A Tanzanian house fitted with eave tubes
Over the past two decades global efforts to prevent malaria and treat its victims have contributed to reduce infection dramatically and save millions of lives. Even so, each year around 200 million people catch malaria, and 600 000 die from the disease, mostly children and women in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
Prevention, through insecticide-treated bednets and indoor sprays, is one of the best ways to win the battle. But mosquitoes are becoming resistant to insecticides – potentially reversing the gains made so far.
In response, the EU-funded MCD project has developed three new weapons against them – a special coating that transfers insecticides effectively to mosquitoes landing on it, insecticide-laced “eave tubes” to direct them to the coating, and a bednet patch.
The project began work in December 2012 and is now negotiating with a manufacturer in Tanzania to mass produce these low-cost devices and distribute them, says project coordinator Bart Knols of In2Care. The Netherlands-based research company specialises in developing products to control disease-transmitting insects.
“I have been working in the field of malaria research for the past 22 years,” says Knols. “I have never seen an idea move so fast from early research in the lab to field testing in the real world to potential commercialisation. This is simply amazing.”
In2Care and CTF2000, another project partner, originally developed netting for trapping pollen. This has been repurposed for mosquito control using the netting coated with insecticide at one end of tubes that are placed in the walls of the households.
The tubes are to be inserted into the walls, under a building’s roof, its eaves, so they are called 'eave tubes'. Hungry malaria mosquitoes looking to feed on blood tend to enter such openings, naturally following the scent of humans and the trail of carbon dioxide they breathe out. The mosquitoes end up on the netting, and make contact with the insecticide.
Eave tubes are potentially more effective than indoor spraying, says Knols. They better prevent mosquitoes from entering a house. For indoor spraying to work, mosquitoes must first enter a house and land on a wall covered with insecticide, leaving them time to infect a person.
“With these tubes, insecticide is only applied to a small area – the netting,” he explains. “This means a major reduction in insecticide use, by about 95%, which is better for people’s health and for the environment.”
The team initially tested the eave tubes in 2013 in large outdoor cages in Tanzania. Within a night, two-thirds of the mosquitoes released were killed after contact with the tube netting.
In November 2013, MCD outfitted 20 houses with eave tubes in Igombati, a small Tanzanian village. To date, six months later, the coating has remained an effective mosquito killer and it can be considered a competitive alternative to indoor spraying, which in addition needs to be done twice a year, says Knols. Recently the team has started to modify another 1 100 houses with eave tubes as part of a larger test.
The researchers have also developed an alternative to the eave tubes – the 'eave brick', where the plastic with the insecticide-coated netting replaces a brick removed from a wall.
The team calculates a typical household would spend about €1 per person per year over three years for the 'eave tubes or bricks'.
“We’re close to becoming competitive with bednets, especially when taking into consideration that eave tubes protect everyone in the house and not just those sleeping under a net,” Knols adds.
Article Nederlandse vinding doodt malariamug in Nieuwsuur (in Dutch)
In collaboration with partners in Europe and Africa, researchers at Penn State have received a five-year, $10.2-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to run a Phase III trial with eave tubes in order to prevent the transmission of malaria and to move towards commercialisation.
Even when treated with a combination of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, survival rates for lung cancer, especially small cell lung cancer, are very low: on average only around 20% to 40% of patients diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancers, at which point tumours are around 5cm in size, can expect to survive for five years or more with treatment.
Bringing together some of Europe’s leading specialists on genetics, epigenetics, pathology and oncology, the CURELUNG initiative has identified several epigenetic lung cancer biomarkers that could be potentially useful to target new therapies and early diagnosis.
The research is also contributing to the development of innovative tools to detect and characterise different types of lung cancer, and identify the most aggressive cancers in early-stage patients, as well as furthering clinical trials of new drugs.
“Not all cancers are the same, and not all patients will respond the same way to treatment. By identifying genetic alternations associated with specific cancer types we can create a list of biomarkers that can help determine the most effective, targeted treatment strategy for each individual patient while minimising the effect on healthy cells,” explains CURELUNG coordinator Manel Esteller, head of the Epigenetics and Cancer Biology Programme at Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) in Spain.
