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Nominee for the eu descartes Prize 2005

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Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Life Sciences

Gene detectives track cancer causes

Up to 50% of cancers result from inherited genetic defects. In other cases, genes undergo change as tumours grow. Identifying both scenarios is usually a first step in discovering how they function and how the diseases develop. The CANCERGENES project researchers investigated both types and have made advances in the mapping and cloning of cancer genes, including uncovering a new gene that could show if a person is likely to develop colorectal cancer.
The researchers’ collaboration involved the identification and clinical examination of at-risk families and individual patients, together with tissue studies, mathematical modelling and disease models. Among other achievements, their work has contributed to the description of five or six predisposition genes from the known total of around 80.
The initial success of the project was the mapping and cloning of the genes for two conditions, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome and juvenile polyposis (benign polyps), which can lead to colorectal and other cancers. The genes involved in these conditions play an important role in many types of tumours. The research partners also mapped and identified the gene for the inherited syndrome leiomyomatosis and renal (kidney) cell cancer (HLRCC). Their investigations highlighted a previously unknown link between deficient energy production and tumour formation. In addition, they have described the clinical and molecular features of bowel tumours and worked extensively on identifying the genetic pathways of sporadic colorectal cancers.
Findings of this project have specific importance for risk assessment and cancer prevention. One of the immediate benefits from the CANCERGENES project is the ability to test patients and families with inherited cancers in order to classify their diseases and to estimate their risk. By linking family history to changes in a specific gene, risk estimates can be based on molecular data that are inherently more reliable than clinical findings alone. Consequently, screening programmes can be more tailored and individuals who have not inherited altered genes can be reassured. Genetic analyses can also provide considerable insight into how a tumour grows, which can be followed by studies to determine the effects of changes in a gene.
“Genetic analyses can also provide considerable general insight into tumour growth mechanisms, which can be followed by studies to determine the functional effects of mutations. We have, ourselves, undertaken such studies, but there is ample scope for others to follow up our findings. This is essential if we are to gain a wider understanding of tumorigenesis and to develop therapeutic strategies against the genetic targets we have identified,” says Prof. Ian Tomlinson of the London Research Institute.
Project title: CANCERGENES

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Ian Tomlinson, London Research Institute, Cancer Research UK (UK), Prof. Lauri Antti Aaltonen, University of Helsinki (Finland)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Earth Sciences

Assembling the cold facts about a hot topic

The Arctic is a unique region that exerts a key influence on the global climatic system. There is currently a debate as to whether the progressive increase in surface air temperature and decline in ice cover is due to a natural cycle or to increasing greenhouse gases resulting from human activities. Since a continuation of this trend, whatever its cause, would have a profound effect on the strongly marine-influenced climate of Europe, considerable effort and resources have been put into investigating the underlying phenomena. The CECA project involved a number of multi-disciplinary research activities that have been carried out over the past decade and have addressed environmental problems of pan-European relevance and significance.
Comprising Norwegian and German institutes, the CECA consortium worked closely with a Russian partner. This enabled the team to access data on areas of the Artic that were not previously accessible to European researchers. The scientific objectives of the research teams were centred upon a systematic and integrated analysis of diverse observational and model-generated data sets. Through a combination of localised observation, satellite retrieval and computer modelling, the researchers were able to achieve scientific breakthroughs and innovations that advance our understanding of many aspects of the Arctic climate system and its influence on Europe. The team also investigated how increased greenhouse gases will interact and influence the natural variability of the weather system in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions.
The CECA consortium has identified a number of potential human and socio-economic consequences of the undoubted shrinkage of Arctic sea-ice cover, not all of which are negative. These include:

  • reductions in solar reflections from the ice;

  • exposure of vast areas to the cold open water of the Arctic Ocean;

  • changes in the pathways and spreading of melt water;

  • broad changes in the marine ecosystem;

  • milder conditions in high latitudes; and

  • an extended open-water season that would reduce the length of oceanic voyages

“We must further improve our capabilities to understand, quantify and predict the spatial distribution, temporal evolution and biogeochemical consequences of human-generated contamination, including nuclear residues, in this threatened environment. It will require continuing use and refinement of the integrated methodology of observation and numerical modelling we have pioneered in CECA,” states Prof. Ola M. Johannessen of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (NERSC) and the Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen.

