Tag Archives: University of Cambridge

Artificial pancreas in 2018?

According to Dr. Roman Hovorka and Dr. Hood Thabit of the University of Cambridge, UK, there will be an artificial pancreas assuming issues such as cybersecurity are resolved. From a June 30, 2016 Diabetologia press release on EurekAlert,

The artificial pancreas — a device which monitors blood glucose in patients with type 1 diabetes and then automatically adjusts levels of insulin entering the body — is likely to be available by 2018, conclude authors of a paper in Diabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes). Issues such as speed of action of the forms of insulin used, reliability, convenience and accuracy of glucose monitors plus cybersecurity to protect devices from hacking, are among the issues that are being addressed.

The press release describes the current technology available for diabetes type 1 patients and alternatives other than an artificial pancreas,

Currently available technology allows insulin pumps to deliver insulin to people with diabetes after taking a reading or readings from glucose meters, but these two components are separate. It is the joining together of both parts into a ‘closed loop’ that makes an artificial pancreas, explain authors Dr Roman Hovorka and Dr Hood Thabit of the University of Cambridge, UK. “In trials to date, users have been positive about how use of an artificial pancreas gives them ‘time off’ or a ‘holiday’ from their diabetes management, since the system is managing their blood sugar effectively without the need for constant monitoring by the user,” they say.

One part of the clinical need for the artificial pancreas is the variability of insulin requirements between and within individuals — on one day a person could use one third of their normal requirements, and on another 3 times what they normally would. This is dependent on the individual, their diet, their physical activity and other factors. The combination of all these factors together places a burden on people with type 1 diabetes to constantly monitor their glucose levels, to ensure they don’t end up with too much blood sugar (hyperglycaemic) or more commonly, too little (hypoglycaemic). Both of these complications can cause significant damage to blood vessels and nerve endings, making complications such as cardiovascular problems more likely.

There are alternatives to the artificial pancreas, with improvements in technology in both whole pancreas transplantation and also transplants of just the beta cells from the pancreas which produce insulin. However, recipients of these transplants require drugs to supress their immune systems just as in other organ transplants. In the case of whole pancreas transplantation, major surgery is required; and in beta cell islet transplantation, the body’s immune system can still attack the transplanted cells and kill off a large proportion of them (80% in some cases). The artificial pancreas of course avoids the need for major surgery and immunosuppressant drugs.

Researchers are working to solve one of the major problems with an artificial pancreas according to the press release,

Researchers globally continue to work on a number of challenges faced by artificial pancreas technology. One such challenge is that even fast-acting insulin analogues do not reach their peak levels in the bloodstream until 0.5 to 2 hours after injection, with their effects lasting 3 to 5 hours. So this may not be fast enough for effective control in, for example, conditions of vigorous exercise. Use of the even faster acting ‘insulin aspart’ analogue may remove part of this problem, as could use of other forms of insulin such as inhaled insulin. Work also continues to improve the software in closed loop systems to make it as accurate as possible in blood sugar management.

The press release also provides a brief outline of some of the studies being run on one artificial pancreas or another, offers an abbreviated timeline for when the medical device may be found on the market, and notes specific cybersecurity issues,

A number of clinical studies have been completed using the artificial pancreas in its various forms, in various settings such as diabetes camps for children, and real life home testing. Many of these trials have shown as good or better glucose control than existing technologies (with success defined by time spent in a target range of ideal blood glucose concentrations and reduced risk of hypoglycaemia). A number of other studies are ongoing. The authors say: “Prolonged 6- to 24-month multinational closed-loop clinical trials and pivotal studies are underway or in preparation including adults and children. As closed loop devices may be vulnerable to cybersecurity threats such as interference with wireless protocols and unauthorised data retrieval, implementation of secure communications protocols is a must.”

The actual timeline to availability of the artificial pancreas, as with other medical devices, encompasses regulatory approvals with reassuring attitudes of regulatory agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is currently reviewing one proposed artificial pancreas with approval possibly as soon as 2017. And a recent review by the UK National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) reported that automated closed-loop systems may be expected to appear in the (European) market by the end of 2018. The authors say: “This timeline will largely be dependent upon regulatory approvals and ensuring that infrastructures and support are in place for healthcare professionals providing clinical care. Structured education will need to continue to augment efficacy and safety.”

The authors say: “Cost-effectiveness of closed-loop is to be determined to support access and reimbursement. In addition to conventional endpoints such as blood sugar control, quality of life is to be included to assess burden of disease management and hypoglycaemia. Future research may include finding out which sub-populations may benefit most from using an artificial pancreas. Research is underway to evaluate these closed-loop systems in the very young, in pregnant women with type 1 diabetes, and in hospital in-patients who are suffering episodes of hyperglycaemia.”

