s evolution, very primitive marine organisms initiated photosynthetic processes, capturing sunlight’s energy. As a result, in our atmosphere oxygen became a major component. That encouraged the development of the vast array of land plants which utilise rain water as the key element in their transport systems.
Subsequently, plants formed the diets of all animals either by direct consumption as herbivores or at second-hand as carnivores. As a result, evolution produced balanced ecosystems and humanity has inherited what those astronauts saw, “the Green Planet”.
Earth will only retain this status if humanity individually and collectively defeats our biggest challenge – climate change. Burning rain forests in South America, Africa and Arctic tundra will disbalance these ecosystems and quicken climate change.
On 8th March, I hosted my company’s first International Women’s Day event. Here’s what inspired me to do it…
1. We need to talk about the lack of women in science
There are a lot of factors at play as to why women are underrepresented in science – it’s a complex issue and there’s been a rise in efforts to tackle it, which is great to see. We need to challenge the idea of what a ‘scientist’ looks like.
Simply by making people aware of stereotype threat and inherent bias, we can begin to break the rigid mould of what it means to be a ‘scientist’. We can’t face it if we never talk about it, and dedicated events are a way of opening up the conversation.
A ‘leaky pipeline’ has actually been coined in science – women ‘trickle out’ as they go up the career ladder. If we’re making an effort to encourage younger girls to study science subjects, we need to question why they’re not being retained at more senior levels. This effort needs to come from businesses.
WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) reports the science workforce gender split in 2018. Source: WISE
2. There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion
When we think about the ‘leaky pipeline’, we need to address the difference between diversity and inclusion.
Diversity is important, but it’s not enough. Diversity is the who and what; inclusion is the how. It’s not just about who’s being recruited, or who gets a seat at the table. It’s about creating behaviours that embrace the diverse voices of these people. Diversity without inclusion is just a box-ticking exercise. We need to acknowledge our differences and show a commitment to changing company culture to embrace them.
Hosting events like International Women’s Day is a good start to demonstrating this commitment and dedicating a day for women to be heard.
3. I want to celebrate my colleagues
I’m lucky to work with some amazing scientists, some of whom happen to be women. I wanted to take a day to celebrate their accomplishments and those of all the women who are breaking glass ceilings in science. When people feel seen and recognised for their work it creates a healthier work environment. By having this day in place, we can dedicate a day each year to celebrate and congratulate women on their achievements. Plenty of my female colleagues were keen to get involved and help, and I was inspired to hear all their stories and ideas.
4. It’s a win-win
I suggested this event because I thought it was a great fit for my company and could benefit us in many tangible ways. Workplace diversity can actually boost performance - a report found that when employees “think their organisation is committed to and supportive of diversity, and they feel included”, their ability to innovate increases by 83%. It also makes perfect sense to me that, by including all genders equally, we have access to a greater pool of talent and a wider range of mentors available for junior talent. Plus, it’s a brand-booster to show that we are bringing ourselves into the future and being socially conscious.
5. It’s just the beginning
We’re starting to talk more about gender issues in the workplace, but women are not the only people who are affected by discrimination. We need inclusion for everyone.
For example, most people are aware of the gender pay gap and companies are now obliged to publish their data on this, but in the UK, black male graduates earn almost £4 less per hour than their white peers. Another study found that almost a third of LGBT+ physical scientists had considered leaving their workplace because of discrimination. These are issues that need to be openly talked about and acknowledged before we can even think about solving them. Science should be for everyone and I’m really excited to host more events to encourage this.
Image: Tiffany Pollard
The banana colour scheme distinguishes seven stages from ‘All green’ to ‘All yellow with brown flecks’. The green, unripe banana peel contains leucocyanidin, a flavonoid that induces cell proliferation, accelerating the healing of skin wounds. But once it is yellowish and ready to eat, the chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the recognisable yellow colour of carotenoids.
Unripe (green) and ready-to-eat (yellow) bananas.
The fruits are cut from the plant whilst green and on average, 10-30 % of the bananas do not meet quality standards at harvest. Then they are packaged and kept in cold temperatures to reduce enzymatic processes, such as respiration and ethylene production.
However, below 14°C bananas experience ‘chilling injury’ which changes fruit ripening physiology and can lead to the brown speckles on the skin. Above 24°C, bananas also stop developing fully yellow colour as they retain high levels of chlorophyll.
Once the green bananas arrive at the ripening facility, the fruits are kept in ripening rooms where the temperature and humidity are kept constant while the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethene are controlled.
The gas itself triggers the ripening process, leads to cell walls breakdown and the conversion of starches to sugars. Certain fruits around bananas can ripen quicker because of their ethene production.
By day five, bananas should be in stage 2½ (’Green with trace of yellow’ to ‘More green than yellow’) according to the colour scale and are shipped to the shops. From stage 5 (’All yellow with green tip’), the fruits are ready to be eaten and have a three-day shelf-life.
A fruit market. Image: Gidon Pico
The very short shelf-life of the fruit makes it a very wasteful system. By day five, the sugar content and pH value are ideal for yeasts and moulds. Bananas not only start turning brown and mouldy, but they also go through a 1.5-4 mm ‘weight loss’ as the water is lost from the peel.
While scientists have been trying out different chemical and natural lipid ‘dips’ for bananas to extend their shelf-life, such methods remain one of the greatest challenges to the industry.
In fruit salads, to stop the banana slices go brown, the cut fruits are sprayed with a mixture of citric acid and amino acid to keep them yellow and firm without affecting the taste.
Bananas are a good source of potassium and vitamins.
The high starch concentration – over 70% of dry weight – banana processing into flour and starch is now also getting the attention of the industry. There are a great many pharmaceutical properties of bananas as well, such as high dopamine levels in the peel and high amounts of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A.
Whilst the ‘seven shades of yellow’ underpin the marketability of bananas, these plants are also now threatened by the fungal Panama disease. This vascular wilt disease led to the collapse of the banana industry in the 1950’s which was overcome by a new variety of bananas.
However, the uncontrollable disease has evolved to infect Cavendish bananas and has been rapidly spreading from Australia, China to India, the Middle East and Africa.
The future of the banana industry relies on strict quarantine procedures to limit further spread of the disease to Latin America, integrated crop management and continuous development of banana ‘dips’ for extending shelf-life.
In honour of World Chocolate Day on 7 July, we delve into the health benefits of chocolate. You can thank us later!
Chocolate – one of the most consumed foods in the world – contains flavonoids, an antioxidant compound present in cocoa pulp, which can cause negative effects on human vascular health.
However, new studies have explored the benefits of adding nutritional oils to food products, and found that adding high oleic peanut oil can increase the bioactive property of dark chocolate, leading to significant health benefits!
High oleic peanut oil
Adding microcapsules of high oleic peanut oil reduces the lipid content of dark chocolate and influences the nutritional composition, thus increasing the content of unsaturated fatty acids in the lipid fraction of chocolate.