Project title: CECA

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Ola M. Johannessen, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (Norway), Prof. Lennart Bengtsson, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (Germany), Dr. Leonid Bobylev, Nansen International Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre (Russia)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Life Sciences

Immune system studies promise cures for common diseases

The EURO-PID project focused on a group of more than 130 rare genetically determined diseases known as primary immunodeficiencies (PIDs). PIDs leave sufferers, mostly children, prone to infection, lymph cell proliferation and autoimmune disorders. The study of PIDs is extremely difficult because of their rarity. This makes it harder to gather adequate data, or to reach enough of the widely scattered sufferers to constitute a meaningful sample for analysis and testing. A consortium of seven European research teams employed a combination of clinical immunology and basic scientific studies to overcome these problems and understand the molecular mechanisms responsible for certain conditions.
Their work focused on six principal areas: understanding the formation processes and development of defects in T lymphocytes, which are the master cells active in fighting severe infections, particularly those caused by viruses; analysing the development of defects that impair the ability of B lymphocytes to fulfil their role as producers of antibodies; identifying molecular defects in phagocyte cells, which provide innate immunity against bacteria and also remove dead cells; investigating how and why T and NK (natural killer) lymphocytes act in destroying infected and tumour cells; determining the nature of inherited and acquired defects in the apoptosis process, whereby excess or inappropriately targeted lymphocytes are triggered to die (failure of this mechanism is the cause of autoimmune diseases); and exploring gene therapy as a basis of new treatments for life-threatening immune disorders.
After several years of effort, the partners succeeded in developing a promising form of gene therapy for one type of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), and were able to organise a clinical trial on a ‘cohort’ of 17 patients sharing this common condition. They produced a wealth of information about how cells in the immune system differentiate and accomplish their specific functions as well as regulate immune responses. During the five-year project, EURO-PID researchers also described defects in 20 important defensive genes.
The researchers believe that the project’s findings will continue to benefit patients through new diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic tools. A second goal for the research team is to build on their experience by developing safe vectors for gene transfer treatment of other similar conditions in the near future. They already envisage tackling at least three more PIDs within the next few years. “In the longer term, I believe our discoveries will form the foundation for strategies to alleviate and cure many more common diseases, despite the greater complexity of their genetic origins,” predicts Prof. Alain Fischer of INSERM, France’s national institute for health and medical research.
Project title: EURO-PID

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Alain Fischer, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (France), Prof. Jean-Laurent Casanova, University of René Descartes, (France), Prof. C.I. Edvard Smith, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), Prof. Luigi Daniele Notarangelo, Universita degli Studi di Brescia (Italy), Prof. Adrian Trasher, University College London (UK), Dr. Anna Villa, CNR Instituto di Tecnologie Biomediche (Italy)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Physics

Chemical theory reveals patterns of the living world

In 1952, British mathematician Alan Turing proposed that the synergy between reaction and diffusion could produce spontaneously sustained spatial patterns of concentration in initially uniform mixtures of chemicals. Such a mechanism might be responsible for some aspects of shape and pattern development in biological systems, from the development of embryos to patterns on the skins of mammals and fishes. However, evidence that such patterns can develop in real systems has only been provided nearly 40 years later, when the joint research of the TURING project team produced these long awaited unambiguous experimental demonstrations of Turing patterns.
The TURING project researchers devised an apparatus that made it possible to fulfil the theoretical requirements and eliminate spurious effects that had marred previous approaches. The team constantly fed and stirred tank reactors and fit a thin slab of hydro gel in contact with the contents of the tank, thereby creating systems in which the reaction-diffusion process could be isolated and maintained at a controlled distance from equilibrium. With the aid of these ‘open spatial reactors’ and an appropriate choice of reaction, the long-sought stationary pattern of spots emerged during an historic meeting of the partners in Bordeaux in December 1989. Continuation of the work brought additional confirmation, as varying experimental conditions gave rise to both static and dynamic patterns, involving further theoretical developments.
Next, the team began to insert soft, spaghetti-like rods into the tank solution instead of gel. The rods swelled or contracted according to the acidity of the solution. “You could say that, whereas we began by painting, now we are sculpting. With materials changing size or properties, such as porosity or surface tension, we could mimic the kinds of motion and shape responses that occur in many living systems,” explains Dr. Patrick De Kepper. These results are the first clear experimental demonstration that Turing patterns could really be at work in natural systems.
Turing’s once-neglected theory now has an immense impact in many fields – from biology to astronomy. The present work, besides shedding new light on the mechanisms of biological development, could lead towards new classes of “intelligent” soft materials and soft micro-robots capable of working in liquid environments.
Project title: TURING

