Scientific News (March 2018)

Alzheimer’s researchers win top research prize

Four neuroscientists have been awarded the prestigious 2018 Brain Prize, following their pioneering research on the genetic and molecular sources of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Brain Prize was awarded by The Lundbeck Foundation based in Denmark. The winners not only gain a title, they are also rewarded with a €1 million prize fund. The prize is awarded to one or a group of scientists across the globe who have proven excellence and have provided continued contributions within the field of neuroscience, and highlights great discoveries.

The group of four scientists this year were Professors Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert, John Hardy and Professor Christian Haass. It was also announced that De Strooper, Goedert and Hardy have received support and funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) throughout their careers for their work.

The team were involved in pioneering research into the function of the brain, and their research in gaining an understanding of the changes within the brain that lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s and other variations of dementia. It is understood that across Europe alone there are approximately 10 million individuals who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Christian Haass, based at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Disorders and The Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich said in a statement following the news of their award-winning research that scientists are facing hard times, and disbelief in some people. He expressed that although science does not always reveal the truth, it is one of the only ways to find out the plausible answers towards our futures.

Following the announcement, De Stroopermade a statement. “The Brain Prize recognises that basic science makes a real contribution, even though much of it cannot be directly applied to clinical care. The Prize is an important sign for young scientists to know that they can still make big discoveries, and that we urgently need them to pursue research into diseases of the ageing brain.”

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia illnesses are the cause of much upset and suffering, not only for patients, but for their families too. The disease brings much frustration as well as its own challenges.

Professor Anders Björklund, Chairman of the Lundbeck Foundation Prize Selection Committee praised the team of researchers for their outstanding work, congratulating them each for their “fundamental discoveries” in unveiling the molecular and genetic sources of Alzheimer’s that can be used to provide a foundation of research into its diagnosis and hopefully eventual treatment, with a view to finding preventative measures that could be taken within the field of neurodegenerative brain diseases.

De Strooper, the Director of UK Dementia Research Institute and Professor of Molecular Medicine at KU Leven and VIB based in Belgium, carried out research involving the protein Presenilin – his discoveries found that Presenlin had the ability chop up other proteins, making them smaller in size; biochemical communications between cells relies on this process. However, De Strooper discovered that genetic changes within the Presenilin of an individual leads to abnormal amyloids being produced, which in turn creates and augments plaques within the brain of Alzheimer’s patients.

Programme Leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology and Honorary Professor at Cambridge University, Michel Goedert’s work in the research included the use of “human brain tissue, transgenic mice, cultured cells and purified proteins”. His investigations proved the importance of the Tau proteins, which stabilize microtubules, which are abundant in neurons of the central nervous system.

Goedert was keen to investigate treatments into Alzheimer’s. With the disease affecting such a vast number of people, the lack of treatments that are available to sufferers, there was an obvious need to investigate the disease further, as well as understanding the mechanisms of the disease.

UK Dementia Institute Professor, John Hardy based at the University College London (UCL) and Chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at the Institute of Neurology at UCL investigated the mutations of the gene found in the Amyloid protein.

Using a family with the early onset of Alzheimers, his ground-breaking theory of a build-up of amyloid began. Working together with clinicians, specialists in genetics and cell biologists, Hardy with his team of specialists have been providing some innovative work. Hardy believes that although a successful treatment is yet to become apparent, “rational, mechanism-based treatments” are just around the corner.

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Satellite links to optimise European airspace

The move to improve efficiency in European airspace has entered a new phase with the European Space Agency and London Inmarsat company working in collaboration with each other on a programme called Iris. This will eventually replace the current system that involves VHF radio voice messages from Air Traffic Controllers routing planes, and will use robust and secure satellite information instead.

Due to growing passenger numbers, which are increasing more than 5% across the globe annually, the introduction of additional technologies is vital, especially with European airspace being amongst the busiest across the globe.

Iris, now beginning a three year trial, gives Air Traffic controllers the facility to speed up the messages transmitted between Air Traffic Controllers and pilots, with a view of making the ultimate 4D flight path a possibility – true, safe control in realtime.

Vice President of Aviation Safety and Operational Services, Captain Mary McMillan who is based at Inmarsat Aviation, explained. “Flight paths are defined by latitude, longitude, altitude and time – and Iris, because of its performance, allows us to determine those waypoints to plus or minus 2-3 seconds.”

For several years now, Iris has been in research and development, with restrictions on its use during development for controlling small demonstrative experimental flights. After winning the €42 million funding contract from ESA to Inmarsat, the next phase of Iris’ evolution will enable developers to see the technology used on a larger number of aircraft, ones that have been designed and fitted with the new Iris compatible communications apparatus.

Iris will enable real time information to be sent across Inmarsat’s “L-Band” network of telecommunications satellite that is in orbit above the Earth.

