Tag Archives: European Research Council

Training drugs

This summarizes some of what’s happening in nanomedicine and provides a plug (boost) for the  University of Cambridge’s nanotechnology programmes (from a June 26, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Nanotechnology is creating new opportunities for fighting disease – from delivering drugs in smart packaging to nanobots powered by the world’s tiniest engines.

Chemotherapy benefits a great many patients but the side effects can be brutal.
When a patient is injected with an anti-cancer drug, the idea is that the molecules will seek out and destroy rogue tumour cells. However, relatively large amounts need to be administered to reach the target in high enough concentrations to be effective. As a result of this high drug concentration, healthy cells may be killed as well as cancer cells, leaving many patients weak, nauseated and vulnerable to infection.

One way that researchers are attempting to improve the safety and efficacy of drugs is to use a relatively new area of research known as nanothrapeutics to target drug delivery just to the cells that need it.

Professor Sir Mark Welland is Head of the Electrical Engineering Division at Cambridge. In recent years, his research has focused on nanotherapeutics, working in collaboration with clinicians and industry to develop better, safer drugs. He and his colleagues don’t design new drugs; instead, they design and build smart packaging for existing drugs.

The University of Cambridge has produced a video interview (referencing a 1966 movie ‘Fantastic Voyage‘ in its title)  with Sir Mark Welland,

A June 23, 2017 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, delves further into the topic of nanotherapeutics (nanomedicine) and nanomachines,

Nanotherapeutics come in many different configurations, but the easiest way to think about them is as small, benign particles filled with a drug. They can be injected in the same way as a normal drug, and are carried through the bloodstream to the target organ, tissue or cell. At this point, a change in the local environment, such as pH, or the use of light or ultrasound, causes the nanoparticles to release their cargo.

Nano-sized tools are increasingly being looked at for diagnosis, drug delivery and therapy. “There are a huge number of possibilities right now, and probably more to come, which is why there’s been so much interest,” says Welland. Using clever chemistry and engineering at the nanoscale, drugs can be ‘taught’ to behave like a Trojan horse, or to hold their fire until just the right moment, or to recognise the target they’re looking for.

“We always try to use techniques that can be scaled up – we avoid using expensive chemistries or expensive equipment, and we’ve been reasonably successful in that,” he adds. “By keeping costs down and using scalable techniques, we’ve got a far better chance of making a successful treatment for patients.”

In 2014, he and collaborators demonstrated that gold nanoparticles could be used to ‘smuggle’ chemotherapy drugs into cancer cells in glioblastoma multiforme, the most common and aggressive type of brain cancer in adults, which is notoriously difficult to treat. The team engineered nanostructures containing gold and cisplatin, a conventional chemotherapy drug. A coating on the particles made them attracted to tumour cells from glioblastoma patients, so that the nanostructures bound and were absorbed into the cancer cells.

Once inside, these nanostructures were exposed to radiotherapy. This caused the gold to release electrons that damaged the cancer cell’s DNA and its overall structure, enhancing the impact of the chemotherapy drug. The process was so effective that 20 days later, the cell culture showed no evidence of any revival, suggesting that the tumour cells had been destroyed.

While the technique is still several years away from use in humans, tests have begun in mice. Welland’s group is working with MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, to study the stability of drugs and to design ways to deliver them more effectively using nanotechnology.

“One of the great advantages of working with MedImmune is they understand precisely what the requirements are for a drug to be approved. We would shut down lines of research where we thought it was never going to get to the point of approval by the regulators,” says Welland. “It’s important to be pragmatic about it so that only the approaches with the best chance of working in patients are taken forward.”

The researchers are also targeting diseases like tuberculosis (TB). With funding from the Rosetrees Trust, Welland and postdoctoral researcher Dr Íris da luz Batalha are working with Professor Andres Floto in the Department of Medicine to improve the efficacy of TB drugs.

Their solution has been to design and develop nontoxic, biodegradable polymers that can be ‘fused’ with TB drug molecules. As polymer molecules have a long, chain-like shape, drugs can be attached along the length of the polymer backbone, meaning that very large amounts of the drug can be loaded onto each polymer molecule. The polymers are stable in the bloodstream and release the drugs they carry when they reach the target cell. Inside the cell, the pH drops, which causes the polymer to release the drug.

In fact, the polymers worked so well for TB drugs that another of Welland’s postdoctoral researchers, Dr Myriam Ouberaï, has formed a start-up company, Spirea, which is raising funding to develop the polymers for use with oncology drugs. Ouberaï is hoping to establish a collaboration with a pharma company in the next two years.

“Designing these particles, loading them with drugs and making them clever so that they release their cargo in a controlled and precise way: it’s quite a technical challenge,” adds Welland. “The main reason I’m interested in the challenge is I want to see something working in the clinic – I want to see something working in patients.”

Could nanotechnology move beyond therapeutics to a time when nanomachines keep us healthy by patrolling, monitoring and repairing the body?

Nanomachines have long been a dream of scientists and public alike. But working out how to make them move has meant they’ve remained in the realm of science fiction.

But last year, Professor Jeremy Baumberg and colleagues in Cambridge and the University of Bath developed the world’s tiniest engine – just a few billionths of a metre [nanometre] in size. It’s biocompatible, cost-effective to manufacture, fast to respond and energy efficient.

The forces exerted by these ‘ANTs’ (for ‘actuating nano-transducers’) are nearly a hundred times larger than those for any known device, motor or muscle. To make them, tiny charged particles of gold, bound together with a temperature-responsive polymer gel, are heated with a laser. As the polymer coatings expel water from the gel and collapse, a large amount of elastic energy is stored in a fraction of a second. On cooling, the particles spring apart and release energy.