Project teams – contact persons: Dr. Patrick De Kepper, Centre de Recherche Paul Pascal (France), Dr. Pierre Borckmans, Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Life Sciences

Research tracks health secrets of cell nuclei

Thousands of different chemicals, which can initiate diseases and genetic abnormalities, enter the human body through the food chain and various other sources. These chemicals often act through receptors that are found in the nuclei of bodily cells and intervene with cellular processes. The objective of the PATHFINDER consortium was to understand the role of these nuclear receptors (NRs).
Since the ways in which cells respond to NR activators are very complex and present on many different levels, it was crucial that the PATHFINDER team use a range of disciplines and infrastructures, develop appropriate animal models and employ state-of-the-art methods to gain the necessary insight.
The joint collaboration focused on understanding the biology of three important NR systems which belong to a family of 48 NRs, many of which are known to be critical to developmental processes and disease. The three systems studied are:

  • specific estrogen receptors that are linked to sexual development, brain development and the immune system;

  • thyroid hormone receptors that affect metabolism and early development; and

  • liver receptors that influence intermediary metabolism and lead to neurodegenerative and immune diseases

Together, the research partners achieved a number of notable breakthroughs, including confirmation of the crosstalk between estrogen receptors and ERR binding receptors. They then went on to describe the part played by receptors in prostate tumour formation and the role of the liver X receptors in fatty acid metabolism and fat genesis.

These results provide critical information that can help protect the general population from the negative affects of contaminants and enhance EU competitiveness by demonstrating that European foodstuffs are safe to consume.

The findings are also important to both the characterisation and development of new pharmaceutical compounds that can be of great value for the European economy.

Prof. Jan-Ake Gustafsson of the Swedish Karolinska Institute notes that the research team’s efforts marked the start of numerous collaborations, many of which are still ongoing. “The subsequent introduction of our other partners in this project produced a coherent and focused group that has made a strong impact on research, with major advances in the understanding of NR biology and function,” he states.
Project title: PATHFINDER

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Jan-Ake Gustafsson, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), Prof. Vincent Laudet, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (France), Prof. Barbara Demeneix, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), Ass. Prof. Hilde Nebb, University of Oslo (Norway), Dr. Sari Mäkelä, University of Turku (Finland), Prof. Edison Liu, Genome Institute of Singapore (Singapore)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Life Sciences

Blind get to grips with 3D graphics

Tools such as Braille keyboards and speech synthesis software are already helping the visually impaired to join the information society. The goal of project GRAB was to enable visually impaired persons to gain a meaningful understanding of shapes and objects displayed in the world of 3D computer graphics.
Using a desk-top equipped with two robotic arms, the GRAB team combined haptic (touch) interaction with voice and sound feedback to give users the sensation of exploring 3D virtual objects by ‘feeling’ them, either with the thumb and index fingertip of one hand, or with the index fingers of two hands. The researchers discovered that the volunteer testers generally favoured the two-handed method. Teresa Gutierrez, of Spain’s Fundacion Labein observes that this was “because it enabled them to fix a reference point with one hand, while moving the other around the object to determine its geometric shape and other characteristics such as size, weight, texture and spatial separation from other elements.”
During haptic exploration, the user receives voice prompts and audio signals, and can issue commands by voice, by tapping on the target object, or through keyboard entries. An auxiliary video screen enabled observers to monitor progress and evaluate how easy it is to use. Another important aspect of the research was to determine which haptic and audio signals provided the most helpful guidance, and to eliminate those that simply caused unnecessary distraction or confusion.
Researchers used three (simulators) to test the system: an adventure game in which users had to find their way around a multi-roomed house and deactivate a virtual bomb; a chart data explorer that enabled finger-tip reading of Excel-based line graphs and pie charts with ‘magnetic’ attraction to the contours and vocal announcement of key values; and a map explorer that allowed users to familiarise themselves with an area, and to locate important facilities and destinations ahead of a planned visit.
While the GRAB system would currently be too expensive to commercialise in what will always be a limited market, an annual distribution of around 100 units, based on standard industrial components, could reduce the cost to around €3 000 per unit.

