Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale, brings together different sciences. It is not just about the physics of atomic arrangements, but also about the chemistry of each element involved. The mix becomes yet more complex when living organisms interact with the tiny structures. But by embracing this complexity - bringing together chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers - a research project has provided new insights into nanotechnology.
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The project, BIOPTRAIN, looked at ways to process the vast amounts of genetic data that molecular biologists today have access to. "We now have billions of pieces of data about the genome, but the problem is that we don't know how to use them for clinical science," says University of Nottingham professor Jon Garibaldi, BIOPTRAIN's project coordinator. "We need to analyse the data to understand how it all fits together. So we need to train computer scientists to help the doctors."
The four-year project was a Marie Curie Action (MCA), which is a European Union (EU) programme of support for researchers to work abroad. Launched in September 2005 with a €2.1 million EU grant, BIOPTRAIN involved partnerships with Poznan University of Technology in Poland, the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, University College of Borås in Sweden, and Italy's University of Florence.
The project looked at the fast emerging field of bioinformatics, which is the application of information technology in molecular biology. BIOPTRAIN's aim was to train the next generation of European scientists in the latest advances in bioinformatics, including the ever-more sophisticated computational algorithms used to process genetic data.
Garibaldi says BIOPTRAIN looked ahead to the day in the not-too-distant future when anyone can have their entire genetic code mapped and enjoy personalized medicine. "We need to link biomedical and bioinformatics data," he says, adding that by better understanding how the DNA fits together, researchers will be able to improve disease diagnosis and treatment for a whole range of maladies. "Some day, perhaps, you'll be able to take a blood test and find out whether you're likely to develop Alzheimer's, cancer or other diseases. We probably won't cure these diseases in our lifetimes, but this project could help our efforts to find targeted drugs, improve treatment, and extend lives."
Eighteen research students from across Europe received PhD training in the project. "We're trying to build up a new set of academics, and they will in turn train a new generation afterwards," says Garibaldi.
The project delivered a number of breakthroughs. For example, in Garibaldi's Nottingham University, home to some of the world's top breast cancer specialists,
researchers analysed a 20-year database of over 1,000 people and were able to identify seven different sub-types of breast cancer.
But the most important result, Garibaldi says, was that it helped build a multidisciplinary knowledge base in the emerging bioinformatics field, and one that has already led to new careers in academia and industry, with one researcher working in Imperial College, London, another taking a research position in Luxembourg, while another moved to the US. "We brought together researchers from different backgrounds and perspectives and started to form a European approach to the problem, gaining new insights and spreading good practises," he says. "This is the new breed of scientist comfortable in different domains and with a new way of looking at problems that straddle different domains."