The researchers hope to use this ability of ANTs to produce very large forces relative to their weight to develop three-dimensional machines that swim, have pumps that take on fluid to sense the environment and are small enough to move around our bloodstream.

Working with Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm, the team in Cambridge’s Nanophotonics Centre hopes to commercialise the technology for microfluidics bio-applications. The work is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Research Council.

“There’s a revolution happening in personalised healthcare, and for that we need sensors not just on the outside but on the inside,” explains Baumberg, who leads an interdisciplinary Strategic Research Network and Doctoral Training Centre focused on nanoscience and nanotechnology.

“Nanoscience is driving this. We are now building technology that allows us to even imagine these futures.”

I have featured Welland and his work here before and noted his penchant for wanting to insert nanodevices into humans as per this excerpt from an April 30, 2010 posting,
Getting back to the Cambridge University video, do go and watch it on the Nanowerk site. It is fun and very informative and approximately 17 mins. I noticed that they reused part of their Nokia morph animation (last mentioned on this blog here) and offered some thoughts from Professor Mark Welland, the team leader on that project. Interestingly, Welland was talking about yet another possibility. (Sometimes I think nano goes too far!) He was suggesting that we could have chips/devices in our brains that would allow us to think about phoning someone and an immediate connection would be made to that person. Bluntly—no. Just think what would happen if the marketers got access and I don’t even want to think what a person who suffers psychotic breaks (i.e., hearing voices) would do with even more input. Welland starts to talk at the 11 minute mark (I think). For an alternative take on the video and more details, visit Dexter Johnson’s blog, Nanoclast, for this posting. Hint, he likes the idea of a phone in the brain much better than I do.

I’m not sure what could have occasioned this latest press release and related video featuring Welland and nanotherapeutics other than guessing that it was a slow news period.

Accurate spatial orientation for regenerating cells

German scientists have developed a system that helps guide nerve cells into proper spatial alignmentswhen they are regenerating according to an April 5, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

In many tissues of the human body, such as nerve tissue, the spatial organization of cells plays an important role. Nerve cells and their long protrusions assemble into nerve tracts and transport information throughout the body. When such a tissue is injured, an accurate spatial orientation of the cells facilitates the healing process. Scientists from the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen developed an injectable gel, which can act as a guidance system for nerve cells.

An April 5, 2017 Leibniz Institute press release, which originated the news item, explains more about the research,

Inside the body, an extracellular matrix surrounds the cells. It provides mechanical support and promotes spatial tissue organization. In order to regenerate damaged tissue, an artificial matrix can temporally replace the natural extracellular matrix. This matrix needs to mimic the natural cell environment in order to efficiently stimulate the regenerative potential of the surrounding tissue. Solid implants, however, may impair remaining healthy tissue whereas soft, injectable materials allow for a minimal invasive therapy, which is particularly beneficial for sensitive tissues, such as the spinal cord. Unfortunately, up to now, artificial soft materials did not yet reproduce the complex structures and spatial properties of natural tissues.

A team of scientists, headed by Dr. Laura De Laporte from the DWI – Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials, developed a new, minimal invasive material termed ‘Anisogel’. “If you aim to enhance the regeneration of damaged spinal cord tissue, you need to come up with a new material concept,” says Jonas Rose. He is a PhD student working on the Anisogel project. “We use micrometer-sized building blocks and assemble them into 3D hierarchically organized structures.” Anisogel consists of two gel components. Many, microscopically small, soft rod-shaped gels, incorporated with a low amount of magnetic nanoparticles, are the first component. Using a weak magnetic field, scientists can orient the gel rods, after which a very soft surrounding gel matrix is crosslinked, forming the structural guidance system. The gel rods, being stabilized by the gel matrix, maintain their orientation, even after removal of the magnetic field. Using cell culture experiments, the researchers demonstrate that cells can easily migrate through this gel matrix, and that nerve cells and fibroblasts orient along the paths provided by this guidance system.  A low amount of one percent gel rods inside the entire Anisogel volume is proven to be sufficient to induce linear nerve growth. The material, developed by the Aachen-based scientists, is the first injectable biomaterial, which assembles into a controlled oriented structure after injection and provides a functional guidance system for cells. “To meet the complex requirements of this approach, the project team includes researchers with very different areas of expertise,” says Laura De Laporte, whose research is supported by a Starting Grant of the European Research Council. “This interdisciplinary work is what makes this project so fascinating.”

“Although our cell culture experiments were successful, we are prepared to go a long way to translate our Anisogel into a medical therapy. In collaboration with the Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, we currently plan pre-clinical studies to further test and optimize this material,” Laura De Laporte explains.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nerve Cells Decide to Orient inside an Injectable Hydrogel with Minimal Structural Guidance  by Jonas C. Rose, María Cámara-Torres, Khosrow Rahimi, Jens Köhler, Martin Möller, and Laura De Laporte. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.7b01123 Publication Date (Web): March 22, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Novel self-assembly at 102 atoms

A Jan. 13, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces a discovery about self-assembly of 102-atom gold nanoclusters,

Self-assembly of matter is one of the fundamental principles of nature, directing the growth of larger ordered and functional systems from smaller building blocks. Self-assembly can be observed in all length scales from molecules to galaxies. Now, researchers at the Nanoscience Centre of the University of Jyväskylä and the HYBER Centre of Excellence of Aalto University in Finland report a novel discovery of self-assembling two- and three-dimensional materials that are formed by tiny gold nanoclusters of just a couple of nanometres in size, each having 102 gold atoms and a surface layer of 44 thiol molecules. The study, conducted with funding from the Academy of Finland and the European Research Council, has been published in Angewandte Chemie.