The researchers believe that the system also has real potential as an integrated platform for the design and development of audio-haptic applications in fields as diverse as architecture, art, aeronautics and medicine.

Project title: GRAB

Project teams – contact persons: Ms. Teresa Gutierrez, Fundacion Labein, Parque Tecnologico de Bizkaia (Spain), Dr. Carlo Alberto Avizzano, Scuola Superiore di Studi Universitari e di Perfezionamento S. Anna (Italy), Mr. Jose Luis Fernandez, CIDAT-ONCE (Spain), Mr. Steven Tyler, Royal National Institute for the Blind (UK), Ms. Blaithin Gallagher, National Council for the Blind of Ireland (Ireland), Ms. Fiona Slevin, Haptica Ltd, Trinity Enterprise Centre (Ireland)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Physics

Left-handed materials bend the rules of physics

The EXEL research team created and developed a novel class of artificial metamaterials, called Left-Handed Materials (LHMs) or Negative Index Materials (NIMs), which are able to overturn many familiar properties of light.
Around 40 years ago, Russian scientist Victor Veselago postulated the idea of such materials, which are not actually found in nature. Thirty years later, UK theoretical physicist Sir John Pendry proposed designs for two artificial metamaterials, respectively composed of non-magnetic metallic wire arrays and split ring resonators (SRRs), which would meet the NIM criteria. After Prof. David Smith and colleagues combined SRRs and wires to produce the first structure that could confirm, in experiments, the existence of a negative index of refraction, the basis for further pioneering work by the EXEL consortium was formed. EXEL project researchers were able to demonstrate the reality of these materials and their consistency with the basic laws of physics.
“Having explored and explained the fundamental physics, we moved towards developing modified designs that are easier to fabricate, more compact and amenable to a wealth of applications,” says Prof. Costas Soukoulis.
One exciting aspect of NIM behaviour is the ability of a block of such material to function as a flat ‘superlens’. Conventional curved lenses, which recombine divergent incident electromagnetic rays at a fixed focal point, suffer from one significant limitation. They are unable to resolve detail that is finer than the wavelength of the radiation itself (known as the ‘diffraction limit’). This is due to the fact that they focus only on the so-called far-field components, whereas near-field radiation – which decays within about one wavelength distance from its propagation – is lost. In principle, NIM lenses eliminate this shortcoming, and are able to produce perfectly detailed images of objects placed within one wavelength of their surface. With further development of this property, it could be feasible to achieve focal point sizes of only a few nanometres, almost two orders of magnitude smaller than is possible with conventional lenses. If so, the amount of information that can be stored on DVDs would be vastly increased, and transistors with features as small as 10 nm might also be made using optical lithography.
The EXEL team’s work has opened up the possibility of unprecedented applications. They have already shown how the ability to focus radio waves could lead to smaller, better performing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Additional potential uses include miniaturised NIMs that could be manufactured into antennas and waveguides that are 100 times smaller and much lighter than those of today. This could transform design in mobile communications, aeronautical systems and other strategic sectors.
Project title: EXEL

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Costas Soukoulis, Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser, Foundation for Research and Technology (Greece), Prof. Ekmel Ozbay, Bilkent University (Turkey), Prof. John Brian Pendry, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (UK), Prof. Martin Wegener, University of Karlsruhe/DFG-Centre for Functional Nanostructures (Germany), Prof. David R. Smith, Duke University ( US)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Socio-Economic Sciences

Setting new standards for measuring social change
The study of changing social attitudes and values across Europe, which are central to understanding modern societies, has historically fallen short of what might be expected in a generally well documented age. Resolution of this problem was hampered by seemingly insuperable cultural, contextual and methodological obstacles. In 1995 the European Science Federation therefore formed an expert group to help overcome these hurdles. Its conclusions formed the basis of the ESS initiative, a major collaborative effort designed to pioneer and validate a standard of methodology for cross-national surveys.
The questionnaire comprises two complementary elements. A top-down core element addresses change and persistence in a range of social and demographic characteristics, attitudes and behaviour patterns – including such aspects as trust in institutions, socio-political values, moral and social values, religious identity, welfare and security, and perceived quality of life. A second, bottom-up, element provides for rotating topic-specific modules selected competitively in each round in response to applications from multinational groups of EU social scientists. This provides opportunities for in-depth examinations of certain topics in certain years, such as attitudes to immigration and citizenship or the work-family balance.