Studies have demonstrated that by adding microcapsules to the chocolate mass, the fat content would not rise, which means dark chocolate containing microcapsules has a lower amount of free fat. Therefore, the use of microcapsules can act as an alternative to protecting the fatty acids.
Natural antioxidants are highly valued because they are protective agents and highly sought out to replace synthetic ones in plant products. A broad range of plant foods including cocoa have been sources of phenolic compounds.
Trans-resveratrol, a phenolic compound is frequently associated with prevention of cancer, ischemias, diabetes, inflammations and viral infections. During chocolate production, the content of phenolic compounds naturally present in cocoa beans becomes lost or reduced. Therefore, it is important to minimise the loss of phenolic compounds.
Although, phenolic compounds are essential to obtaining good quality coca beans, they also have a potentially negative influence on flavour conferring to bitterness. Understanding the factors that influence the losses of phenolic compounds is important in obtaining the final product with the desirable sensory attributes.
There is considerable evidence that cocoa with high oleic peanut oil and cocoa with high content of phenolic compounds can provide powerful health benefits, especially against heart disease.
2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on silicon’s positive effects on the body.
Silicon was not originally regarded as an important element for human health, as it was seen to have a larger presence in (other) animal and plant tissue. It was not until a 2002 ‘The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition’ paper that surmised that accumulating research found that silicon plays an important role in bone formation in humans.
Silicon was first known to ‘wash’ through biology with no toxological or biological properties. However, in the 1970s, animal studies provided evidence to suggest that silicon deficiency in diets produced defects in connective and skeletal tissues. Ongoing research has added to these findings, demonstrating the link between dietary silicon and bone health.
Silicon plays an important role in protecting humans against many diseases. Silicon is an important trace mineral essential for strengthening joints. Additionally, silicon is thought to help heal and repair fractures.
The most important source of exposure to silicon is your diet. According to two epidemiological studies (Int J Endocrinol. 2013: 316783 ; J Nutr Health Aging. 2007 Mar-Apr; 11(2): 99–110) conducted, dietary silicon intake has been linked to higher bone mineral density.
Silicon is needed to repair tissue, as it is important for collagen synthesis – the most abundant protein in connective tissue in the body – which is needed for the strengthening of bones.
However, silicon is very common in the body and therefore it is difficult to prove how essential it is to this process when symptoms of deficiency vary among patients.
There has also been a plausible link between Alzheimer’s disease and human exposure to aluminium. Research has been underway to test whether silicon-rich mineral waters can be used to reduce the body burden of aluminium in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
However, longer term study is needed to prove the aluminium hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Globally, beers with flavours of fruits and touches of acidity notes have become very popular among consumers. Nowadays, experience has become the biggest trend in drinks; consumers desire an immersive experience and seek drinks with enhanced characteristics which include texture, mouthfeel, taste, flavour and colour.
Over the course of history, brewing became an essential element in rural communities. A study at Simon Fraser University in Canada investigated beer-brewing tools in archaeological remains belonging to the Natufian culture in the Eastern Mediterranean. The examination showed that the brewing of beer was an important cultural component of their society. Studies in Mexico suggested that generations of Mexican farmers domesticated grass into maize, which became a staple of the local diet before it became great for making beer.
As suggested, brewing became an essential element in rural communities and has now transformed from a small-scale local activity to a worldwide industry.
Belgium is known for its traditional and spontaneous mixed fermented beers, such as lambic beers which harbour complex micro-biotics.
Lambic beers are among the most ancient brewing styles and its unique flavour profile has garnered global popularity.
Wooden barrels play an essential role during its fermentation processes. Lambic brewers prefer using wooden barrels, which often come from red wine productions, as the wooden surfaces harbour a resident microbiota, providing an additional microbial inoculation source for lambic production.
These barrels are preferred because most of the oak flavours will not come through in the final production of lambic, as the oak character has been stripped from the barrel.
Consumers regard the combination of taste and odour as essential factors to their choice. Flavour quality degradation can be triggered by various factors.
Prolonged periods of transportation and storage causes the fresh flavour of beer to deteriorate. Different temperatures in combination with vibrations during transport can negatively influence the quality of beer.
High temperatures can reduce the freshness of beer, increasing the amount of oxidative and non-oxidative chemical reactions which take place. These oxidative reactions degrade the flavour and quality of beer.
It seems vibrations can cause an impact on beer quality subject to an elevated temperature, therefore, temperature reductions during transport and storage should be a primary focus for brewers. However, further research is required with regard to closely examining the influence of transport vibrations on the flavour of beer.
Food safety refers to handling, preparing and storing food in a way that best reduces the risk of people becoming sick, and it’s a topic that’s high on everyone’s agenda. Here we explore three recent scientific advances in the area of food safety.
Antibiotic detection in dairy products
Antibiotics are the largest group of medicines and, due to their use in treating animals, they have been making their way into the food chain and into food products. Consuming food that contain antibiotics could result in poor health outcomes, such as allergic reactions and other events. Antibiotics that accumulate in cattle milk can transfer into dairy products and so it’s urgent that we detect and address the issue.
A new test has been developed that showed, in a recent study, that it can detect antibiotics in food products. The precision of the test means that it can test for a wide range of antibiotics and the testing process is very simple and easy to conduct. It could also detect antibiotics at all stages of the food production process, which is great news in the fight to reduce antibiotics in the food chain.
Reducing contamination of smoked fish
Smoked fish is very popular in developing countries, as it is a good source of protein. The preparation of it involves hot‐smoking on traditional kilns using wood fuel. This practice is associated with high levels of a substance known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the food, which has an impact on health.
An improved kiln has been introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to address the levels of PAHs in smoked fish. A recent study showed that the improved kiln not only works just as well at smoking the fish, but does so with safer levels of PAHs. This means that people can continue to consume this valuable protein source without the potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
The safest way to prepare fruit and veg?
Pesticides have been reported to find their way into our fruit and vegetables, albeit at minimal amounts. A recent study looked at food preparation techniques to compare what methods were the most effective in removing pesticides, with interesting results.
The simplest and most effective way was shown to be peeling the skin of fruit or trimming the outer layers of vegetables before cooking. Whilst this is the most effective, most of the vitamins may be stored close to the skin surface and so these are lost in this process.
Washing and soaking were sometimes effective and sometimes not. Washing causes less loss of nutrients and is less time consuming than peeling and it reduces the pesticide residue by a reasonable amount but it wasn’t always shown to be effective. How effective it could depended on the type of skin of the food.
Blanching was another method that was explored. Blanching vegetables in boiling water for one minute loses less nutrients than cooking, whilst removing pesticides very efficiently.
The results certainly give us food for thought in our meal preparation!
Clean and fresh water is essential for human life, and water is a necessity to agricultural and other industries. However, global population growth and pollution from industrial waste has put a strain in local fresh water resources.
A hydrogel is made up of polymer chains that are hydrophilic (attracted to water) and are known for being highly absorbent.