Should the outcome be successful, Iris will be used and will be more widely available throughout the next decade – the exact date is yet to be confirmed.

The system was required to meet many standards prior to the announcement of its expanded implementation, and both the ESA and Inmarsat have each had to demonstrate that the satellite links are strong enough to do the job, along with vigorous checks on the security of those links in order to prevent hacking.

Iris is part of the European Commissions Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research programme (SESAR), the development and combination of several technologies currently being phased in in order to enable the streamlining and coordination of air traffic.

If aircraft routing can be improved, some flights could see up to 40 kilometres on average taken off their flight paths, thus offering passengers shorter flight times and the benefit of reduced fuel and emissions, which would benefit both the operators and the environment.

The ESA operates Iris from their headquarters in Harwell, Oxfordshire. It is understood that over 30 companies across Europe are actively involved with the Iris project. Project partners include CGI UK and Thales Alenia Space in Italy.

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XPRIZE announces ocean mapping contestants

During the latter half of 2017, from an initial pool of 19 contenders, 9 Teams of scientific researchers from across the globe, were named as finalists in the 2018 XPRIZE Shell Ocean Discovery Competition with a prize fund of $7 million. The panel sought the most innovative inventions that have the capability to map the world’s oceans.

The XPRIZE Foundation (www.xprize.org), based in Los Angeles was set up to find the most innovative and empowering inventions being designed by teams of engineers, scientists and individuals across the globe, within the fields of AI, Robotics, 3D Printing and more.

Each team’s entry was assessed by the foundation, their use of forward thinking technology being the main attribute alongside initiatives and eventual goals.

The teams remaining in the competition will be faced with a new assignment, where they will have to demonstrate their work and technology underwater at a depth of 4,000 metres. Each team will have to undertake a 24-hour task, where they will need to map a minimum of 250 square kilometres at 5 metres, or higher, horizontal resolution.

An international goal is to see the oceans being completely mapped by 2030. New technology in the future will help us to understand and gain further knowledge of the topography of the sea floor. Researchers and scientists to date have only been able to measure only 15% of the worlds bathymetry (the measurement of depth of water in oceans, seas, or lakes) accurately. Measurements taken to date have come from gravity observations using satellites – this method is limited however, and is unable to identify areas that are smaller than a kilometre.

Dr Virmani, from the XPRIZE Foundation confirmed that the winners would be announced early in 2019. It is hoped that the technologies that have been developed and presented in this competition will have an impact upon the mapping goal with over 10 years to transform and tweak their inventions and meet the 2030 aim.

The finalists have designed an assortment of methods and solutions involving innovative technology, including aerial drones, underwater robot swarms, lasers, self-sufficient surface and underwater vehicular designs.

Team Tao, a British team based in Newcastle is a joint project with subsea vehicle manufacturer Soil Machine Dynamics Ltd (SMD) and Newcastle Universities Engineering Department. Their small, torpedo-like robot design, named BEM (Bathypelagic Excursion Module) carries sonar equipment to measure depth readings, a camera lens to obtain images, and a range of supplementary sensors which gives it the ability to obtain oceanographic data while moving through the water.

The Tyneside teams BEM will be constructed using off the shelf resources and apparatus that will have to withstand the conditions within a hyperbaric chamber. A 12 ft long vessel will be built to support up to 24 BEMs. The plan will be for the vessel to release BEMs in small batches within a designated mapped area. The team aim to see a swarm of robots not only reaching the depth requirements, but also to gain data in an area covering over 200 square kilometres.

Manoeuvring thrusters onboard each BEM will give them the ability to ‘crab’ along the seabed with an expected sub-50 centimetre resolution. When the BEM’s are eventually retrieved, the data is uploaded to the cloud from the vessel, and each BEM unit is recharged, ready for their next use. Although the system is expected to reach an estimated cost of £1 million, the design would be compatible to be fit into a standard shipping container. Team Tao believe that their system would cost 100 times less to operate and maintain than currently employed methods. Team Tao are working hard on the next stage of production, and expect to start larger scale trials in July.

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Professor Stephen Hawking 

And finally, it was announced on Wednesday that Stephen Hawking, the eminent cosmologist and champion of British science, has passed away at the age of 76, peacefully at home surrounded by his family. Hawking became a household name back in 1988 with the publication of his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’. Diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in the early 1960s during his time at Cambridge and originally given less than two years to live by his doctors, Hawking not only completed his PhD, he then pursued an academic career that was meteoric, most notably on quantum theory and the behaviour of black holes, despite his worsening condition.

We will be running a special article later on in the bulletin on Hawking’s incredible achievements and on the man himself. He leaves an incredible legacy and rightly takes a seat at the table alongside Einstein, Copernicus, Newton and Galileo. We leave you this week with some of Hawking’s funniest moments.

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Scientific News (February 2017)

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