A Jan. 13, 2017 Academy of Finland press release, which originated the news item, provides more technical information about the work,

The atomic structure of the 102-atom gold nanocluster was first resolved by the group of Roger D Kornberg at Stanford University in 2007 (2). Since then, several further studies of its properties have been conducted in the Jyväskylä Nanoscience Centre, where it has also been used for electron microscopy imaging of virus structures (3). The thiol surface of the nanocluster has a large number of acidic groups that can form directed hydrogen bonds to neighbouring nanoclusters and initiate directed self-assembly.

The self-assembly of gold nanoclusters took place in a water-methanol mixture and produced two distinctly different superstructures that were imaged in a high-resolution electron microscope at Aalto University. In one of the structures, two-dimensional hexagonally ordered layers of gold nanoclusters were stacked together, each layer being just one nanocluster thick. Modifying the synthesis conditions, also three-dimensional spherical, hollow capsid structures were observed, where the thickness of the capsid wall corresponds again to just one nanocluster size (see figure).

While the details of the formation mechanisms of these superstructures warrant further systemic investigations, the initial observations open several new views into synthetically made self-assembling nanomaterials.

“Today, we know of several tens of different types of atomistically precise gold nanoclusters, and I believe they can exhibit a wide variety of self-assembling growth patterns that could produce a range of new meta-materials,” said Academy Professor Hannu Häkkinen, who coordinated the research at the Nanoscience Centre. “In biology, typical examples of self-assembling functional systems are viruses and vesicles. Biological self-assembled structures can also be de-assembled by gentle changes in the surrounding biochemical conditions. It’ll be of great interest to see whether these gold-based materials can be de-assembled and then re-assembled to different structures by changing something in the chemistry of the surrounding solvent.”

“The free-standing two-dimensional nanosheets will bring opportunities towards new-generation functional materials, and the hollow capsids will pave the way for highly lightweight colloidal framework materials,” Postdoctoral Researcher Nonappa (Aalto University) said.

Professor Olli Ikkala of Aalto University said: “In a broader framework, it has remained as a grand challenge to master the self-assemblies through all length scales to tune the functional properties of materials in a rational way. So far, it has been commonly considered sufficient to achieve sufficiently narrow size distributions of the constituent nanoscale structural units to achieve well-defined structures. The present findings suggest a paradigm change to pursue strictly defined nanoscale units for self-assemblies.”


(1)    Nonappa, T. Lahtinen, J.S. Haataja, T.-R. Tero, H. Häkkinen and O. Ikkala, “Template-Free Supracolloidal Self-Assembly of Atomically Precise Gold Nanoclusters: From 2D Colloidal Crystals to Spherical Capsids”, Angewandte Chemie International Edition, published online 23 November 2016, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201609036

(2)    P. Jadzinsky et al., “Structure of a thiol-monolayer protected gold nanoparticle at 1.1Å resolution”, Science 318, 430 (2007)

(3)    V. Marjomäki et al., “Site-specific targeting of enterovirus capsid by functionalized monodispersed gold nanoclusters”, PNAS 111, 1277 (2014)

Here’s the figure mentioned in the news release,

Figure: 2D hexagonal sheet-like and 3D capsid structures based on atomically precise gold nanoclusters as guided by hydrogen bonding between the ligands. The inset in the top left corner shows the atomic structure of one gold nanocluster.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Template-Free Supracolloidal Self-Assembly of Atomically Precise Gold Nanoclusters: From 2D Colloidal Crystals to Spherical Capsids by Dr. Nonappa, Dr. Tanja Lahtinen, M. Sc. Johannes. S. Haataja, Dr. Tiia-Riikka Tero, Prof. Hannu Häkkinen, and Prof. Olli Ikkala. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 55, Issue 52, pages 16035–16038, December 23, 2016 Version of Record online: 23 NOV 2016 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201609036

© 2016 Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is behind a paywall.

Wound healing is nature’s way of zipping up your skin

Scientists have been able to observe the healing process at the molecular scale—in fruit flies. From an April 21, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists from the Goethe University (GU) Frankfurt, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Heidelberg and the University of Zurich explain skin fusion at a molecular level and pinpoint the specific molecules that do the job in their latest publication in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

An April 21, 2015 Goethe University Frankfurt press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes similarities between humans and fruit flies allowing scientists to infer the wound healing process for human skin,

In order to prevent death by bleeding or infection, every wound (skin opening) must close at some point. The events leading to skin closure had been unclear for many years. Mikhail Eltsov (GU) and colleagues used fruit fly embryos as a model system to understand this process. Similarly to humans, fruit fly embryos at some point in their development have a large opening in the skin on their back that must fuse. This process is called zipping, because two sides of the skin are fastened in a way that resembles a zipper that joins two sides of a jacket.

The scientists have used a top-of-the-range electron microscope to study exactly how this zipping of the skin works. “Our electron microscope allows us to distinguish the molecular components in the cell that act like small machines to fuse the skin. When we look at it from a distance, it appears as if skin cells simply fuse to each other, but if we zoom in, it becomes clear that membranes, molecular machines, and other cellular components are involved”, explains Eltsov.

“In order to visualize this orchestra of healing, a very high-resolution picture of the process is needed. For this purpose we have recorded an enormous amount of data that surpasses all previous studies of this kind”, says Mikhail Eltsov.