Current clean-up costs can be extremely expensive, leaving poorer and more remote populations at risk to exposure of metal pollutants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and copper, which can lead to severe effects on the neurological, reproductive and immune systems.
Now, a group of scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, US, have developed a 3D printable hydrogel that is capable of 95% metal removal within 30 minutes.
Clean water is also needed for one’s hygiene, including brushing your teeth and bathing.
The hydrogel is made from a cheap, abundant biopolymer chitosan and diacrylated pluronic, which forms cDAP. The cDAP mixture is then loaded into the printer as a liquid and allowed to cool to <4⁰C, before rising again to room temperature to form a gel that can be used to produce various 3D printed shapes.
The Dallas team also tested the reusability of their hydrogel and found that it had a recovery rate of 98% after five cycles of use, proving it to be a potentially reliable resource to communities with limited fresh water supply.
Life without clean water. Video: charitywater
‘This novel and cost-effective approach to remove health and environmental hazards could be useful for fabricating cheap and safe water filtration devices on site in polluted areas without the need for industrial scale manufacturing tools,’ the paper reads.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils, one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.
The disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease which leads to the break down, or death, of neurons and synapses in the brain. The pathology of the disease is complicated and involves many processes and enzymes.
Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of 60-70% of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.
The main current form of treatment is acetylcholinesterase inhibitors(AChEIs). Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is mainly involved in motor function, particularly in muscles, and its production has been found to decrease in Alzheimer’s patients as they age. AChEIs inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine, strengthening the brain’s responses.
Agroceutical Products: on the road to sustainable Alzheimer’s medication. Video: Innovate UK
Galanthamine is a natural product that is also an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It has been used in medicine since the 1950s and is commonly used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug can be isolated in small quantities from flowers such as Caucasian snowdrop, daffodils and red spider lilies, or produced synthetically at a high cost.
Of all places to have an injection, the eyeball is probably near the bottom of anybody’s list. Yet this is how macular degeneration – the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world – is commonly treated.
Individuals who have macular degeneration will have blurred or no vision in the center of their visual fields (as shown above).
In the UK, nearly 1.5m people are affected by macular disease, according to the Macular Society. In its commonest ‘wet’ form, macular degeneration is caused by the growth of rogue blood vessels at the back of the eye, due to over-production of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).
The blood vessels leak, causing damage to the central part of the retina – the macula – and a loss of central vision. Regular injections of so-called anti-VEGF drugs help to alleviate the problem.
As well as being time-consuming, these injections can be stressful and upsetting for sufferers, many of whom are elderly. Because the condition is prevalent among older people, it is usually referred to as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.
However, a number of emerging treatments – including eye drops, inserts and a modified ‘contact lens’ – could spell the end of regular injections, and treat the condition less invasively.
Anatomy of the eye. Video: Handwritten Tutorials
At the same time, emerging stem cell therapy, which has reversed sight loss for two patients with the ‘dry’ form of macular degeneration, could find wider use within a few years.
Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.
Discovering DNA’s structure
Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.
Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.
The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.
Dolly the sheep
Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.
Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.
She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.
The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English
Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.
Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.
In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.
The Human Genome Project
Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.
The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.
Scientists are closer to developing 3D printed artificial tissues that could help heal bones and cartilage, specifically those damaged in sports-related injuries. Scaffolds for the tissues have been successfully engineered.
Small injuries to osteochondral tissue – a hard bone that sits beneath a layer of cartilage that appears smooth – can be extremely painful and heal slowly. These injuries are very common in athletes and can stop their careers in their tracks. Osteochondral tissue can also lead to arthritis over time.
These types of injuries are commonly seen in athletes.
As osteochondral tissue is somewhere between bone and cartilage, and is quite porous and very difficult to reproduce. But now, bioengineering researchers at Rice University, Texas, US, have used 3D printing techniques to develop a material that may be be suitable in future for medical use.
A porous scaffold, with custom polymer mixes for cartilage and ceramic for bone, was engineered. The imbedded pores allow cells and blood vessels from the patient to infiltrate, integrating the scaffold into the natural bone and cartilage.
‘For the most part, the composition will be the same from patient to patient,’ said Sean Bittner, graduate student at Rice University and lead author of the study.
Cooking, cleaning and other routine household tasks generate significant quantities of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, leading to indoor air quality levels on a par with a polluted major city, said a researcher from Colorado University Boulder, US.
Not only that but these chemicals, from products such as shampoo, perfume and cleaning solutions also find their way into the external environment, making up an even greater source of global atmospheric pollution than vehicles.
‘Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that,’ said Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. ‘We wanted to know how do basic activities such as cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?’
First Conclusions from the HOMEChem Experiment. Video: Home Performance
In 2018, Vance co-led the collaborative HOMEChem field campaign, which used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor the indoor air quality of a 112m2 manufactured home on the University of Texas Austin campus.
Over one month, Vance and her collaborators from a number of other US universities conducted a variety of activities, including cooking toast to a full thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer for 12 guests, as well as cleaning and similar tasks.
In honour of World Health Day, held on 7 April 2019 annually, we have collated the five most innovative healthcare projects we have featured on SCI’s website over the past year.
Using 2D imaging techniques to diagnose problems with the heart can be challenging due to the constant movement of the cardiac system. Currently, when a patient undergoes a cardiac MRI scan they have to hold their breath while the scan takes snapshots in time with their heartbeat.
Still images are difficult to obtain with this traditional technique as a beating heart and blood flow can blur the picture. This method becomes trickier if the individual has existing breathing problems or an irregular heartbeat.
An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.
The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.
Several thousand antibiotic combinations have been found to be more effective in treating bacterial infections than first thought.
Antibiotic combination therapies are usually avoided when treating bacterial infections, with scientists believing combinations are likely to reduce the efficacy of the drugs used. Now, a group at UCLA, USA, have identified over 8,000 antibiotic combinations that work more effectively than predicted.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have identified a mechanism that prevents natural DNA errors in our cells. These errors can lead to permanent damage to our genetic code and potentially diseases such as cancer.
Mutations occurring in human DNA can lead to fatal diseases like cancer. It is well documented that DNA-damaging processes, such as smoking tobacco or being exposed to high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light through sunburn, can lead to increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.
For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. British scientists, engineers and inventors have played a significant role in developing engines and the automotive industry that stemmed from them.
Before the internal combustion engine, steam power was revolutionary in progressing industry in Britain.
The first practical steam engine was designed by English inventor Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and was later adapted by Scotsman James Watt in 1765. Watt’s steam engine was the first to make use of steam at an above atmospheric pressure.
The Steam Engine - How Does It Work? Video: Real Engineering
In 1804, the first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made by a steam locomotive design by Richard Trevithick, an inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, UK.
After this, steam trains took off and the steam engine was used in many ways such as powering the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843.
The SS Great Britain in Bristol, UK, today.
Engines at the ready
The conception and refinement of the internal combustion engine involved many inventors from around the world, including British ones.