“One of the factors that makes lung cancer the most lethal type of cancer in the world is that it is usually diagnosed late, often after it has already metastasised and spread to other regions of the body. By identifying the biomarkers associated with lung cancer we can screen for them, allowing cancer to be detected and treated sooner, which should improve the effectiveness of therapies and increase survival rates,” Esteller says.
With that aim in mind, project partner MRC Holland, a biotech company, is building on work conducted in CURELUNG to develop screening tools for use in a clinical setting.
Equally important is determining the most effective course of treatment by identifying how drugs or combinations of drugs affect distinct forms of lung cancer brought on by different genetic alterations. In that regard, the biomarkers identified in CURELUNG are contributing to ongoing clinical trials in Germany run by pharmaceutical firms Novartis and AstraZeneca.
“The biomarkers we identified are being used by clinical researchers to determine if and how cancers with certain genetic alterations are affected by the drugs being tested, which should contribute to the development of new treatments for those cancer types,” the CURELUNG coordinator says.
With lung cancer accounting for 20% of all forms of cancer and causing the death of 1.6 million people worldwide each year – the most of any cancer – Esteller points out that if one drug is proven to be effective against 10% of lung cancers, and a second against another 10%, then the impact will only increase incrementally until a majority of lung cancers can be treated with targeted therapies.
Stunted growth, impaired development of the nervous system, abnormal sensitivity to UV light and premature ageing are just some of the symptoms that young CS patients start to exhibit just a few months after birth or in the early years of their lives. In most cases, patients die in their teens or early adulthood.
“When I was doing my first postdoc in England, I had the opportunity to meet children who were suffering from this disease,” Maria Fousteri, beneficiary of the CHROMOREPAIR research grant, recalls. “This encounter really made me want to find out what happens and made me want to help these children.”
The molecular biology of the syndrome remains poorly understood. However, some 20 years ago, researchers did find out that CS sufferers have difficulty repairing lesions from UV light that are induced in genes, i.e. damage to actively transcribed DNA. “As a result, their cells will not be able to restore gene expression and will ultimately lack some proteins that are very important for the cells to operate,” explains Fousteri.
While CS is rather rare, DNA damage and deficiencies in repairing such damage are relevant to a range of human diseases, from neurodegenerative disorders to cancer. Improving our understanding of the underlying genome maintenance mechanisms, such as the transcription-coupled nucleotide excision repair (TC-NER) mechanism, which is affected in CS patients, will help researchers assess risks posed by environmental hazards and provide insight into the causes of ageing, age-related health problems and more.
Specifically, Fousteri looked into the role of chromatin remodelling in TC-NER that might be affected in CS. DNA is packaged tightly into chromatin – a complex of molecules – so that it fits in the cell. Chromatin plays a central role in the repair of DNA damage and controls gene expression and DNA replication, among other things.
Tight packaging of DNA into chromatin impedes access to DNA for repair purposes. In healthy people, the chromatin structure is therefore remodelled to allow access to the damage sites, allowing repair and DNA transcription (or copying) to continue. Failure to repair this damage and resulting prolonged interruption of transcription activity may lead to genomic instability or cell death. This, in turn, probably contributes to CS symptoms.
Similar but different
Through their research, Fousteri and colleagues in Rotterdam with whom she collaborated during CHROMOREPAIR characterised the functions of a novel gene, UVSSA, which plays an important role in the TC-NER mechanism – a process critical to restoring gene expression after damage.
People with mutations to this gene exhibit UV sensitivity, just like CS patients. But they do not have CS patients’ neurodegenerative problems, says Fousteri.
The team studied the importance of the protein produced by this gene – as well as the genes that carry mutations in CS sufferers – for the TC-NER mechanism. The researchers analysed how the results, i.e. very severe CS and the relatively mild UV-sensitive syndrome (UVSS), can be so different from one another, although the same mechanism, namely TC-NER, is compromised.
The findings from CHROMOREPAIR, as well as data gathered in the process, are the foundations for Fousteri’s work today.