They conclude: “Significant milestones moving the artificial pancreas from laboratory to free-living unsupervised home settings have been achieved in the past decade. Through inter-disciplinary collaboration, teams worldwide have accelerated progress and real-world closed-loop applications have been demonstrated. Given the challenges of beta-cell transplantation, closed-loop technologies are, with continuing innovation potential, destined to provide a viable alternative for existing insulin pump therapy and multiple daily insulin injections.”

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

Coming of age: the artificial pancreas for type 1 diabetes by Hood Thabit, Roman Hovorka. Diabetologia (2016). doi:10.1007/s00125-016-4022-4 First Online: 30 June 2016

This is an open access paper.

‘Getting into’ cellulose walls at the University of Cambridge (UK) and University of Melbourne (Australia)

“Getting into” as used in the headline is slang for exploring a topic in more depth which is what an international team of researchers did when they ‘got into’ cellulose. From a June 9, 2016 news item on phys.org (Note: Links have been removed),

In the search for low emission plant-based fuels, new research may help avoid having to choose between growing crops for food or fuel.

Scientists have identified new steps in the way plants produce cellulose, the component of plant cell walls that provides strength, and forms insoluble fibre in the human diet.

The findings could lead to improved production of cellulose and guide plant breeding for specific uses such as wood products and ethanol fuel, which are sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-based products.

Published in the journal Nature Communications today, the work was conducted by an international team of scientists, led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Melbourne.

A June 9, 2016 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Our research identified several proteins that are essential in the assembly of the protein machinery that makes cellulose”, said Melbourne’s Prof Staffan Persson.

“We found that these assembly factors control how much cellulose is made, and so plants without them can not produce cellulose very well and the defect substantially impairs plant biomass production. The ultimate aim of this research would be breed plants that have altered activity of these proteins so that cellulose production can be improved for the range of applications that use cellulose including paper, timber and ethanol fuels.”

The newly discovered proteins are located in an intracellular compartment called the Golgi where proteins are sorted and modified.

“If the function of this protein family is abolished the cellulose synthesizing complexes become stuck in the Golgi and have problems reaching the cell surface where they normally are active” said the lead authors of the study, Drs. Yi Zhang (Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology) and Nino Nikolovski (University of Cambridge).

“We therefore named the new proteins STELLO, which is Greek for to set in place, and deliver.”

“The findings are important to understand how plants produce their biomass”, said Professor Paul Dupree from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry.

“Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from the biomass of plants, are estimated to be roughly 85 percent less than from fossil fuel sources. Research to understand cellulose production in plants is therefore an important part of climate change mitigation.”

“In addition, by using cellulosic plant materials we get around the problem of food-versus-fuel scenario that is problematic when using corn as a basis for bioethanol.”

“It is therefore of great importance to find genes and mechanisms that can improve cellulose production in plants so that we can tailor cellulose production for various needs.”

Previous studies by Profs. Persson’s and Dupree’s research groups have, together with other scientists, identified many proteins that are important for cellulose synthesis and for other cell wall polymers.

With the newly presented research they substantially increase our understanding for how the bulk of a plant’s biomass is produced and is therefore of vast importance to industrial applications.

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

Golgi-localized STELLO proteins regulate the assembly and trafficking of cellulose synthase complexes in Arabidopsis by Yi Zhang, Nino Nikolovski, Mathias Sorieul, Tamara Vellosillo, Heather E. McFarlane, Ray Dupree, Christopher Kesten, René Schneider, Carlos Driemeier, Rahul Lathe, Edwin Lampugnani, Xiaolan Yu, Alexander Ivakov, Monika S. Doblin, Jenny C. Mortimer, Steven P. Brown, Staffan Persson, & Paul Dupree. Nature Communications 7,
Article number: 11656 doi:10.1038/ncomms11656 Published  09 June 2016

This paper is open access.

Squeezing out ‘polymer opals’ for smart clothing and more

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a technology for producing ‘polymer opals’ on industrial scales according to a June 3, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Using a new method called Bend-Induced-Oscillatory-Shearing (BIOS), the researchers are now able to produce hundreds of metres of these materials, known as ‘polymer opals’, on a roll-to-roll process. The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications (“Large-scale ordering of nanoparticles using viscoelastic shear processing”).

A June 3, 2016 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers have devised a new method for stacking microscopic marbles into regular layers, producing intriguing materials which scatter light into intense colours, and which change colour when twisted or stretched.