In addition, contextual variations between nations and influential events, such as elections or natural disasters, are recorded to assist data analysts in accounting for observed differences. “The intention is not just to provide a snapshot, but, as survey builds upon survey, to develop a unique long-term account of change and development in the social fabric of modern Europe,” notes Prof. Roger Jowell of the coordinating City University London.

Following the successful completion of the key preparatory stages (questionnaire design, translation and piloting), the first round of data was gathered in the autumn of 2002 and in September 2003 findings covering 22 nations were released. Since then, fieldwork for the second round has taken place and participation has increased to 26 countries. Researchers believe that the impact of ESS on European governance is likely to be profound. The initiative has already demonstrated that, despite the formidable difficulties, public attitudes can accurately be measured across countries.
With ESS, Europe has for the first time an authoritative and accurate source of data about its changing social values which, in turn, informs academic and political debate and allows the EU to measure changes in values of its citizens. Within 18 months of the public release of the first round data, nearly 6 000 registered users had begun analysing the content and producing journal articles, dissertations and books.
Project title: ESS

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Roger Jowell, City University (UK), Prof. Peter Mohler, Zentrum fuer Umfraged, Methoden un Analysen (Germany), Ms. Ineke Stoop, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Netherlands), Prof. Willem Saris, Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) (Netherlands), Prof. Jaak Billiet, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), Mr. Bjorn Henrichsen, Norwegian Social Science Data Services (Norway), Dr. Henk Stronkhorst, European Science Foundation (France)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Engineering

Bark-based adhesives make homes healthier

Western Europe currently consumes around 3.2 million tonnes per year of adhesives for wood panel production. The synthetic materials used in the production process, primarily formaldehyde, can, however, present health hazards. Natural tannins extracted from tree bark and cured with formaldehyde have the potential to serve as very effective adhesives but can result in unreacted residues in the finished panels, therefore limiting their commercial appeal. The TANNIN ADHESIVES project has resulted in a series of discoveries in the reaction of these natural tannins with a variety of cross-linking agents. The researchers demonstrated novel chemical processes that not only eliminate the use of formaldehyde as a primary substance to create a chemical reaction, but also avoid its generation as a secondary by-product.

The first breakthrough for the three-member partnership was to show that tannin would polymerise in the presence of catalytic amounts of dissolved silica or of silicates, without the addition of formaldehyde or any other aldehyde. Furthermore, the reaction was rapid, offering the possibility for higher productivity and economic potential. Since tannin reaction varies according to the type of tree from which it is extracted, the catalysed process made it possible to produce boards outperforming the current standards for interior panels. In the case of other tannins, the catalytic effect of the cellulose of wood fibre was itself adequate to trigger tannin polymerisation, yielding sufficient bond strength for internal-grade boards. A third mechanism demonstrated by the consortium was to employ hexamethylenetetramine (hexamine) as the hardener. Although it can, in some circumstances, produce formaldehyde as a reaction intermediate, the partners established that this did not occur with the fast-curing tannins.

Although the team proved that their processes were both environment-friendly and economically viable for Europe, they were, at first, unable to persuade any board manufacturers to abandon their established practices. A partnership with a Japanese company facing tough national legislation that would virtually outlaw the use of formaldehyde paved the way for change. The TANNIN ADHESIVES team supplied its tannin-hexamine adhesives technology to the company, which incorporated steam injection into the pressing cycle. The machine that was developed as a result of this alliance is currently being marketed. Others have followed suit, including the largest Japanese construction company which is building 10 000 houses per year using board based on tannin imported from Italy. In addition, a major Swedish furniture manufacturer and pulp and paper company are now setting up a facility, although without steam injection, for which tannin will be extracted from the bark of locally grown spruce trees.