The project gave her the opportunity to prove her mettle as an independent researcher, giving impetus to her career and ultimately leading to her election as research group leader at the Biomedical Sciences Research Center ‘Alexander Fleming’ in Greece. There she continues her research to the benefit of patients suffering from CS and other DNA damage-related disorders.
Marine microbiologist Laura Alonso-Sáez has studied the composition of the bacterial communities thriving in coastal waters of the Bay of Biscay and analysed a variety of functions carried out by individual species.
Her findings indicate that the roles of the various species may not overlap as much as previously thought. She has also concluded that some species only perform their particular tasks at specific times of the year, when seasonal changes in environmental conditions kickstart these processes.
“The main problem we have as marine microbiologists is that the vast majority of the microbes that live in the seawater cannot be cultured in the lab. So it’s hard to study what they do,” Alonso-Sáez explains.
However, she adds, the advent of high-throughput technologies for genetic analyses has opened up new horizons. Taking water samples from the ocean and sequencing their genetic material has become a viable proposition.
Alonso-Sáez, then working at the Spanish Oceanographic Institute, put this possibility to good use in the Fundiversity project, for which she benefited from a Marie Curie Reintegration Grant. This funding was awarded to help her re-establish her career in her native Spain after a post-doc assignment in Sweden on a Marie Curie mobility scheme.
The two grants helped Alonso-Sáez pursue her specialisation and acquire additional scientific skills, she notes, listing the genomics expertise that underpinned Fundiversity as one example. They have also allowed her to develop the coordination know-how required to run a molecular biology laboratory, adding to the promising CV that then helped her to secure a tenure-track position in Spain.
Diversity and demarcation
Fundiversity enabled Alonso-Sáez to shed new light on the ocean’s briny bacteria. Over a period of three years, she regularly sampled the waters at a coastal station in the Bay of Biscay within the Spanish time-series programme Radiales.
Every lucky dip brought up specimens of hundreds of species. By studying their DNA and RNA – their genetic coding and the genes that are actually expressed – Alonso-Sáez managed to establish the seasonal variations in the composition and functioning of bacterial communities in this part of the Atlantic.
While some species are strongly represented at all times, others appear to come and go with the seasons. Some grow and carry out their specific functions only at particular times of the year. Alonso-Sáez cites the example of species involved in ammonia oxidation, the transformation of ammonia into nitrite as part of the marine nitrogen cycle, which only expressed the relevant genes in autumn.
A hot topic
There is still a lot to learn about individual species’ contributions to the biogeochemical processes that keep our environment going. However, says Alonso-Sáez, comparing their genes to similar ones from other, well-characterised species makes it possible to infer their functions. A key step in Fundiversity was then to see if the various copies of a particular gene in the samples belonged exclusively to related specimens, or to several types.
Understanding these roles and the vulnerability of the species performing them is crucial. Seasonality reflects a reaction to variations in environmental conditions such as temperature and the availability of nutrients. A lasting change in these parameters, for example as a result of global warming, might jeopardise seasonal species and processes.
Fundiversity ended in August 2013, having unleashed a torrent of data which Alonso-Sáez and her colleagues continue to analyse and exploit. Alonso-Sáez has since moved on to the marine research Institute AZTI, also in Spain. Her work on the functioning of marine bacteria continues in a new project (Teccam) that will explore the impact of changing environmental conditions on model marine bacteria. For this particular study, she will be focusing on species that can be cultured in the lab.
Fellow Laura Alonso in O/V José de Rioja
© nestor arandia
Mistrustful of politicians and voting, young people are turning to street demonstrations, charity events, consumer activism and social media to express their political and civic views. The EU-funded Processes Influencing Democratic Ownership and Participation (PIDOP) project tried to uncover why young people feel this way.
The issue is complex, says the PIDOP project coordinator Professor Martyn Barrett. “For this reason, the research explored how psychological drivers interact with social, demographic and institutional factors to determine people’s civic and political behaviour,” explains Barrett. The project focused on gathering data from 16- to 26-year-old men and women from ethnic majority and minority groups in nine European countries.