As a first step, as the scientists discovered, cells find their opposing partner by “sniffing” each other out. As a next step, they develop adherens junctions which act like a molecular Velcro. This way they become strongly attached to their opposing partner cell. The biggest revelation of this study was that small tubes in the cell, called microtubules, attach to this molecular Velcro and then deploy a self-catastrophe, which results in the skin being pulled towards the opening, as if one pulls a blanket over.

Damian Brunner who led the team at the University of Zurich has performed many genetic manipulations to identify the correct components. The scientists were astonished to find that microtubules involved in cell-division are the primary scaffold used for zipping, indicating a mechanism conserved during evolution.

“What was also amazing was the tremendous plasticity of the membranes in this process which managed to close the skin opening in a very short space of time. When five to ten cells have found their respective neighbors, the skin already appears normal”, says Achilleas Frangakis from the Goethe University Frankfurt, who led the study.

The scientists hope that their results will open new avenues into the understanding of epithelial plasticity and wound healing. They are also investigating the detailed structural organization of the adherens junctions, work for which they were awarded a starting grant from European Research Council (ERC).

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Quantitative analysis of cytoskeletal reorganization during epithelial tissue sealing by large-volume electron tomography by Mikhail Eltsov, Nadia Dubé, Zhou Yu, Laurynas Pasakarnis, Uta Haselmann-Weiss, Damian Brunner, & Achilleas S. Frangakis. Nature Cell Biology (2015) doi:10.1038/ncb3159 Published online 20 April 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube Access.

The researchers have provided an image illustrating ‘wound zipping’.

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells. Credit: GU

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells.
Credit: GU

SEMANTICS, a major graphene project based in Ireland

A Jan. 28, 2015 news item on Nanowerk profiles SEMANTICS, a major graphene project based in Ireland (Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is the strongest, most impermeable and conductive material known to man. Graphene sheets are just one atom thick, but 200 times stronger than steel. The European Union is investing heavily in the exploitation of graphene’s unique properties through a number of research initiatives such as the SEMANTICS project running at Trinity College Dublin.

A Dec. 16, 2014 European Commission press release, which originated the news item, provides an overview of the graphene enterprise in Europe,

It is no surprise that graphene, a substance with better electrical and thermal conductivity, mechanical strength and optical purity than any other, is being heralded as the ‘wonder material’ of the 21stcentury, as plastics were in the 20thcentury.

Graphene could be used to create ultra-fast electronic transistors, foldable computer displays and light-emitting diodes. It could increase and improve the efficiency of batteries and solar cells, help strengthen aircraft wings and even revolutionise tissue engineering and drug delivery in the health sector.

It is this huge potential which has convinced the European Commission to commit €1 billion to the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Graphene Flagship project, the largest-ever research initiative funded in the history of the EU. It has a guaranteed €54 million in funding for the first two years with much more expected over the next decade.

Sustained funding for the full duration of the Graphene Flagship project comes from the EU’s Research Framework Programmes, principally from Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).

The aim of the Graphene Flagship project, likened in scale to NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, or the Human Genome project in the 1990s, is to take graphene and related two-dimensional materials such as silicene (a single layer of silicon atoms) from a state of raw potential to a point where they can revolutionise multiple industries and create economic growth and new jobs in Europe.

The research effort will cover the entire value chain, from materials production to components and system integration. It will help to develop the strong position Europe already has in the field and provide an opportunity for European initiatives to lead in global efforts to fully exploit graphene’s miraculous properties.

Under the EU plan, 126 academics and industry groups from 17 countries will work on 15 individual but connected projects.

The press release then goes on to describe a new project, SEMANTICS,

… this is not the only support being provided by the EU for research into the phenomenal potential of graphene. The SEMANTICS research project, led by Professor Jonathan Coleman at Trinity College Dublin, is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and has already achieved some promising results.

The ERC does not assign funding to particular challenges or objectives, but selects the best scientists with the best ideas on the sole criterion of excellence. By providing complementary types of funding, both to individual scientists to work on their own ideas, and to large-scale consortia to coordinate top-down programmes, the EU is helping to progress towards a better knowledge and exploitation of graphene.

“It is no overestimation to state that graphene is one of the most exciting materials of our lifetime,” Prof. Coleman says. “It has the potential to provide answers to the questions that have so far eluded us. Technology, energy and aviation companies worldwide are racing to discover the full potential of graphene. Our research will be an important element in helping to realise that potential.”

With the help of European Research Council (ERC) Starting and Proof of Concept Grants, Prof. Coleman and his team are researching methods for obtaining single-atom layers of graphene and other layered compounds through exfoliation (peeling off) from the multilayers, followed by deposition on a range of surfaces to prepare films displaying specific behaviour.

“We’re working towards making graphene and other single-atom layers available on an economically viable industrial scale, and making it cheaply,” Prof. Coleman continues.

“At CRANN [Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices at Trinity College Dublin], we are developing nanosheets of graphene and other single-atom materials which can be made in very large quantities,” he adds. “When you put these sheets in plastic, for example, you make the plastic stronger. Not only that – you can massively increase its electrical properties, you can improve its thermal properties and you can make it less permeable to gases. The applications for industry could be endless.”

Prof. Coleman admits that scientists are regularly taken aback by the potential of graphene. “We are continually amazed at what graphene and other single-atom layers can do,” he reveals. “Recently it has been discovered that, when added to glue, graphene can make it more adhesive. Who would have thought that? It’s becoming clear that graphene just makes things a whole lot better,” he concludes.