Some of the brightest colours in nature can be found in opal gemstones, butterfly wings and beetles. These materials get their colour not from dyes or pigments, but from the systematically-ordered microstructures they contain.

The team behind the current research, based at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, have been working on methods of artificially recreating this ‘structural colour’ for several years, but to date, it has been difficult to make these materials using techniques that are cheap enough to allow their widespread use.

In order to make the polymer opals, the team starts by growing vats of transparent plastic nano-spheres. Each tiny sphere is solid in the middle but sticky on the outside. The spheres are then dried out into a congealed mass. By bending sheets containing a sandwich of these spheres around successive rollers the balls are magically forced into perfectly arranged stacks, by which stage they have intense colour.

By changing the sizes of the starting nano-spheres, different colours (or wavelengths) of light are reflected. And since the material has a rubber-like consistency, when it is twisted and stretched, the spacing between the spheres changes, causing the material to change colour. When stretched, the material shifts into the blue range of the spectrum, and when compressed, the colour shifts towards red. When released, the material returns to its original colour. Such chameleon materials could find their way into colour-changing wallpapers, or building coatings that reflect away infrared thermal radiation.

I always like it when there are quotes which seem spontaneous (from the press release),

“Finding a way to coax objects a billionth of a metre across into perfect formation over kilometre scales is a miracle [emphasis mine],” said Professor Jeremy Baumberg, the paper’s senior author. “But spheres are only the first step, as it should be applicable to more complex architectures on tiny scales.”

In order to make polymer opals in large quantities, the team first needed to understand their internal structure so that it could be replicated. Using a variety of techniques, including electron microscopy, x-ray scattering, rheology and optical spectroscopy, the researchers were able to see the three-dimensional position of the spheres within the material, measure how the spheres slide past each other, and how the colours change.

“It’s wonderful [emphasis mine] to finally understand the secrets of these attractive films,” said PhD student Qibin Zhao, the paper’s lead author.

There’s also the commercialization aspect to this work (from the press release),

Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm which is helping to commercialise the material, has been contacted by more than 100 companies interested in using polymer opals, and a new spin-out Phomera Technologies has been founded. Phomera will look at ways of scaling up production of polymer opals, as well as selling the material to potential buyers. Possible applications the company is considering include coatings for buildings to reflect heat, smart clothing and footwear, or for banknote security [emphasis mine] and packaging applications.

There is a Canadian company already selling its anti-counterfeiting (banknote security) bioinspired technology. It’s called Opalux and it’s not the only bioinspired anti-counterfeiting Canadian technology company, there’s also NanoTech Security which takes its inspiration from a butterfly (Blue Morpho) wing.

Getting back to Cambridge, here’s a link to and a citation for the research team’s paper,

Large-scale ordering of nanoparticles using viscoelastic shear processing by Qibin Zhao, Chris E. Finlayson, David R. E. Snoswell, Andrew Haines, Christian Schäfer, Peter Spahn, Goetz P. Hellmann, Andrei V. Petukhov, Lars Herrmann, Pierre Burdet, Paul A. Midgley, Simon Butler, Malcolm Mackley, Qixin Guo, & Jeremy J. Baumberg. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 11661  doi:10.1038/ncomms11661 Published 03 June 2016

This paper is open access.

There is a video demonstrating the stretchability of their ‘polymer opal’ film

It was posted on YouTube three years ago when the researchers were first successful. It’s nice to see they’ve been successful at getting the technology to the commercialization stage.

The song is you: a McGill University, University of Cambridge, and Stanford University research collaboration

These days I’m thinking about sound, music, spoken word, and more as I prepare for a new art/science piece. It’s very early stages so I don’t have much more to say about it but along those lines of thought, there’s a recent piece of research on music and personality that caught my eye. From a May 11, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A team of scientists from McGill University, the University of Cambridge, and Stanford Graduate School of Business developed a new method of coding and categorizing music. They found that people’s preference for these musical categories is driven by personality. The researchers say the findings have important implications for industry and health professionals.

A May 10, 2016 McGill University news release, which originated the news item, provides some fascinating suggestions for new categories for music,

There are a multitude of adjectives that people use to describe music, but in a recent study to be published this week in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers show that musical attributes can be grouped into three categories. Rather than relying on the genre or style of a song, the team of scientists led by music psychologist David Greenberg with the help of Daniel J. Levitin from McGill University mapped the musical attributes of song excerpts from 26 different genres and subgenres, and then applied a statistical procedure to group them into clusters. The study revealed three clusters, which they labeled Arousal, Valence, and Depth. Arousal describes intensity and energy in music; Valence describes the spectrum of emotions in music (from sad to happy); and Depth describes intellect and sophistication in music. They also found that characteristics describing music from a single genre (both rock and jazz separately) could be grouped in these same three categories.