Even though it is difficult to identify patterns that drive behaviour across diverse groups of people, the research identified three key factors affecting civic and political participation:
Encouraging democratic citizenship in young people
“When governments are more accountable, democratic and uphold the rule of law, their citizens are more engaged,” says Barrett. These political institutions must also take effective action against discrimination and be embedded in a culture of democracy. If people feel that they are discriminated against or they have little opportunity to get the attention of government, they will feel more dissatisfied and disengaged.
The PIDOP project revealed that young people feel that politicians aren’t willing to listen to their concerns, and this is the primary reason they aren’t interested in voting. However, young people are passionate about other issues — problems affecting people in other countries, racism, recycling and global warming. They actively sign e-petitions, volunteer and raise money for charity.
“The challenge for politicians is to listen to and understand young people’s concerns, make them feel that they can make a difference, and engage them in politics,” emphasises Barrett.
Civic education and active membership of organisations, such as Amnesty International and youth clubs, can also make a difference. “Teaching children about the history of democracy doesn’t help them become engaged citizens,” says Barrett. Children must have concrete experiences. “If children have the opportunity to discuss a local issue and then write to their parliamentarian, and receive a response, they are more likely to believe that participating will make a difference,” adds Barrett.
Using the PIDOP findings to improve curricula in schools
The PIDOP findings have led to the creation of the Competencies for Democratic Culture (CDC) project. Launched by the Education Department of the Council of Europe, the initiative is designing a new education framework. Countries can tailor the framework to their unique requirements to help educators develop children’s democratic attitudes and values, encourage autonomous learning, and foster analytical and critical thinking skills. The Council’s 47 member states can use the framework to rewrite their national curricula to further promote civic and political participation.
PIDOP has provided the insights that politicians, educators and citizens need to promote democratic citizenship among young people in Europe.
Strangers into Citizens Rally, Trafalgar Square, London ,7 May 2007
© David Garbin
Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) that joined the EU between 2004 and 2007 saw their economies grow fast after accession. But much of the growth was concentrated among urban areas and better-educated citizens. And with its base in low production costs rather than innovative products and services, the growth proved fragile in most countries during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
To find out how CEECs could achieve their full growth potential, the GRINCOH project investigated different economic, social and institutional aspects of their development. Its results suggest that more inclusive and stable growth would come from policies supporting local potential for innovation, and tailored to different regions, which would also allow more efficient use of imported innovation than has been the case up to now.
Project coordinator Grzegorz Gorzelak of Poland’s Uniwersytet Warszawski says there is a new understanding in the EU institutions that the traditional approach to cohesion – which targets key regions, welfare and uniform development goals – eventually leads to an inability to grow. “GRINCOH looked at how to reform cohesion policy after 2020.”
Research focused on the 10 CEECs – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Although there are differences in development between and within these countries, they have much in common.
“They joined as a group and came from a socialist tradition that is different from the economic tradition of the older Member States,” explains Gorzelak. “Factors that initially allowed fast growth are now almost fully exploited – these countries need to find changes of direction to compete in a world economy driven by innovation.”
In the first 18 months of the project, policy and economic specialists from both Eastern and Western Europe researched changes in these countries that were linked to joining the EU. They gathered evidence from a wide spectrum of academic literature and their own case studies of past EU programmes for the CEECs.
In particular, the project focused on structural changes, international trade and foreign investment (an important source of growth for the CEECs), innovation and entrepreneurship, labour markets and skills, social cohesion and welfare, regional development, institutions, cohesion policy and development scenarios.
In the second half of the project, researchers tested how different political frameworks, institutional conditions and development strategies could impact growth up to 2020. For this, they used the MAAST 3 macro-regional model, developed by the Politecnico di Milano, one of the project partners.
“We concluded that one policy does not fit all cases; policies should be adapted more to suit the type of region,” says Gorzelak. He cites focusing more on secondary cities rather than developed, main cities as an example of a targeted policy.
However, the project also showed that the different regions of the EU impact each other, which should be taken into account in policy formation for the whole of the European Union. And GRINCOH recommends a longer-term focus rather than “fire-fighting”, along with stronger coordination of thematic policies, including those on education, industry and social policy.
Help to turn R&D into new businesses and prepare people for jobs would improve cohesion, while continued reform of institutions to bring them in line with EU norms is also important.