So far, the project has developed a practical method for producing two-dimensional nanosheets in large quantities. Crucially, these nanosheets are already being used for a range of applications, including the production of reinforced plastics and metals, building super-capacitors and batteries which store energy, making cheap light detectors, and enabling ultra-sensitive position and motion sensors. As the number of application grows, increased demand for these materials is anticipated. In response, the SEMANTICS team has scaled up the production process and is now producing 2D nanosheets at a rate more than 1000 times faster than was possible just a year ago.

I believe that new graphene production process is the ‘blender’ technique featured here in an April 23, 2014 post. There’s also a profile of the ‘blender’ project  in a Dec. 10, 2014 article by Ben Deighton for the European Commission’s Horizon magazine (Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s framework science funding programme). Deighton’s article hosts a video of Jonathan Coleman speaking about nanotechnology, blenders, and more on Dec. 1, 2014 at TEDxBrussels.

NUSIKIMO: plasma and nanotechnology applications

NUKISIMO's plama and nanotechnology applications? Credit: Shutterstock [downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=EN_NEWS&ACTION=D&RCN=36206]

NUKISIMO’s plama and nanotechnology applications? Credit: Shutterstock [downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=EN_NEWS&ACTION=D&RCN=36206]

It looks like a jewel, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, there’s no explanation for why this image is offered as an illustration for an Oct. 31, 2013 OORDIS news release (h/t phys.org) about plasma and nanotechnology applications, being worked on as part of the NUSIKIMO (‘Numerical simulations and analysis of kinetic models – applications to plasma physics and nanotechnology’) project,

Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, alongside solid, liquid and gas. Ubiquitous in form, plasma is an ionised gas so energised that electrons have the capacity to break free from their nucleus.

Scientists are keen to shed light on the motion of particles in plasma physics, as well as the dynamics of rarefied gas – a gas whose pressure is much lower than atmospheric pressure. How can this be done? An EU-funded team of researchers has come up with a solution.

Prof. Francis Filbet from Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 in France decided to tackle the question with mathematical and numerical analyses. He received an European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant worth almost EUR 500 000 for the NUSIKIMO (‘Numerical simulations and analysis of kinetic models – applications to plasma physics and nanotechnology’) project. Prof Filbet and his research team modelled non-stationary collisional plasma with supercomputers, putting regimes and instabilities under the microscope.

One of the challenges researchers undertook was to approximate kinetic models and to develop novel techniques that could make numerical analysis in kinetic theory possible.

To do this, the team is working on adapting averaging lemmas (proven statements used for obtaining proof of other statements) to examine kinetic equations, including the Boltzmann equation. Devised in 1872, the seven-dimensional equation is used to model the behaviour of gases, but solving it has proved problematic as numerical capabilities fail to capture the complexities involved.

The NUSIKIMO team is also examining asymptotic preserving schemes, which can be described as performant procedures able to solve ‘singularly perturbed problems’ – those for which the character of the problem changes intermittently.

Such problems contain small parameters that cannot be approximated by setting the parameter value to zero. For comparison, an approximation for regular perturbation problems can be obtained when small parameters are set to zero.

Asymptotic preserving schemes were established to help scientists deal with singularly perturbed problems. This is especially the case when they are dealing with kinetic models in a diffusive environment.

Prof. Filbet and his team are developing a method to control numerical entropy (classical thermodynamics) production. Being able to control entropy production, which determines the performance of thermal machines, is an important feature for stability analysis – an assessment that helps us understand what happens to a system when it is perturbed. The researchers believe nonlinear equations could therefore be treated with a strategy based on asymptotic preserving schemes.

Applying these equations to plasma physics is one of the NUSIKIMO goals. The team is evaluating energy transport and seeking to determine the efficiency of plasma heating. The researchers are also looking into the measures required to secure fusion conditions through the interaction of intense, short laser pulses, and schemes like inertial confinement fusion or fast ignition.

Another objective is to apply the equations to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Prof. Filbet and his team are developing theoretical and numerical methods to investigate gaseous and liquid flows in micro devices. The key element here is the development of numerical methods. The researchers say: using numerical methods, rather than analytical methods, make modelling the three-dimensional flow geometries in MEMS configurations possible.

The project end date is December 2013 but in the meantime, you can get more information about NUSIKIMO here.

Nanodiamonds detect the iron in your blood

Too little iron in the blood can lead to anemia and too much can signal problems with the immune system; German researchers have devised a promising new technique for detecting the amount of iron in the blood according to an Oct. 2, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Lack of iron — caused by malnutrition — can lead to anemia while an increased level of iron may signal the presence of an acute inflammatory response. Therefore, the blood iron level is an important medical diagnostic agent. Researchers at Ulm University [Germany], led by experimental physicist Fedor Jelezko, theoretical physicist Martin Plenio and chemist Tanja Weil, have developed a novel biosensor for determination of iron content that is based on nanodiamonds.

Here’s an image of microscopic diamonds before they’ve been ground down to the nanoscale,

(Photo: Fedor Jelezko): Microscope picture of small diamonds, 100 microns in diameter. Specific lattice defects do not only impart colour on the diamonds but also provide the basis for the magnetic field sensor. In their experiments the team at Ulm ground down these diamonds to a size of 20 nanometers (as a comparison, a human hair has a diameter of 70 microns and is therefore 3000 times thicker than the nanodiamonds).

(Photo: Fedor Jelezko): Microscope picture of small diamonds, 100 microns in diameter. Specific lattice defects do not only impart colour on the diamonds but also provide the basis for the magnetic field sensor. In their experiments the team at Ulm ground down these diamonds to a size of 20 nanometers (as a comparison, a human hair has a diameter of 70 microns and is therefore 3000 times thicker than the nanodiamonds).