The automobile, using the internal combustion engine, was been invented in the United States, and Britain picked up on this emerging industry very quickly. These brands are among the most famous and abundant cars on the road today; Aston Martin, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce may come to mind.
By the 1950s, the UK was the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the United States) and the largest exporter.
In 1930, the jet engine was patented by Sr Frank Whittle. He was an aviation engineer and pilot who started his career as an apprentice in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The jet engine became critical after the outbreak of World War II.
Great Britain are still major players in the aviation industry, and engineering innovations continue to be a major part of the British economy. British inventors have gone on to invent the hovercraft, hundreds of different jet designs and a variety of military vehicles.
Almost half of world’s adults aged 85 and over have Alzheimer’s Disease.
The amyloid-B precursor protein (APP) plays a key role in the development of the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Now, researchers claim to have identified thousands of genetic variants of the APP gene that codes for the protein in the brains of patients with the most common form of Alzheimer’s disease, known as late-onset or sporadic AD (SAD).
The study reveals for the first time how this genetic variation occurs – by a mechanism involving the enzyme reverse transcriptase, the same type of enzyme used by HIV to infect cells.
APP forms plaques in the brain, as shown above in a light micrograph.
Our findings provide a scientific rationale for immediate clinical evaluations of HIV antiretroviral therapies in people with AD,’ says Jerold Chun, senior VP of Neuroscience Drug Discovery at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Unit (SBP), an idea that the researchers say is supported by the relative absence of proven AD in ageing HIV patients on antiretroviral medication.
The APP gene variants were created by reverse transcription, the researchers note, when RNA acts as a template to form complementary DNA sequences that are then reinserted back into the original genome.
Discovery of possible Alzheimer’s treatment. Video: Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute
This process of gene recombination – which occurs each time cells divide to make new ones – has not previously been reported in nerve cells (neurons) in the brain but could also help to explain the complexity and diverse functions of our brain cells.
Coeliac disease is caused by an autoimmune response to gluten and affects approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide. Those affected must eat a gluten-free diet, or they may experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, mouth ulcers, fatigue and anaemia.
What’s the big deal with gluten? Video: TED-Ed
Problems occur for coeliac disease patients when they are exposed to gluten – a protein found in wheat and other grains – and the immune system is triggered to attack the body. This results in inflammation, mainly in the intestines, and causes the subsequent acute symptoms related to the condition.
Over 90% of coeliac disease patients carry immune recognition genes known as HLA-DQ2.5. These genes are human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, which usually relate to specific diseases.
ImmusanT, a leader in the development of therapies for autoimmune disorders, has developed a vaccine that targets patients carrying the HLA-DQ2.5 genes. This novel therapeutic vaccine, known as Nexvax2, works by reprogramming specific T cells that are responsible for triggering an inflammatory response when gluten is consumed.
Called Philyra, after the Greek goddess of fragrance, the AI programme developed two new fragrances for Brazilian beauty company O Boticário.
‘What she did was super innovative. She had a sweet warm background, but added cardamom-like Indian cuisine scents and a milk that came from the flavour department,’ says David Apel, Senior Perfumer with Symrise. ‘From 1.7m formulas, it is amazing for her to find something that hadn’t been done before.’
Using AI to create new fragrances. Video: IBM Research
In a demonstration at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, computational researcher Richard Goodwin demonstrated how Philyra is able to scan 1,000 different formulations, and over 60 raw materials, and compare them with fragrances currently on the marketplace. It is possible to request a certain type of perfume and adjust its novelty.
Mosquitoes are a vector of the malarial parasite. Image: Pixabay
There were 219m cases of malaria in 2017, up 2m on the previous year. Increasingly, the disease is drug-resistant and prevention methods are difficult both in non-immune travelers and in areas where the disease is endemic. Moreover, most malaria drugs are designed to reduce symptoms after infection rather than prevent infection or transmission.
New compounds have been discovered with the potential to be novel antimalarial drugs. Image: Pixabay
A team of scientists are working to change that, aiming to treat the malaria parasite at an earlier stage – when it affects the human liver – rather than waiting until the parasite is in the blood. If successful, their work could have a significant impact on global health.
Roughly 60% of the 12 million animal experiments in Europe each year involve mice. But despite their undoubted usefulness, mice haven’t been much help in getting successful drugs into patients with brain conditions such as autism, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. So too have researchers grown 2D human brain cells in a dish. However, human brain tissue comprises many cell types in complex 3D arrangements, necessary for true cell identity and function to emerge.
Researchers are hopeful that lab grown mini-brains – tiny 3D tissues resembling the early human brain – may offer a more promising approach. ‘We first published on them in 2013, but the number of brain organoid papers has since skyrocketed, with 300 just last year,’ says Madeline Lancaster at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology lab in Cambridge, UK.
Lancaster was the first to grow mini-brains – or brain organoids – as a postdoc in the lab of Juergen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria. The miniature brains comprised parts of the cortex, hippocampus and even retinas, resembling a jumbled-up brain of a human foetus.
‘We were stunned by how similar the events in the organoids were to what happens in a human embryo,’ says Knoblich. To be clear, the brain tissue is not a downsized replicate. Lancaster compares the blobs of tissue to an aircraft disassembled and put back together, with the engine, cockpit and wings in the wrong place.
Growing mini brains to discover what makes us human | Madeline Lancaster. Video: TEDx Talks
‘The plane wouldn’t fly, but you can study each of those components and learn about them. This is the same with brain organoids. They develop features similar to the human brain,’ she explains.
The UK’s efforts to move towards clean energy can be seen around the UK, whether it’s the wind turbines across the hills of the countryside or solar panels on the roofs of city skyscrapers. There is, however, a technology that most people will never see, and it is set to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in a low-carbon economy yet.
Deep in the North Sea are miles of offshore pipelines, once used to transport natural gas to the UK. The pipelines all lead to a hub called the St Fergus Gas Terminal – a gas sweetening plant used by industry – that sits on the coast of north-east Scotland.
St Fergus Gas Terminal in North-East Scotland.
This network has now been reimagined as a low-cost, full-chain carbon capture, transport and offshore storage that will provide the UK will a viable solution to permanent carbon capture and storage (CCS) called the Acorn project.
CCS is a process that takes waste CO2 produced by large-scale, usually industrial, processes and transports it to a storage facility. The site, likely to be underground, stops the waste CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, storing it for later use for another purpose, such as the production of chemicals for coatings, adhesives or jet fuel.
Carbon Capture Explained | How It Happens. Video: The New York Times
High levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been linked to global warming and the damaging effects of climate change, and CCS is one of the only proven solutions to decarbonisation that industry can currently access.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure means that the Acorn project is running at a much lower cost and risk to comparable projects and is expected to be up and running by 2023. It is hoped the project will bring competitiveness and job retention and creation across the UK, particularly in the industrial centres of Scotland.
After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.
The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.
How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR
Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.