The findings suggest that this may be a useful alternative to grouping music into genres, which is often based on social connotations rather than the attributes of the actual music. It also suggests that those in academia and industry (e.g. Spotify and Pandora) that are already coding music on a multitude of attributes might save time and money by coding music around these three composite categories instead.

The researchers also conducted a second study of nearly 10,000 Facebook users who indicated their preferences for 50 musical excerpts from different genres. The researchers were then able to map preferences for these three attribute categories onto five personality traits and 30 detailed personality facets. For example, they found people who scored high on Openness to Experience preferred Depth in music, while Extraverted excitement-seekers preferred high Arousal in music. And those who scored high on Neuroticism preferred negative emotions in music, while those who were self-assured preferred positive emotions in music. As the title from the old Kern and Hammerstein song suggests, “The Song is You”. That is, the musical attributes that you like most reflect your personality. It also provides scientific support for what Joni Mitchell said in a 2013 interview with the CBC: “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

The researchers hope that this information will not only be helpful to music therapists but also for health care professions and even hospitals. For example, recent evidence has showed that music listening can increase recovery after surgery. The researchers argue that information about music preferences and personality could inform a music listening protocol after surgery to boost recovery rates.

The article is another in a series of studies that Greenberg and his team have published on music and personality. This past July [2015], they published an article in PLOS ONE showing that people’s musical preferences are linked to thinking styles. And in October [2015], they published an article in the Journal of Research in Personality, identifying the personality trait Openness to Experience as a key predictor of musical ability, even in non-musicians. These series of studies tell us that there are close links between our personality and musical behavior that may be beyond our control and awareness.

Readers can find out how they score on the music and personality quizzes at www.musicaluniverse.org.

David M. Greenberg, lead author from Cambridge University and City University of New York said: “Genre labels are informative but we’re trying to transcend them and move in a direction that points to the detailed characteristics in music that are driving people preferences and emotional reactions.”

Greenberg added: “As a musician, I see how vast the powers of music really are, and unfortunately, many of us do not use music to its full potential. Our ultimate goal is to create science that will help enhance the experience of listening to music. We want to use this information about personality and preferences to increase the day-to-day enjoyment and peak experiences people have with music.”

William Hoffman in a May 11, 2016 article for Inverse describes the work in connection with recently released new music from Radiohead and an upcoming release from Chance the Rapper (along with a brief mention of Drake), Note: Links have been removed,

Music critics regularly scour Thesaurus.com for the best adjectives to throw into their perfectly descriptive melodious disquisitions on the latest works from Drake, Radiohead, or whomever. And listeners of all walks have, since the beginning of music itself, been guilty of lazily pigeonholing artists into numerous socially constructed genres. But all of that can be (and should be) thrown out the window now, because new research suggests that, to perfectly match music to a listener’s personality, all you need are these three scientific measurables [arousal, valence, depth].

This suggests that a slow, introspective gospel song from Chance The Rapper’s upcoming album could have the same depth as a track from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. So a system of categorization based on Greenberg’s research would, surprisingly but rightfully, place the rap and rock works in the same bin.

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

The Song Is You: Preferences for Musical Attribute Dimensions Reflect Personality by David M. Greenberg, Michal Kosinski, David J. Stillwell, Brian L. Monteiro, Daniel J. Levitin, and Peter J. Rentfrow. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550616641473, first published on May 9, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the October 2015 paper

Personality predicts musical sophistication by David M. Greenberg, Daniel Müllensiefen, Michael E. Lamb, Peter J. Rentfrow. Journal of Research in Personality Volume 58, October 2015, Pages 154–158 doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2015.06.002 Note: A Feb. 2016 erratum is also listed.

The paper is behind a paywall and it looks as if you will have to pay for it and for the erratum separately.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the July 2015 paper,

Musical Preferences are Linked to Cognitive Styles by David M. Greenberg, Simon Baron-Cohen, David J. Stillwell, Michal Kosinski, Peter J. Rentfrow. PLOS [Public Library of Science ONE]  http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0131151 Published: July 22, 2015

This paper is open access.

I tried out the research project’s website: The Musical Universe. by filling out the Musical Taste questionnaire. Unfortunately, I did not receive my results. Since the team’s latest research has just been reported, I imagine there are many people trying do the same thing. It might be worth your while to wait a bit if you want to try this out or you can fill out one of their other questionnaires. Oh, and you might want to allot at least 20 mins.