The Oct. 2, 2013 University of Ulm news release (on the Alpha Galileo Foundation website,) which originated the news item, describes the problem the scientists were addressing and their solution,

“Standard blood tests do not capture — as one might expect — free iron ions in the blood, because free iron is toxic and is therefore hardly detectable in blood,” explains Professor Tanja Weil, director of the Institute for Organic Chemistry III, University of Ulm. These methods are based on certain proteins instead that are responsible for the storage and transport of iron. One of these proteins is Ferritin that can contain up to 4,500 magnetic iron ions. Most standard tests are based on immunological techniques and estimate the iron concentration indirectly based on different markers. Results from different tests may however lead to inconsistent results in some clinical situations.

The Ulm scientists have developed a completely new approach to detect Ferritin. This required a combination of several new ideas. First, each ferritin-bound iron atom generates a magnetic field but as there are only 4,500 of them, the total magnetic field they generate is very small indeed and therefore hard to measure. This indeed, posed the second challenge for the team: to develop a method that is sufficiently sensitive to detect such weak magnetic fields. This they achieved by making use of a completely new, innovative technology based on tiny artificial diamonds of nanometer size. Crucially these diamonds are not perfect —colorless and transparent — but contain lattice defects which are optically active and thus provide the color of diamonds.

“These color centers allow us to measure the orientation of electron spins in external fields and thus measure their strength” explains Professor Fedor Jelezko, director of the Ulm Institute of Quantum Optics. Thirdly, the team had to find a way to adsorb ferritin on the surface of the diamond. “This we achieved with the help of electrostatic interactions between the tiny diamond particles and ferritin proteins,” adds Weil. Finally, “Theoretical modeling was essential to ensure that the signal measured is in fact consistent with the presence of ferritin and thus to validate the method,” states Martin Plenio, director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. Future plans of the Ulm team include the precise determination of the number of ferritin proteins and the average iron load of individual proteins.

As the news release notes, this research is part of a larger project,

The demonstration of this innovative method, reported in Nano Letters [journal], represents a first step towards the goals of their recently awarded BioQ Synergy Grant. [10.3 million Euro which the scientists were awarded last December 2012 by the European Research Council] The focus of this project is the exploration of quantum properties in biology and the creation of self-organized diamond structures.

“Diamond sensors can thus be applied in biology and medicine,” say the Ulm scientists. But their new invention has its limits “. Whether the children have actually eaten their spinach cannot be detected with the diamond sensor, that’s still the prerogative of parents “, confesses quantum physicist Plenio

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Detection of a Few Metallo-Protein Molecules Using Color Centers in Nanodiamonds by A. Ermakova, G. Pramanik, J.-M. Cai, G. Algara-Siller,  U. Kaiser, T. Weil, Y.-K. Tzeng, H. C. Chang, L. P. McGuinness, M. B. Plenio, B. Naydenov, and F. Jelezko. Nano Lett., 2013, 13 (7), pp 3305–3309 DOI: 10.1021/nl4015233 Publication Date (Web): June 5, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

2.5M Euros for Ireland’s John Boland and his memristive nanowires

The announcement makes no mention of the memristor or neuromorphic engineering but those are the areas in which  John Boland works and the reason for his 2.5M Euro research award. From the Ap. 3, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Professor John Boland, Director of CRANN, the SFI-funded [Science Foundation of Ireland] nanoscience institute based at Trinity College Dublin, and a Professor in the School of Chemistry has been awarded a €2.5 million research grant by the European Research Council (ERC). This is the second only Advanced ERC grant ever awarded in Physical Sciences in Ireland.

The Award will see Professor Boland and his team continue world-leading research into how nanowire networks can lead to a range of smart materials, sensors and digital memory applications. The research could result in computer networks that mimic the functions of the human brain and vastly improve on current computer capabilities such as facial recognition.

The University of Dublin’s Trinity College CRANN (Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices) April 3, 2013 news release, which originated the news item,  provides details about Boland’s proposed nanowire network,

Nanowires are spaghetti like structures, made of materials such as copper or silicon. They are just a few atoms thick and can be readily engineered into tangled networks of nanowires. Researchers worldwide are investigating the possibility that nanowires hold the future of energy production (solar cells) and could deliver the next generation of computers.

Professor Boland has discovered that exposing a random network of nanowires to stimuli like electricity, light and chemicals, generates chemical reaction at the junctions where the nanowires cross. By controlling the stimuli, it is possible to harness these reactions to manipulate the connectivity within the network. This could eventually allow computations that mimic the functions of the nerves in the human brain – particularly the development of associative memory functions which could lead to significant advances in areas such as facial recognition.

Commenting Professor John Boland said, “This funding from the European Research Council allows me to continue my work to deliver the next generation of computing, which differs from the traditional digital approach.  The human brain is neurologically advanced and exploits connectivity that is controlled by electrical and chemical signals. My research will create nanowire networks that have the potential to mimic aspects of the neurological functions of the human brain, which may revolutionise the performance of current day computers.   It could be truly ground-breaking.”