Microscopic membranous vesicles floating outside of cells were first discovered 50 years ago; 30 years later, a subset of these was coined exosomes. At the time, these membrane bubbles were believed to be nothing more than a cellular waste disposal mechanism. But within the past decade, extracellular vesicles – and exosomes in particular – have piqued scientists’ interests, resulting in a research boom.
In 2006, there were just 115 publications referencing exosomes; by 2015, this number had mushroomed to 1010. Today, a PubMed search brings up more than 7500 publications. Consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the global exosome market could reach $2.28bn by 2030.
Advancements in exosome research could lead to breakthroughs in prostate cancer treatment.
The interest in exosomes has been driven by the new finding that exosomes are more than just a waste disposal system – they are also a means of communication between cells and have the ability to carry cargos such as proteins and mRNA, suggesting there could be potential medical applications.
‘Currently, research into exosomes and other extracellular vesicles is very strong,’ says Jason Webber, Prostate Cancer UK research fellow in the Division of Cancer and Genetics at Cardiff University. ‘I think this field of research will continue to grow and I believe we’ll also see greater clinical application of exosomes and a drive towards research exploring the therapeutic potential of exosomes.’
Exosomes in Cancer Research. Video: Thermo Fisher Scientific
Exosomes are best described as extracellular vescles – essentially membrane sacs – formed by the inward budding of the membrane of intracellular compartments known as multivesicular bodies (MVBs) or multivesicular endosomes (MVEs). They are released from cells when MVBs fuse with the cell’s plasma membrane, releasing its contents outside the cell. These vesicles, made of a phospholipid bilayer and ranging between 40nm and 150nm in diameter, are found in all biological fluids including blood, urine, saliva, bile, semen and breast milk.
Biopharmaceuticals are sourced from living organisms.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a portable drug manufacturing system that can make several different biopharmaceuticals to be used in precision medicine or to treat outbreaks in developing countries.
Biopharmaceuticals are drugs made up of proteins such as antibodies and hormones, and are produced in bioreactors using bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. They must be purified before use, so the process has dozens of steps and it can therefore take weeks or months to produce a batch.
The Challenges in Manufacturing Biologics. Video: Amgen
Due to the complex nature of the process and its time restrictions, biopharmaceuticals are usually produced at large factories dedicated to a single drug – often one that can treat a wide range of patients.
To help supply smaller, more specific groups of patients with drugs, a group of researchers at MIT have developed a system that can be easily configured to produce three different pharmaceuticals – human growth factor, interferon alpha 2b and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor – all of a comparable quality to commercially available counterparts.
Biopharmaceuticals can treat autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis. Image: Pixabay
‘Traditional biomanufacturing relies on unique processes for each new molecule that is produced,’ said J Christopher Love, a Chemical Engineering Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. ‘We’ve demonstrated a single hardware configuration that can produce different recombinant proteins in a fully automated, hands-free manner.’
Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV ﬁlters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.
Organic UV ﬁlters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.
The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV ﬁlters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.
Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV ﬁlters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.
Which sunscreen should you use? Video: Ted-Ed
Total concentrations of UV ﬁlters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV ﬁlter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.
If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these ﬁlters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
What is genetic modification? Video: The Royal Society
The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
Interested in the pharmaceutical industry and research community? Take a look at this short video to see how we bring science and business together.
The field of regenerative medicine is at a ‘pivotal point’ in its development, according to a panel of experts speaking at the Bio meeting in Boston in June 2018.
The past six months alone saw four new product approvals, which could be the ‘beginning of a large number of successes’, said moderator Morrie Ruffin, Managing Director of the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine, which now has over 300 members.
Clinical results emerging from cell therapies over the next two years will be comparable with the successes seen with CAR-T cancer therapies, predicts Mike Scott, Vice-President of Product development at Toronto-based Blue Rock Therapeutics, whose lead product uses pluripotent stem cells to grow new neurons that restore the lost dopamine function in Parkinson’s patients.
‘The area of regenerative medicine allows us to do something audacious: to strive for cures. If you think of CAR-T and gene therapies, there’s every reason to say we can achieve the same with regenerative medicines,’ agreed Felicia Pagliuca, Co-Founder of Boston biotech company Semma Therapeutics.
Semma aims to replace the lost pancreatic beta cells of patients with Type 1 diabetes with its insulin producing equivalents grown in the lab. The technology is currently at preclinical stage.
Regenerative medicine could help to treat diseases like type 1 diabetes, in which pancreatic cells function abnormally. Image: Pixabay
Storing placental and cord blood cells at birth may no longer be necessary in the future, the researchers suggested. Traditional stem cell therapy approaches have used mesenchymal stem cells from these sources to regrow tissues and organs by differentiation into multiple cell types. However, newer technologies are increasingly making new cell types from pluripotent stem cells generated directly from adult cells such as skin.
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
Traditional electronics are made from rigid and brittle materials. However, a new ‘self-healing’ electronic material allows a soft robot to recover its circuits after it is punctured, torn or even slashed with a razor blade.
Made from liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible silicone elastomer, it is softer than skin and can stretch about twice its length before springing back to its original size.
Soft Robotics & Biologically Inspired Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Video: Mouser Electronics
‘The material around the damaged area automatically creates new conductive pathways, which bypass the damage and restore connectivity in the circuit,’ explains first author Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rubbery material could be used for wearable computing, electronic textiles, soft field robots or inflatable extra-terrestrial housing.
‘There is a sweet spot for the size of the droplets,’ says Majidi. ‘We had to get the size not so small that they never rupture and form electronic connections, but not so big they would rupture even under light pressure.’
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Lokelma (sodium zirconium cyclosilicate), formerly ZS-9 – AstraZeneca’s drug for the treatment of adults with hyperkalaemia.
A serious condition, hyperkalaemia is characterised by elevated potassium levels in the blood and can lead to cardiac arrest and death. It is associated with cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic diseases – the risk of hyperkalaemia increases significantly for patients with chronic kidney disease, and those who take common medications for heart failure, such as renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system (RAAS) inhibitors, which can increase potassium in the blood.
To help prevent the recurrence of hyperkalaemia, RAAS-inhibitor therapy is often modified or discontinued, which can compromise its effectiveness and increase the risk of death.
The announcement comes two months after the European Commission granted marketing authorisation for Lokelma in the EU.
AstraZeneca is a global, science-led biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the discovery, development and commercialisation of prescription medicines, primarily for the treatment of diseases in the fields of oncology, cardiovascular, renal and metabolism, and respiratory.
The eighth in its series, the Kinase 2018: towards new frontiers 8th RSC/SCI symposium on kinase design took place at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge – a world-leading biomedical science research hub.
The focus of the event was to provide a space for the discussion of the ever-evolving kinase inhibitor landscape, including current challenges, opportunities and the road ahead.
A kinase is an enzyme that transfers phosphate groups to other proteins (phosphorylation). Typically, kinase activity is perturbed in many diseases, resulting in abnormal phosphorylation, thus driving disease. Kinases inhibitors are a class of drug that act to inhibit aberrant kinases activity.