With over 150 partners from over 20 countries, the European Union’s Graphene Flagship research initiative unveils its work package devoted to biomedical technologies

An April 11, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the Graphene Flagship’s latest work package,

With a budget of €1 billion, the Graphene Flagship represents a new form of joint, coordinated research on an unprecedented scale, forming Europe’s biggest ever research initiative. It was launched in 2013 to bring together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the timeframe of 10 years. The initiative currently involves over 150 partners from more than 20 European countries. The Graphene Flagship, coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), is implemented around 15 scientific Work Packages on specific science and technology topics, such as fundamental science, materials, health and environment, energy, sensors, flexible electronics and spintronics.

Today [April 11, 2016], the Graphene Flagship announced in Barcelona the creation of a new Work Package devoted to Biomedical Technologies, one emerging application area for graphene and other 2D materials. This initiative is led by Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from the University of Manchester (United Kingdom), and ICREA Professor Jose Antonio Garrido, from the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2, Spain). The Kick-off event, held in the Casa Convalescència of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), is co-organised by ICN2 (ICREA Prof Jose Antonio Garrido), Centro Nacional de Microelectrónica (CNM-IMB-CSIC, CIBER-BBN; CSIC Tenured Scientist Dr Rosa Villa), and Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS; ICREA Prof Mavi Sánchez-Vives).

An April 11, 2016 ICN2 press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the Biomedical Technologies work package and other work packages,

The new Work Package will focus on the development of implants based on graphene and 2D-materials that have therapeutic functionalities for specific clinical outcomes, in disciplines such as neurology, ophthalmology and surgery. It will include research in three main areas: Materials Engineering; Implant Technology & Engineering; and Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy. The objective is to explore novel implants with therapeutic capacity that will be further developed in the next phases of the Graphene Flagship.

The Materials Engineering area will be devoted to the production, characterisation, chemical modification and optimisation of graphene materials that will be adopted for the design of implants and therapeutic element technologies. Its results will be applied by the Implant Technology and Engineering area on the design of implant technologies. Several teams will work in parallel on retinal, cortical, and deep brain implants, as well as devices to be applied in the periphery nerve system. Finally, The Functionality and Therapeutic Efficacy area activities will centre on development of devices that, in addition to interfacing the nerve system for recording and stimulation of electrical activity, also have therapeutic functionality.

Stimulation therapies will focus on the adoption of graphene materials in implants with stimulation capabilities in Parkinson’s, blindness and epilepsy disease models. On the other hand, biological therapies will focus on the development of graphene materials as transport devices of biological molecules (nucleic acids, protein fragments, peptides) for modulation of neurophysiological processes. Both approaches involve a transversal innovation environment that brings together the efforts of different Work Packages within the Graphene Flagship.

A leading role for Barcelona in Graphene and 2D-Materials

The kick-off meeting of the new Graphene Flagship Work Package takes place in Barcelona because of the strong involvement of local institutions and the high international profile of Catalonia in 2D-materials and biomedical research. Institutions such as the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2) develop frontier research in a supportive environment which attracts talented researchers from abroad, such as ICREA Research Prof Jose Antonio Garrido, Group Leader of the ICN2 Advanced Electronic Materials and Devices Group and now also Deputy Leader of the Biomedical Technologies Work Package. Until summer 2015 he was leading a research group at the Technische Universität München (Germany).

Further Graphene Flagship events in Barcelona are planned; in May 2016 ICN2 will also host a meeting of the Spintronics Work Package. ICREA Prof Stephan Roche, Group Leader of the ICN2 Theoretical and Computational Nanoscience Group, is the deputy leader of this Work Package led by Prof Bart van Wees, from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands). Another Work Package, on optoelectronics, is led by Prof Frank Koppens from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO, Spain), with Prof Andrea Ferrari from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) as deputy. Thus a number of prominent research institutes in Barcelona are deeply involved in the coordination of this European research initiative.

Kostas Kostarelos, the leader of the Biomedical Technologies Graphene Flagship work package, has been mentioned here before in the context of his blog posts for The Guardian science blog network (see my Aug. 7, 2014 post for a link to his post on metaphors used in medicine).

Sir Mark Welland, nanoscientist, elected as master of St. Catharine’s College in Cambridge (UK)

I first tripped across Mark Welland’s work at the University of Cambridge in 2008 when I was working on my Nanotech Mysteries wiki. a project for my maser’s. While I did not manage to speak to him directly, I did speak with his secretary and got permission to reproduce some images in the wiki. I have mentioned Welland and his work here from time to time, my April 30, 2010 posting (scroll down about 30% of the way) probably offers the best summary of the parts of his work I’ve stumbled across. There’s also a Cambridge video about nanotechnology  featuring Stephen Fry as its host and, if memory serves, an interview with Welland.