“The added value of tannin production would provide an incentive for the start-up of small businesses in rural areas, where the spent bark can still be sold as mulch or burned to produce energy. The green nature of the resultant products will help to encourage greater use of renewable materials in the construction sector – and families can be assured of a healthier living environment,” says Prof. Antonio Pizzi.


Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Antonio Pizzi, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Technologies des Industries du Bois (France), Dr. Frederic Pichelin, Hochschule für Architektur, Bau und Holz (Switzerland), Dr. Gianpaolo Benevento, Silvachimica S.r.l (Italy), Dr. Masafumi Nakatani, Sekisui Chemical Co (Japan)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Physics

Finding the astrophysical Holy Grail
Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars, often described as ‘cosmic clocks’, whose observation offers unparalleled opportunities to study some of the most extreme physical conditions in the universe. By pooling resources and sharing their results, European scientists propelled themselves to the forefront of this stellar field of research. In 2003, they made a discovery that has been hailed as one of the greatest advances in astrophysics.

Observing pulsars offers the unique opportunity to study some of the most extreme physical conditions in the universe. Monitoring apparent variations in pulse-rates makes it possible to test theories of relativity, follow their precise motion in space, explore the solid-state physics of super-dense matter and more. Since the equipment needed to study these stars can be costly to build and to run, scientists across Europe came together to found the European Pulsar Network (EPN). In collaboration with the Australian Telescope National Facility, EPN members combined instrumentation and software efforts, coordinated observing programmes, developed a common data format and set up a universal database for all observational feedback. With the partnership in place, the team began searching for pulsars that were invisible to their earlier low-frequency surveys. Over five years, the researchers located over 850 pulsars, more than the total number found in all surveys spanning the previous 30 years. In addition, the team’s deep search of globular clusters (gravitationally bound concentrations of approximately 100 000 very old stars, of which our galaxy has around 200) produced more significant findings, which have prompted investigations by many groups around the world.

The height of the researchers’ activities is undoubtedly the discovery of the first double pulsar. The existence of such a system is remarkable because its two components needed to have survived twin supernova explosions. Among other exciting implications, this discovery revitalises the possibility of detecting gravitational waves, which are ripples in space-time predicted by Einstein. The double pulsar is also a unique laboratory for studying electrodynamics and plasma physics under the most extreme conditions.
“Our work increases mankind’s knowledge of some of the fundamental physical laws that govern the universe,” states Prof. Andrew Lyne, from the Jodrell Bank Observatory of Manchester University in the UK. “These results are not only of relevance to today’s scientific professionals. They also help to interest young people in astronomy, physics and basic research, forming an important foundation for a society increasingly based on science and technology.”
Project title: PULSE

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Andrew Lyne, University of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Observatory (UK), Prof. Nicolo D’amico, INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Cagliari, (Italy), Dr. Axel Jessner, Max Planck Institut fur Radioastronomie (Germany), Dr. Ben Stappers, ASTRON (Netherlands), Prof. Ioannis Seiradakis, University of Thessaloniki (Greece)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Engineering

Patterning packs more data onto super-dense disk drives
The storage capacity of computer hard disk drives has more than doubled annually over the past few years in response to increasing demand from data-intensive computer applications and a growing market for non-PC consumer devices such as set-top boxes, cameras, laser printers and satellite navigation systems. But today’s technology is reaching the physical limits of its ability to fit more digital information into ever-smaller spaces. The HIDEMAR project was aimed at providing a solution by producing high density (200 Gb/in2) nano-patterned magneto-recording media, using nano-lithographic techniques and environment-friendly chemical self-assembly of nano-particles.

Patterned media, consisting of regular arrays of single-domain nanomagnets separated by a non-magnetic matrix, are widely seen to be the most promising way to increase storage space. In addition to surpassing the superparamagnetic limit at which media can become unstable and lose information content, patterned materials offer several further advantages: improved signal-to-noise ratio; simpler writing; and full compatibility with existing rotating disk technology (for nanolithographic production).