Cell signalling: kinases & phosphorylation. Image: Phospho Biomedical Animation
Over 100 delegates from across the world working in both academia and industry attended the event, including delegates from GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Genentech, and Eli Lilly and Co.
The event boasted world-class speakers working on groundbreaking therapeutics involving kinase inhibitors, including designing drugs for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, complications associated with diabetes, African sleeping sickness and more.
How can kinase inhibitors revolutionise cancer treatment?
Tsetse flies carry African sleeping sickness. Image: Oregon State University/Flickr
The keynote speaker, Prof Klaus Okkenhaug from Cambridge University, spoke about how the immune system can be manipulated to target and kill cancer cells by using kinase inhibitors.
Klaus is working on trying to better understand the effects of specific kinase inhibitors on the immune system in patients with blood cancer.
He also explored how his work can benefit those with APDS, a rare immunodeficiency disorder, which he helped to elucidate on a molecular level.
Solving graft rejection, one kinase at a time
Organ grafts are a surgical procedure where tissue is moved from one site in the body to another. Image: US Navy
Improving tolerance to organ grafts is at the forefront of transplantation medicine. James Reuberson from UCB Pharma UK, highlighted how kinase inhibitors can be utilised to improve graft tolerance.
James took the delegates on a journey, describing the plight of drug discovery and development, highlighting the challenges involved in creating a drug with high efficacy. While still in its infancy, James’ drug shows potential to prolong graft retention.
Nature is providing the inspiration for a range of novel self-repairing materials – by mimicking bone healing to fix ceramics, for instance, or using bacteria to heal a ‘wound’ in an undersea power cable.
Self-healing polymers are already well known. A familiar example is self-healing composite aircraft wings: if a crack appears, microcapsules in the composite matrix rupture, releasing ‘sealant’ into the crack to repair it. Recently, however, researchers have expanded the range of ‘repairable’ substances to include other promising materials – including rubber, ceramics and even electronic circuits.
Paul Race, senior lecturer in biochemistry at Bristol University, UK, heads a multi-disciplinary project to develop new types of self-healing materials. The three-year project, called Manufacturing Immortality, is in partnership with six other UK universities and involves biologists, chemists and engineers. ‘Our aim is to create new materials that can regenerate – or are very difficult to break – by combining biological and non-biological components – such as bacteria with ceramics, glass or electronics,’ says Race, whose own research interests include the stereochemistry of antibiotics, and the activities of enzymes.
The project’s approach is quite different to most polymer-based self-healing technologies, which typically rely on simple hydrogen bonds and reversible covalent bonds. ‘There are limits to the polymer chemistry approach,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to take inspiration from biology, which uses much more elaborate and powerful approaches to achieve more dramatic repair.’
Self-healing rubber links permanent covalent bonds (in red) with reversible hydrogen bonds (green). Image: Peter and Ryan Allen/ Harvard press
As an example, Race refers to what happens when we break or bone or receive a bad cut, which triggers a cascade of events in which the body detects the damage and responds appropriately. The team’s work is aimed at three broad application areas: safety critical systems; energy generation; and consumer electronics.
An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.
The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.
A spheroid under a confocal microscope. Image: Kota et al./The Scripps Research Institute
The spheroids – 100 to 600 microns thick in diameter – spread in a similar way to cancer cells in the body and are therefore more effective in identifying potential cancer drugs, the team hypothesises.
For this study, the team focused on KRAS – a gene belonging to the RAS family. It is estimated these genes account for one-third of all cancers.
Robots handle assays in a HTS system. Image: NIH/Flickr
The world’s largest agriculture companies have joined forces to invest in new and innovative technologies that will hopefully eradicate malaria by 2040. The ‘Zero by 40’ campaign was launched at the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in London last week.
The programme has the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, based in Liverpool, UK, as well as companies BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta – among others.
Mosquitos are known vectors of the malaria virus. Image: James Gathany/Centre for Disease Control
Malaria affects over 200 million people each year – most cases are found in Africa but the disease is still prevalent in South East Asia and in the Mediterranean. Although the number of cases has been slowly falling year-on-year, this progress is threatened by insecticide resistance.
It is estimated that four out of five malaria cases have been prevented through long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLINs) and indoor residual spraying (IRS) techniques. The campaign is a continued sign of commitment from the agriculture industry, with companies already having produced innovative solutions to tackle the global issue.
Both Syngenta and Bayer have introduced new IRS products – either in the final stages of development or already employed across Africa. BASF has developed a new generation mosquito net with an insecticide derived from crop use to deter resistant mosquitos.
Insecticides used in agriculture are used as control mechanisms for the mosquito population.
‘Our industry collaboration, supported by our funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department of International Development, is starting to bear fruit and is saving lives today,’ said Nick Hamon, CEO of IVCC.
‘But we still have a long way to go to achieve our ambition of ending the disease burden of malaria by 2040,’ Hamon said. ‘This new initiative will not only secure the current supply of solutions, but will pave the way for desperately needed new forms of chemistry and new vector control tools to reduce the disease burden of malaria which still affects millions of people.’
A shortage of donor organs for transplant surgery is fueling research to develop artificial livers and hearts, but how closely do they match up to the real thing?
Liver failure due to alcohol abuse, drug overdose and hepatitis is a growing problem. In 2016, 1220 Americans died waiting for a liver transplant, with the cost of treating cirrhosis – late stage liver scarring – is estimated at nearly $10bn/year.
‘In 2017, if you have liver failure, we don’t have a backup system,’ says Fontes. ‘But my group has a potential backup system. We are not ready for prime time yet, but we’ve some really good data.’
Liver failure can be hereditary or caused by excessive drinking. Image: Pixabay
Transplant surgeon Paulo Fontes at the University of Pittsburgh, US, regularly meets patients who ask what their options are aside from a liver transplant.
His group has attempted to build a new bioartificial liver, by seeding liver cells onto a liver scaffold. However, others working in this area have so far met with little success.
Now Fontes, working at the Starzl Transplantation Institute, has hit on a different strategy: to grow mini livers in living organisms. The work is in collaboration with Eric Lagasse, a stem cell biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, who showed lymph nodes are excellent ‘bioreactors’ for growing different types of cells, including liver cells.
The liver – made up of hepatocytes – has the capacity to regenerate after surgery. Image: Ed Uthman/Flickr
Lymph nodes filter damaged cells and foreign particles out of the body’s lymph system, which transports fluids around the body. When someone is ill, T cells from the immune system move to the lymph nodes to be cloned and released back to the bloodstream en masse to take on the microbe causing the illness.
For the past five years, Fontes and Legasse have been working with large animal models, infusing hepatocytes into the lymph nodes of pigs. ‘Within two months, it is amazing, but you have mini livers in the lymph nodes,’ he explains. ‘When you compare the mini liver with normal livers, they look very similar.’