Since those days he has become Sir Mark Welland and a Feb. 22, 2016 University of Cambridge press release announces the latest news,

The Fellows of St Catharine’s have elected Professor Sir Mark Welland as the next Master of the College.

Professor Sir Mark Welland is Professor of Nanotechnology and Head of Electrical Engineering at the University of Cambridge, where he has established the purpose-built Nanoscience Centre.

Sir Mark is currently researching into a broad range of both fundamental and applied problems. These include using nanotechnology to both understand and treat human diseases, biologically inspired nanomaterials for green technologies, and nanoelectronics for future generation energy transmission and sensing.

From April 2008 until May 2012, Sir Mark was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government Ministry of Defence.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2002, a Foreign Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of India in 2008, and a Foreign Fellow of the Danish Academy of Sciences in 2010.

Sir Mark was awarded a Knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2011.

Sir Mark brings to the College unrivalled national and international experience and expertise, as well as a thorough understanding of the University and the way it can engage with the wider world.

Sir Mark said: “I am in equal measures humbled and excited at being elected as Master and am looking forward to supporting the Fellows, students and staff of St Catharine’s over the next years.”

“I am honoured to be following Dame Jean, who has set a very high standard of leadership and intellectual rigour.”

Dame Jean said: “The Fellows have elected a distinguished scientist as the 39th Master to lead the College in the next phase of its 543-year history. Sir Mark will find a welcoming and flourishing community at St Catharine’s. I offer him my warmest congratulations on his election, I wish him well for the future, and I hope he will be as happy at St Catharine’s as I have been for almost ten years.”

A Feb. 22, 2016 news item about Welland’s election as Master of St. Catharine’s College for Cambridge News notes the age of the college,

Prof Sir Mark Welland, the university’s current head of electrical engineering, will take up the role in September, succeeding Prof Dame Jean Thomas, who will step down after nine years in charge.

He will be the 39th master of the college, which was founded in 1473 [emphasis mine] and has a population of nearly 800 current students and nearly 60 fellows.

Congratulations Sir Mark!

I note in passing that Canada will be celebrating its 150th anniversary as a country in 2017.

Combining gold and palladium for catalytic and plasmonic octopods

Hopefully I did not the change meaning when I made the title for this piece more succinct. In any event, this research comes from the always prolific Rice University in Texas, US (from a Nov. 30, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now),

Catalysts are substances that speed up chemical reactions and are essential to many industries, including petroleum, food processing and pharmaceuticals. Common catalysts include palladium and platinum, both found in cars’ catalytic converters. Plasmons are waves of electrons that oscillate in particles, usually metallic, when excited by light. Plasmonic metals like gold and silver can be used as sensors in biological applications and for chemical detection, among others.

Plasmonic materials are not the best catalysts, and catalysts are typically very poor for plasmonics. But combining them in the right way shows promise for industrial and scientific applications, said Emilie Ringe, a Rice assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry who led the study that appears in Scientific Reports.

“Plasmonic particles are magnets for light,” said Ringe, who worked on the project with colleagues in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany. “They couple with light and create big electric fields that can drive chemical processes. By combining these electric fields with a catalytic surface, we could further push chemical reactions. That’s why we’re studying how palladium and gold can be incorporated together.”

The researchers created eight-armed specks of gold and coated them with a gold-palladium alloy. The octopods proved to be efficient catalysts and sensors.

A Nov. 30, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“If you simply mix gold and palladium, you may end up with a bad plasmonic material and a pretty bad catalyst, because palladium does not attract light like gold does,” Ringe said. “But our particles have gold cores with palladium at the tips, so they retain their plasmonic properties and the surfaces are catalytic.”

Just as important, Ringe said, the team established characterization techniques that will allow scientists to tune application-specific alloys that report on their catalytic activity in real time.

The researchers analyzed octopods with a variety of instruments, including Rice’s new Titan Themis microscope, one of the most powerful electron microscopes in the nation. “We confirmed that even though we put palladium on a particle, it’s still capable of doing everything that a similar gold shape would do. That’s really a big deal,” she said.

“If you shine a light on these nanoparticles, it creates strong electric fields. Those fields enhance the catalysis, but they also report on the catalysis and the molecules present at the surface of the particles,” Ringe said.