Indeed, stronger inter-regional scientific networks and home-grown potential for adopting – and efficiently adapting and developing – imported innovation has more potential to boost growth than hunting for foreign investment, which often adds little new knowledge to local economies, researchers found.
“Our findings have been well-received by the Commission’s DG Regional Policy,” says Gorzelak. “They are launching, in cooperation with ERSA, a series of lectures for scientists and policy-makers in October or November 2015 in Brussels.”
GRINCOH’s research is publicly available on the project website in a series of presentations, detailed working papers and case studies, with a possible book in the pipeline, he adds. Each of the consortium’s 12 institutes is continuing its research, with further collaboration possible.
“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” he concludes. “But we provided evidence for our concept of how to achieve cohesion – understood as growth, innovation and competitiveness, and not simply traditionally as convergence.”
©SOHO (ESA & NASA)
From time to time, the Sun ejects plasma and magnetic fields in a massive burst. The phenomenon is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME), and can occur up to five times every day.
We earthlings are usually oblivious to these cosmic goings-on. But for those rare occasions when a CME makes its presence felt on Earth – in a worst case scenario by temporarily shutting down electricity supplies – it makes sense to understand the origins of the beast, and when it will arrive.
Spiros Patsourakos took on this challenge when he received one of the EU’s Marie Curie reintegration grants to allow him to continue research in his field on returning to his native Greece after more than 10 years abroad. Over four years, the grant enabled him and his colleagues – through the SEP project – to shed new light on the genesis of CMEs, to solve an age-old discussion on some ‘disturbances’ observed on the Sun’s surface, and to take great strides towards predicting when CMEs will arrive on Earth.
CMEs are an “interesting physics problem”, says Patsourakos. “And we don’t yet know the details.” What we do know is that CMEs are major drivers of space weather.
Not every CME will reach Earth. And not every CME reaching Earth will have a visible impact. A CME would need to be particularly powerful and transporting a south-facing magnetic field if it is to disrupt the Earth’s magnetic fields, disrupt currents and switch off electricity. But it can happen, and it did in the Canadian province of Quebec in 1989. A geomagnetic storm tripped circuit breakers on the power grid, leaving the region without power for nine hours.
“These events are not frequent, but you only need one with the appropriate conditions to cause major disruption,” says Patsourakos.
Knowing the ropes
Before a CME is expelled, sets of magnetic field lines – known as flux rope – begin to twist and turn around the future CME launch pad. A “hot topic” within solar physics is whether these flux ropes are a pre-requisite to an eruption or not.
While Patsourakos’ research hasn’t quite provided an answer to this debate once and for all, it did provide radical new insights into the build-up to a CME. By observing images of the Sun at various temperatures through a powerful telescope providing very regular and high-resolution images, Patsourakos was able to witness the formation of magnetic flux rope and then – seven hours later – the eruption.
Traditional studies involve going back and looking at images from one hour before a CME took place, while Patsourakos’ approach showed that the build-up starts much earlier. “If you only focus on smaller temporal intervals, you may interpret the data differently,” says Patsourakos. He believes that his revelation could change the way scientists approach observations.
As for whether flux ropes are necessary for a CME to take place – Patsourakos and his colleagues are now working on statistical studies in a bid to see how common the flux ropes are, and eventually to answer this all-important question.
Another question dividing space scientists is whether or not the disturbances travelling across the solar surface during the initial stages of a CME are caused by CME-driven waves, or whether they are simply a shadow of the fledgling CME.
“The debate has been settled,” says Patsourakos – and the answer will please both camps. “During the same phenomenon, there are some elements that can be explained as being waves, others as non-wave,” he says.
Estimating arrival time
Predicting when a CME will arrive on Earth still requires a little more work, says Patsourakos. Speed can vary from a few hundred kilometres per second to more than 2000 kilometres per second. By looking in depth at the factors affecting the speed at which a CME travels, and in particular perturbed solar wind, he has already improved on previous methodologies. More extensive testing is now needed – and planned.
Since the SEP project ended in 2014, Patsourakos and his colleagues have continued to work on the many open questions from his lab in the physics department at the University of Ioannina. The next steps are statistical studies of CMEs’ pre-eruptive configuration and propagation.