Pigs are common animal models as they have similar organ systems to humans. Image: Pixabay
The mini livers weigh a few grams and would not offer a complete replacement for failed livers, but rather a supplement of liver tissue in patients with end stage liver disease who are too sick to undergo a transplant.
‘A lot of these patients have significant heart and lung problems, so would not sustain a full transplant,’ says Fontes. ‘The idea is to sustain their life by increasing their liver mass by creating new small ectopic livers within their lymph nodes.’
Compared with artificial livers, artificial heart technology is much further along the road to the clinic. To date, around 2000 artificial hearts have been implanted in patients, with demand driven similarly by an acute shortage of donors.
‘We wanted an artificial heart very similar to the natural human heart,’ explains Nicolas Cohrs at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. ‘Our hypothesis is that when you mimic the human heart in function and form you will have fewer side effects.’
Cohrs and his colleagues aim to print their artificial hearts so that they fit precisely into an individual patient. This is not yet close to clinic, but promises a tailored heart.
‘We take a CT scan of a patient, put it in a computer file and design an artificial heart around it, so it closely resembles the patient heart,’ says Cohrs. ‘We use these 3D printers and print a mould in ABS [acrylonitrile butadiene styrene], which is the plastic Lego is made of, fill it with silicone and then dissolve the mould with acetone to leave behind the silicone heart.’
Testing a soft artificial heart. Video: ETH Zurich
The plastic heart deflates and inflates with pressurised air. The first-generation device, made from silicone, has two chambers but survived for only 2000 beats. ‘This is only half an hour, so there is a lot of improvement needed,’ adds Cohrs.
A new prototype made from a more resistant [so far, undisclosed] polymer has managed more than a million beats, which is the equivalent of 10 days for a human heart. The goal is to develop a four-chamber heart that beats for 10 years, so a lot more work is still needed.
Using 2D imaging techniques to diagnose problems with the heart can be challenging due to the constant movement of the cardiac system. Currently, when a patient undergoes a cardiac MRI scan they have to hold their breath while the scan takes snapshots in time with their heartbeat.
Still images are difficult to obtain with this traditional technique as a beating heart and blood flow can blur the picture. This method becomes trickier if the individual has existing breathing problems or an irregular heartbeat.
These problems can lead to trouble in acquiring accurate diagnostics.
Now, a team based at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in California, US, have detailed a new technique – MR Multitasking – that can resolve these issues by improving patient comfort and shortening testing time.
‘It is challenging to obtain good cardiac magnetic resonance images because the heart is beating incessantly, and the patient is breathing, so the motion makes the test vulnerable to errors,’ said Shlomo Melmed, Dean of the Cedars-Sinai Center faculty.
An MRI Scanner. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘By novel approaches to this longstanding problem, this research team has found a unique solution to improve cardiac care for patients around the world for years to come.’
By developing what the team consider a six-dimensional imaging technique, the Center has embraced the motion of a heartbeat by capturing image data continuously – creating a product similar to a video.
‘MR Multitasking continuously acquires image data and then, when the test is completed, the program separates out the overlapping sources of motion and other changes into multiple time dimensions,’ said Anthony Christodoulou, first author and PhD researcher at the Center’s Biomedical Imaging Research Institute.
‘If a picture is 2D, then a video is 3D because it adds the passage of time,’ said Christodoulou. ‘Our videos are 6D because we can play them back four different ways: We can playback cardiac motion, respiratory motion, and two different tissue processes that reveal cardiac health.’
Your guide to a cardiac MRI. Video: British Heart Foundation
Testing ten healthy volunteers and ten cardiac patients, the team said the group found that the method was more comfortable for patients and took just 90 seconds – significantly quicker than the conventional MRI scan used in hospitals. For each of the participants, the scan produced accurate results.
The team are now looking to extend its work into MR Multitasking by focusing on other disease areas, such as cancer.
Around 700,000 people worldwide die every year from bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. In the UK alone, that figure is at least 12,000 – more deaths than from breast cancer. And those numbers look set to rise even higher.
‘It’s not just the fact that resistance is increasing – that’s inevitable,’ says Nick Brown, Director of advocacy group, Antibiotic Action. ‘The issue is more the rate of increase in resistance, which appears to be accelerating.’
The Infectious Diseases Society of America recently reported resistance to drugs within six months of antibiotics coming onto the market, and in some cases, even before the drug goes on the market. Many bacterial strains are increasingly displaying resistance to combinations of commonly used and last-resort antibiotics.
Of 33 antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes. Image: Public Domain Pictures
‘The end of the antibiotic era isn’t on the horizon just yet,’ Brown says. ‘But we can see it wouldn’t take much to get that way.’
Failure to tackle antibiotic-resistant superbugs could result in 10m deaths a year by 2050, according to the UK government-commissioned Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. The UN and G20 have both made political commitments to combat the problem. Nevertheless, time is running out.
‘This is an urgent and rapidly rising global health problem,’ says Ghada Zoubiane, science lead for the Wellcome Trusts’ drug-resistant infections team. ‘We need greater investment in developing new ways to treat and protect people from these deadly infections and we need better understanding of how resistance spreads.’
What causes antibiotic resistance? Video: TED-Ed
Despite calls for increased R&D, no new classes of antibiotics have been approved since the early 1980s, apart from the approval of linezolid in 2000, and the last new class to treat Gram-negative bacteria was discovered in 1962, Zoubiane says.
Big pharma withdrew en masse from the antibiotic space in the 1990s, due to the low returns on the high level of investment required in antibiotic R&D. Recognising the urgency of the problem, however, in January 2016 more than 90 pharma and biotech companies committed to enhancing antibiotic discovery.
The move has been accompanied by more research into understanding resistance mechanisms, as well as a shift to more outside-of-the-box thinking about alternative treatments.
In 2016, over $500m was invested into research into antibiotic resistance. Image: PxHere
In February 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its list of 12 antibiotic-resistant ‘priority pathogens’ that pose the greatest threat to human health. Most notable are the Gram-negative bacteria, which possess an additional outer cell membrane and are harder to treat with antibiotics than Gram-positive bacteria.
‘These bacteria have been assessed as the most critical priority for antibiotic R&D, as strains are emerging worldwide that cannot be treated with any of the antibiotics currently on the market,’ WHO says.
Despite the increased commitment to R&D, however, a WHO report in September 2017 lamented the ‘serious lack of new antibiotics under development’. Among the 33 new chemical entity antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes.
There are 16 products, both antibiotics and biologics, with activity against one or more Gram-positive priority pathogens – although mostly targeting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – including two new antibiotic classes.
Meanwhile, ‘the situation is worse for Gram-negative bacterial infections’, says WHO. Of ten products in Phase 1 trials, ‘almost all the agents are modifications of existing antibiotic classes […] active only against specific pathogens or a limited subset of resistant strains’.
The 2016 Lister Memorial Lecture: Dame Sally Davies on Global antiiotic resistance. Video: SCI
WHO warns that ‘more investment is needed in basic science, drug discovery and clinical development, especially for the critical priority Gram-negative carbapenem-resistant pathogens P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, and Enterobacteriaceae.’