The researchers used electron energy loss spectroscopy, cathodoluminescence and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to make 3-D maps of the electric fields produced by exciting the plasmons. They found that strong fields were produced at the palladium-rich tips, where plasmons were the least likely to be excited.

Ringe expects further research will produce multifunctional nanoparticles in a variety of shapes that can be greatly refined for applications. Her own Rice lab is working on a metal catalyst to turn inert petroleum derivatives into backbone molecules for novel drugs.

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

Resonances of nanoparticles with poor plasmonic metal tips by Emilie Ringe, Christopher J. DeSantis, Sean M. Collins, Martial Duchamp, Rafal E. Dunin-Borkowski, Sara E. Skrabalak, & Paul A. Midgley.  Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 17431 (2015)  doi:10.1038/srep17431 Published online: 30 November 2015

This is an open access paper,

Policy makers, beware experts! And, evidence too

There is much to admire in this new research but there’s also a troubling conflation.

An Oct. 14, 2015 University of Cambridge press release (also on EurekAlert) cautions policy makers about making use of experts,

The accuracy and reliability of expert advice is often compromised by “cognitive frailties”, and needs to be interrogated with the same tenacity as research data to avoid weak and ill-informed policy, warn two leading risk analysis and conservation researchers in the journal Nature today.

While many governments aspire to evidence-based policy [emphasis mine], the researchers say the evidence on experts themselves actually shows that they are highly susceptible to “subjective influences” – from individual values and mood, to whether they stand to gain or lose from a decision – and, while highly credible, experts often vastly overestimate their objectivity and the reliability of peers.

They appear to be conflating evidence and expertise. Evidence usually means data while expertise is a more ephemeral concept. (Presumably, an expert is someone whose opinion is respected for one reason or another and who has studied the evidence and drawn some conclusions from it.)

The study described in the press release notes that one of the weaknesses of relying on experts is that they are subject to bias. They don’t mention that evidence or data can also be subject to bias but perhaps that’s why they suggest the experts should provide and assess the evidence on which they are basing their advice,

The researchers caution that conventional approaches of informing policy by seeking advice from either well-regarded individuals or assembling expert panels needs to be balanced with methods that alleviate the effects of psychological and motivational bias.

They offer a straightforward framework for improving expert advice, and say that experts should provide and assess [emphasis mine] evidence on which decisions are made – but not advise decision makers directly, which can skew impartiality.

“We are not advocating replacing evidence with expert judgements, rather we suggest integrating and improving them,” write professors William Sutherland and Mark Burgman from the universities of Cambridge and Melbourne respectively.

“Policy makers use expert evidence as though it were data. So they should treat expert estimates with the same critical rigour that must be applied to data,” they write.

“Experts must be tested, their biases minimised, their accuracy improved, and their estimates validated with independent evidence. Put simply, experts should be held accountable for their opinions.”

Sutherland and Burgman point out that highly regarded experts are routinely shown to be no better than novices at making judgements.

However, several processes have been shown to improve performances across the spectrum, they say, such as ‘horizon scanning’ – identifying all possible changes and threats – and ‘solution scanning’ – listing all possible options, using both experts and evidence, to reduce the risk of overlooking valuable alternatives.

To get better answers from experts, they need better, more structured questions, say the authors. “A seemingly straightforward question, ‘How many diseased animals are there in the area?’ for example, could be interpreted very differently by different people. Does it include those that are infectious and those that have recovered? What about those yet to be identified?” said Sutherland, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“Structured question formats that extract upper and lower boundaries, degrees of confidence and force consideration of alternative theories are important for shoring against slides into group-think, or individuals getting ascribed greater credibility based on appearance or background,” he said.

When seeking expert advice, all parties must be clear about what they expect of each other, says Burgman, Director of the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis. “Are policy makers expecting estimates of facts, predictions of the outcome of events, or advice on the best course of action?”

“Properly managed, experts can help with estimates and predictions, but providing advice assumes the expert shares the same values and objectives as the decision makers. Experts need to stick to helping provide and assess evidence on which such decisions are made,” he said.

Sutherland and Burgman have created a framework of eight key ways to improve the advice of experts. These include using groups – not individuals – with diverse, carefully selected members well within their expertise areas.

They also caution against being bullied or “starstruck” by the over-assertive or heavyweight. “People who are less self-assured will seek information from a more diverse range of sources, and age, number of qualifications and years of experience do not explain an expert’s ability to predict future events – a finding that applies in studies from geopolitics to ecology,” said Sutherland.

Added Burgman: “Some experts are much better than others at estimation and prediction. However, the only way to tell a good expert from a poor one is to test them. Qualifications and experience don’t help to tell them apart.”