It’s only in the news release’s accompanying video that the memristor and neuromorphic engineering are mentioned,

I have written many times about the memristor, most recently in a Feb. 26, 2013 posting titled, How to use a memristor to create an artificial brain, where I noted a proposed ‘blueprint’ for an artificial brain. A contested concept, the memristor has attracted critical commentary as noted in a Mar. 19, 2013 comment added to the ‘blueprint’  post,

A Sceptic says:


Before talking about blueprints, one has to consider that the dynamic state equations describing so-called non-volatile memristors are in conflict with fundamentals of physics. These problems are discussed in:

“Fundamental Issues and Problems in the Realization of Memristors” by P. Meuffels and R. Soni (http://arxiv.org/abs/1207.7319)

“On the physical properties of memristive, memcapacitive, and meminductive systems” by M. Di Ventra and Y. V. Pershin (http://arxiv.org/abs/1302.7063)

AAAS 2013 meeting in Boston,US and Canadian research excellence

The 2013 annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will be held in Boston, Massachusetts from Feb. 14 – 18, 2013 with a much better theme this year, The Beauty and Benefits of Science, than last year’s, Flattening the World. (It didn’t take much to improve the theme, eh?)

Plenary speakers range from AAAS’s president, William N. Press to Nathan Myhrvold, a venture capitalist to astrophysicist, Robert Kirshner to Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist to Sherry Turkle. From the AAAS webpage describing Turkle’s 2013 plenary lecture,

Sherry Turkle

Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, MIT

The Robotic Moment: What Do We Forget When We Talk to Machines?

Dr. Turkle is founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. She received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist. Her research focuses on the psychology of human relationships with technology, especially in the realm of how people relate to computational objects. She is an expert on mobile technology, social networking, and sociable robotics and a regular media commentator on the social and psychological effects of technology. Her most recent book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Given my experience last year in the 2012 meeting media room, I’m surprised to see a social media session is planned, from the session webpage,

Engaging with Social Media
Communicating Science
Thursday, February 14, 2013: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Ballroom A (Hynes Convention Center)

In a constantly changing online landscape, what is the best way for scientists and engineers to engage the public through social media? This session will discuss how people are accessing science information via blogs and social networks and the importance of researchers getting involved directly. [emphasis mine]  Speakers will address the ways that researchers can create meaningful interactions with the public through social media.

Organizer: Cornelia Dean, The New York Times
Co-Organizer: Dennis Meredith, Science Communication Consultant
Moderator: Carl Zimmer, Independent Science Journalist

XXXX Scicurious, Neurotic Physiology
Science Blogging for Fun and Profit
Christie Wilcox, University of Hawaii
Science in a Digital Age
Dominique Brossard, University of Wisconsin
Science and the Public in New Information Environments

I’d love to see how the theme of ‘researcher engaging directly’ gets developed. In theory, I have no problems with the concept. Unfortunately, those words are sometimes code for this perspective, ‘only experts (scientists/accredited journalists) should discuss or write about science’. A couple of quick comments, my Jan. 13, 2012 posting featured an interview with Carl Zimmer, this session’s moderator, about his science tattoo book and Dominique Brossard, one of the speakers, was last mentioned here in my Jan. 24, 2013 posting titled, Tweet your nano, in the context of a research study on social media and nanotechnology.

In keeping with the times (as per my Jan. 28, 2013 posting about the colossal research prizes for the Graphene and Human Brain Project initiatives), the 2012 AAAS annual meeting features a Brain Function and Plasticity thread or subtheme. There’s this session amongst others,

The Connectome: From the Synapse to Brain Networks in Health and Disease
Brain Function and Plasticity
Saturday, February 16, 2013: 8:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 304 (Hynes Convention Center)

A series of innovative studies are being done to map the brain from the molecular to the systems level both structurally and functionally. At the synaptic level, how neurotransmitters, their receptors, and signaling pathways influence neural function and plasticity is becoming much better understood. Integrating neuronal function at the level of single neurons and groups of neurons into larger circuits at the anatomical level in the mammalian brain, while a daunting task, is being studied by advanced imaging techniques requiring vast amounts of information storage and processing. To integrate local circuit function with whole brain function, understanding the structure and processing of brain networks is critical. A major project to accomplish this task, the Human Connectome Project, is in the process of integrating the structure and function of brain networks using the most advanced imaging and analysis techniques in 1,200 people, including twins and their nontwin siblings. This step will allow for major new insights into not only brain structure and function, but also their genetic underpinnings. Comparing this information in both the normal brain and in different brain disorders such as neurodegenerative diseases is providing novel insights into how understanding brain function from the molecular to the systems level will provide insights into normal brain function and disease pathogenesis as well as provide new treatment strategies.


David Holtzman, Washington University


Mark F. Bear, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Molecules and Mechanisms Involved in Synaptic Plasticity in Health and Disease
Jeff Lichtman, Harvard University
Connectomics: Developing a Wiring Diagram for the Mammalian Brain
Steve Petersen, Washington University
The Human Connectome Project
Marcus E. Raichle, Washington University
The Brain’s Dark Energy and the Default Mode Network
Nicole Calakos, Duke University
Synaptic Plasticity in the Basal Ganglia in Health and Disease
William W. Seeley, University of California
Brain Networks: Linking Structure and Function in Neurodegenerative Diseases

Then, there’s this session featuring graphene,

What’s Hot in Cold
Sunday, February 17, 2013: 8:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 308 (Hynes Convention Center)

The study of ultracold atoms and molecules is now the frontier of low-temperature science, reaching temperatures of a few hundred picokelvin above absolute zero. This field was made possible by a technique that did not exist 30 years ago: laser cooling of atoms. It is hardly obvious that the laser, which produces the most intense light on Earth and is routinely used in industrial applications for cutting and welding medal, would also provide the most powerful coolant. Such are the surprises of science, where a breakthrough in one area transforms others in unexpected ways. Since 1997, eight Nobel Laureates in physics have been recognized for contributions to ultracold atomic and molecular science, which has become one of the most vibrant fields in physics, cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries, e.g., atomic, molecular, and optical; condensed matter; statistical physics; and nuclear and particle physics. This field builds on two accomplishments that it was the first to achieve: first, the production of quantum degenerate matter using a wide range of elements and, second, exquisite control of quantum degenerate matter at the atomic level. These have led to record low temperatures, ultraprecise atomic clocks, and new forms of quantum matter that generalize ideas from magnetism superconductivity and graphene physics.