‘We need to find a strategy not to overcome resistance, but to be able to live with and manage it,’ Brown reflects. ‘I’m more optimistic than some. It’s important to remember that before antibiotics were discovered, the human race didn’t die out.’
Antimicrobial drug discovery
Biocompatibility in the development of new medical treatments is becoming increasingly important. Implants are traditionally made of materials foreign to the human body – from titanium to silicone – that can cause issues with system toxicity that may lead the body to reject the implant.
Like the human body, a significant proportion of the make-up of hydrogels is water – 90% compared to the body’s 60% – making them a viable modern alternative to the current standard of implants.
At the moment, focus is on the development of hydrogels in drug delivery systems, although its potential stretches further.
Inspired by nature
One such example of hydrogel innovation was developed by researchers at the University of Michigan, US, and the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Finding inspiration from the electric eel, the team created a flexible electrical device that could be used as a power source for implanted health monitors.
The electric eel generates power using transmembrane transport, whereby ion channels control the passage of cations and anions through the membrane in the eel’s electrocytes.
At rest, these ions cancel each other out. However, when triggered, the cation channels become more permeable, shifting the overall potential across the cell. In these instances, the eel can produce up to 600V of electricity.
‘The electric organs in eels are incredibly sophisticated; they’re far better at generating power than we are,’ said Michael Mayer, co-author and Biophysics Professor at the University of Fribourg. ‘But the important thing for us was to replicate the basics of what is happening.’
An electric eel. Image: Scott/Flickr
Firstly, the group dissolved sodium and chloride in the hydrogel and layers built by printing thousands of droplets of the salty gel these were alternated with hydrogel droplets of pure water. Each type of droplet could only conduct cations or anions.
Pressing cells together created a concentration gradient which is stimulated by an external electric current, creating a system similar to the electric eels.
By stacking 2,449 of these cells, Mayer says the hydrogel produced 100W, but the nature of the hydrogel’s internal resistance means the outputs of the cells is only 50µW. The team are now working to improve its efficiency.
‘Maybe the most obvious thing to think as a next step would be to try in some creative way to tap into the existing ionic gradients within the body. Much better of course would be a design where one could tap into metabolic energy to keep an artificial organ always charges,’ said Mayer.
‘That would be the ultimate achievement, but that’s very difficult to reach and we have not approached that part of the problem.’
Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.
The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr
EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).
The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.
EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay
In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?
Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First
Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.
Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.
High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay
As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.
Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.
Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.
Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.
Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.
For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.
Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks
Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.
EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.
Stem cells with shared genetic information aid in the study of human disease. Image: Kyoto University/Knut WoltjenSingle nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are the most common form of genetic mutation, with more than ten million currently identified, and are often found in hereditary diseases – from Alzheimer’s to diabetes.
Due to the precise nature of SNPs, researchers need to compare genetic differences with isogenic twins – two cells which differ in their makeup by only a single gene.
To do this, scientists in Japan have used induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to create a novel gene editing technique that can modify DNA to a single gene.
iPS cells are unique in that they retain the genetic makeup of a donor and can be converted into any cell type. These characteristics mean the cells are perfect for testing new treatments in a laboratory setting.
The team – led by Dr Knut Woltjen and based at the Centre for iPS cell Research and Application at Kyoto University, Japan – use the method to insert an SNP modification along with a fluorescent report gene as a marker for the modified cells.
As adding the reporter gene is another modification to the genome, the researchers created a duplicated DNA sequence that flanks the gene in order to remove it.
These strands hang over the sequence of the reporter gene so that once the latter is removed, the two resulting strands can join together – a method known as microhomology-mediated end joining.
In the Alzheimer’s affected brain, abnormal levels of the beta-amyloid protein clump together to form plaques (seen in brown) that collect between neurons and disrupt cell function. Image:NIH Image Gallery
Unique target sites were also added to remove the gene using the enzyme CRISPR, which cuts DNA. As a result, only the modified SNP is left in the genome of the cell.
One of the isogenic twins receives the mutant SNP and the other receives the normal SNP, allowing for a comparison to be made.
Dr Woltjen calls the new technique Microhology-Assisted eXcision, or MhAX. ‘To make MhAX work, we duplicate DNA sequences which are already present in the genome. We then let the cell resolve this duplication. At the same time, the cells decide which SNPs will remain after repair,’ said Woltjen. ‘One experiment results in the full spectrum of possible SNP genotypes.’
The team have already collaborated with other Japanese universities on the application of their novel method, using the HPRT gene – a mutation that can lead to gout – as the first example of its potential use in therapy.
Their work shows that cells with the HPRT mutant SNP had similar issues with metabolism associated with gout patients, while the isogenic control cells had no problems.
Following on from this success, Woltjen and his team are now applying the technique to different diseases associated with SNPs, including diabetes.
Tweaking the chemical structure of the antibiotic vancomycin may offer a new route to tackle the burgeoning problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers in Australia have discovered.
Vancomycin has been used since the late 1950s to treat life-threatening infections caused by Gram-positive bacteria, including methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). The antibiotic works by binding to a precursor of the cell wall component, peptidoglycan, Lipid II, thus inhibiting bacterial growth.
Lipid II is present in both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. However, in Gram-negative bacteria it is protected by an outer membrane. In Gram-positive bacteria, Lipid II is embedded in the cell membrane but part of the molecule – a pentapeptide component – sticks out, which is what vancomycin binds to.
The researchers at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Biology (IMB), led by director of superbug solutions Matt Cooper, reasoned that if they could increase the ability of vancomycin to bind to the bacterial membrane, this would make it more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to it.
‘Our strategy was to add components to vancomycin so that the new derivatives – which we call “vancapticins” – could target more widely the membrane surface,’ explains Mark Blaskovich, senior research chemist at IMB. ‘By providing two binding sites – the membrane surface and the membrane-embedded Lipid II - this allows binding to resistant strains in which the Lipid II has mutated to reduce interactions with vancomycin.’
In addition, the researchers say that the vancapticins have been designed to take advantage of compositional differences between mammalian and bacteria cell membranes – ie bacterial cells have a greater negative charge. The vancapticins have greater selectivity for bacterial cells over mammalian cells, potentially reducing off-target effects and giving a better safety profile. A series of structure–activity studies showed that some of the vancapticins were more than 100 times more active than vancomycin.
Hospital-Associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Bacteria. Image: NIAID
This membrane-targeting strategy, the researchers say, has the potential to ‘revitalise’ antibiotics that have lost their effectiveness against recalcitrant bacteria as well as enhance the activity of other intravenous-administered drugs that target membrane associated receptors.
John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, comments: ‘Bacteria have developed numerous strategies to modify the binding, uptake and expulsion of antibiotics, and thus develop resistance. So, it is especially exciting to see the development of these new vancomycin derivatives that enhance the membrane binding properties of the antibiotic, thus enhancing its efficacy and beating the bacteria at their own game.’