“The cost of ignoring these techniques – of using experts inexpertly – is less accurate information and so more frequent, and more serious, policy failures,” write the researchers.

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

Policy advice: Use experts wisely by William J. Sutherland & Mark Burgman. Nature 526, 317–318 (15 October 2015) doi:10.1038/526317a

It’s good to see a nuanced attempt to counteract mindless adherence to expert opinion. I hope they will include evidence and data as  needing to be approached cautiously in future work.

‘Hotel for cells’ or minuscule artificial scaffolding units for plant tissue engineering

This is the first time I’ve seen an item about tissue engineering which concerns plant life.  An August 27, 2015 news item on Azonano describes the latest development with plant cells,

Miniscule artificial scaffolding units made from nano-fibre polymers and built to house plant cells have enabled scientists to see for the first time how individual plant cells behave and interact with each other in a three-dimensional environment.

These “hotels for cells” mimic the ‘extracellular matrix’ which cells secrete before they grow and divide to create plant tissue. [Note: Human and other cells also have extracellular matrices] This environment allows scientists to observe and image individual plant cells developing in a more natural, multi-dimensional environment than previous ‘flat’ cell cultures.

An August 26, 2015 University of Cambridge press release, which originated the news item, describes the research and mentions the pioneering technologies which made it possible,

The research team were surprised to see individual plant cells clinging to and winding around their fibrous supports; reaching past neighbouring cells to wrap themselves to the artificial scaffolding in a manner reminiscent of vines growing.

Pioneering new in vitro techniques combining recent developments in 3-D scaffold development and imaging, scientists say they observed plants cells taking on growth and structure of far greater complexity than has ever been seen of plant cells before, either in living tissue or cell culture.

“Previously, plant cells in culture had only been seen in round or oblong forms. Now, we have seen 3D cultured cells twisting and weaving around their new supports in truly remarkable ways, creating shapes we never thought possible and never seen before in any plant,” said plant scientist and co-author Raymond Wightman.

“We can use this tool to explore how a whole plant is formed and at the same time to create new materials.”

This ability for single plant cells to attach themselves by growing and spiralling around the scaffolding suggests that cells of land plants have retained the ability of their evolutionary ancestors – aquatic single-celled organisms, such as Charophyta algae – to stick themselves to inert structures.

While similar ‘nano-scaffold’ technology has long been used for mammalian cells, resulting in the advancement of tissue engineering research, this is the first time such technology has been used for plant cells – allowing scientists to glimpse in 3-D the individual cell interactions that lead to the forming of plant tissue.

The scientists say the research “defines a new suite of techniques” for exploring cell-environment interactions, allowing greater understating of fundamental plant biology that could lead to new types of biomaterials and help provide solutions to sustainable biomass growth.

“While we can peer deep inside single cells and understand their functions, when researchers study a ‘whole’ plant, as in fully formed tissue, it is too difficult to disentangle the many complex interactions between the cells, their neighbours, and their behaviour,” said Wightman.

“Until now, nobody had tried to put plant cells in an artificial fibre scaffold that replicates their natural environment and tried to observe their interactions with one or two other cells, or fibre itself,” he said.

Co-author and material scientist Dr Stoyan Smoukov suggests that a possible reason why artificial scaffolding on plant cells had never been done before was the expense of 3D nano-fibre matrices (the high costs have previously been justified in mammalian cell research due to its human medical potential).

However, Smoukov has co-discovered and recently helped commercialise a new method for producing polymer fibres for 3-D scaffolds inexpensively and in bulk. ‘Shear-spinning’ produces masses of fibre, in a technique similar to creating candy-floss in nano-scale. The researchers were able to adapt such scaffolds for use with plant cells.

This approach was combined with electron microscopy imaging technology. In fact, using time-lapse photography, the researchers have even managed to capture 4-D footage of these previously unseen cellular structures. “Such high-resolution moving images allowed us to follow internal processes in the cells as they develop into tissues,” said Smoukov, who is already working on using the methods in this plant study to research mammalian cancer cells.

Here’s an image illustrating the research,

Plant cells twisting and weaving in 3-D cultures Credit: Smoukov/Wightman

Plant cells twisting and weaving in 3-D cultures
Credit: Smoukov/Wightman

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

A 3-dimensional fibre scaffold as an investigative tool for studying the morphogenesis of isolated plant pells [cells?] by CJ Luo, Raymond Wightman, Elliot Meyerowitz, and Stoyan K. Smoukov. BMC Plant Biology 2015, 15:211 doi:10.1186/s12870-015-0581-7

This paper is open access.