Charles W. Clark, Joint Quantum Institute


Markus Greiner, Harvard University
Quantum Simulation: A Microscopic View of Quantum Matter
Ana Maria Rey, University of Colorado
Atomic Clocks: From Precise Timekeepers to Quantum Simulators
Daniel Greif, ETH Zurich
Exploring Dirac Points with Ultracold Fermions in a Tunable Honeycomb Lattice
Gretchen Campbell, Joint Quantum Institute
Superflow in Bose-Einstein Condensate Rings: Tunable Weak Links in Atom Circuits
Benjamin Lev, Stanford University
New Physics in Strongly Magnetic Ultracold Gases

Amongst all these other sessions, there’s a session about Canadian science,

Introduction to Canadian Research Excellence: Evidence & Examples
Friday, February 15, 2013: 11:00 AM-12:00 PM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)

The Canada Pavilion in the Exhibit Hall gives a taste of what lies north of Boston and the 49th parallel. Join us at this workshop to learn about opportunities in Canada for research and study. Canada recently completed a comprehensive analysis of its domestic science and technology strengths. The final report of the expert panel of the Council of Canadian Academies will be presented, including the use of global benchmarks and insights on international collaborations. Two of the drivers for Canadian excellence will be introduced: large-scale science facilities in key fields and a system of targeted fellowships and research chairs that recruit globally.


Tim Meyer, TRIUMF


Tim Meyer, TRIUMF,
Chad Gaffield, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
Eliot Phillipson, University of Toronto

“Introduced,” really? Large scale science facilities are not new in Canada or anywhere else for that matter and the programmes of targeted fellowships have been around long enough and successful enough that it is being copied.

First, there was the Canada Research Chair programme, which was instituted in 2000. From the About Us page (Note: A link has been removed),

The Canada Research Chairs program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development. [emphasis mine]

In 2000, the Government of Canada created a permanent program to establish 2000 research professorships—Canada Research Chairs—in eligible degree-granting institutions across the country.

The Canada Research Chairs program invests $300 million per year to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds.

This was programme was followed up with the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program in 2008, from the Background page (Note: A link has been removed),

Launched in 2008, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program supports Canadian universities in their efforts to build on Canada’s growing reputation as a global leader in research and innovation. The program awards world-renowned researchers and their teams up to $10 million over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities. These awards are among the most prestigious and generous available globally.

In May 2010, the first group of Canada Excellence Research Chairs was announced. Selected through a rigorous, multilevel peer review process, these chairholders are helping Canada build a critical mass of expertise in the four priority research areas of the federal government’s science and technology strategy …

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 21, 2012 posting,

Canadians have been throwing money at scientists for some years now (my May 20, 2010 posting about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs programme). We’ve attempted to recruit from around the world with our ‘research chairs’ and our ‘excellence research chairs’ and our Network Centres of Excellence (NCE) all serving as enticements.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced that they will be trying to beat us at our own game at the AAAS 2012 annual meeting in Vancouver (this new ERC programme was launched in Boston, Massachusetts in January 2012).

The Canadian report these folks will be discussing was released in Sept. 2012 and was  featured here in a two-part commentary,

The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report—examined (part 1: the executive summary)

The State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 report—examined (part 2: the rest of the report)

My Sept. 27, 2012 posting features my response to the report’s launch on that day.

As for the AAAS 2013 annual meeting, there’s a lot, lot more of it and it’s worth checking out, if for no other reason than to anticipate the types of science stories you will be seeing in the coming months.

Canadian research (and other ‘excellence’) initiatives get some competition from the European Research Council

Canadians have been throwing money at scientists for some years now (my May 20, 2010 posting about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs programme). We’ve attempted to recruit from around the world with our ‘research chairs’ and our ‘excellence research chairs’ and our Network Centres of Excellence (NCE) all serving as enticements.

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced that they will be trying to beat us at our own game at the AAAS 2012 annual meeting in Vancouver (this new ERC programme was launched in Boston, Massachusetts in January 2012). From the Agence France Presse Feb. 20, 2012 news item on physorg.com,

The European Research Council launched an international campaign Sunday to court the world’s top scientists to work in Europe with grants of up to 3.5 million euro (4.6 million dollars) over five years.

The goal of the program is to boost the number of non-European researchers to over 500. Currently, just 100 of its 2,600 grant recipients are from outside Europe, said council secretary general Donald Dingwell.

Dingwell, who after Canada plans to visit South Africa, several Asian countries, Latin America, Russia and Ukraine, the United States and Mexico, said the main condition is that recipients spend half their time in Europe and be affiliated with a European institution.

ERC’s Dec. 2011 newsletter features an article, Going global; Making Europe a prime location for the best brains, where they outline the campaign which actually started in 2007 but this latest initiative (Destination Europe) offers a renewed and more aggressive approach (and similarities to the Canadian efforts) to attracting more scientists to Europe. From the article,

The ERC Secretary General Donald Dingwell has been given a key role in this venture. Originally from Canada and with ample international experience, he will be the ERC’s Ambassador worldwide … The US is undoubtedly a hotspot for talent and thus for the ERC, but also the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and other top performers in science will be a priority in the years to come.

That’s a nice touch, having an expat Canadian lead your somewhat competitive initiative.