The HIDEMAR project brought together a multidisciplinary consortium comprising four national research institutes, two universities and two industrial companies, together representing six different EU Member States. The challenges faced by the researchers were to optimise the materials themselves and to develop manufacturing processes that would be cost-effective on an industrial scale. By the end of the project in April 2005, the partners had succeeded in depositing large areas of Co/Pd multilayers with high perpendicular anisotropy onto disks by sputtering under industrial conditions. Substantial progress was also made in the development of magnetic anisotropy nanopatterning (MAN), a new technique for patterning by ion implantation.
The project goal was the production of a Lab-demo hard disk with the desired density, the evaluation of its performances and industrial exploitation of the results. This final product is expected to give impulse to markets in the information storage field, in particular to the disk drive industry. “In conjunction with heat-assisted magnetic recording devices, in a few years we could be seeing mini-media holding tens of terabits (one terabit equals one trillion units of data) per square inch,” predicts Dr. Dino Fiorani. “The industrial take-up of our results to date will give Europe a lead in what will surely be a massive market.”
Project title: HIDEMAR

Project teams – contact persons: Dr. Dino Fiorani, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (Italy), Dr. Dimitrios Niarchos, National Centre of Scientific Research ‘Demokritos’ (Greece), Dr. Elizabeth Tronc, Université Pierre et Marie Curie (France), Dr. Fernando Briones, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (Spain), Dr. Giancarlo Fiani, Laboratoire de Photonique et de Nanostructures (France), Prof. Josef Fidler, Vienna University of Technology/Solid State Physics (Austria), Mr. Hartmut Rohrmann, Unaxis Balzers AG (Liechtenstein), Dr. Giorgio Betti, STMicroelectronics SRL (Italy)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Physics

Euro-African partners finally probe 100-yr cosmic ray riddle
Cosmic rays are high-energy charged particles originating in outer space which are accelerated to almost the speed of light by various processes. High-energy gamma rays are secondary products of these cosmic particle accelerations which propagate in straight lines through the universe and ultimately point back to their sources. Until recently, a lack of suitable instrumentation meant that only a few accelerator sites had been identified, and even fewer were studied in any detail. The H.E.S.S. project, bringing together a large consortium of partners from European and African countries, was launched in 1998 with the objective of filling this gap.
Central to the researchers’ collaboration was the design of a powerful new multi-telescope system based on proven technology and technical approaches by the research teams. This enabled them to explore the most extreme objects in the universe.
The H.E.S.S. installation comprises four Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov Telescopes (IACTs) set up on a plateau in Namibia, Africa, at 1 800 m above sea level. This location offers clear skies and absence of rainfall or light pollution, providing an ideal environment for celestial observation. In addition, its position in the southern hemisphere allows the researchers to look at the centre of the Galaxy. By mid-2005, the H.E.S.S. team detected 24 very-high-energy gamma-ray sources. Little more than a year earlier, only about six such objects were known to exist. Of the positively identified sources, 20 are new discoveries and several possibly represent a new class of cosmic-ray accelerator.
The results of the project have allowed the collaboration to revolutionise the understanding of our universe as viewed in gamma rays, by producing the first-ever gamma ray images of astronomical objects and the first scan of a large region around the centre of our galaxy.
“Given the rate of achievement to date, a rich harvest of physics can be expected in the future, and the H.E.S.S. collaboration puts EU astronomers in a world-leading position to reap the benefits,” says Heinrich Völk, Director Emeritus at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik and one of the scientific initiators of the collaboration.

Project title: H.E.S.S.

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Stavros Katsanevas, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), Dr. Michael Punch, Institut National de Physique Nucléaire et de Physique des Particules (France), Prof. Werner Hofmann, Max-Planck-Institute für Kemphysik (Germany), Dr. Paula Chadwick, University of Durham, (UK), Prof. Thomas Lohse, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Germany), Dr. Philippe Goret, Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique, Centre de Saclay (France), Prof. Goetz Heinzelmann, University of Hamburg (Germany), Prof. Stefan Wagner, Universität Heidelberg (Germany), Dr. Hélène Sol, Institut National des Sciences de l'Univers (France), Prof. Reinhard Schlickeiser, Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany), Prof. Luke O'Connor Drury, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (Ireland), Prof. Ladislav Rob, Institute of Particule and Nuclear Physics, Charles University (Czech Republic), Prof. Ocker Comelis de Jager, North-West University (South Africa)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Socio-Economic Sciences

What makes a European European?

Understanding whether or not there is a common perception of European identity and, if so, how that identity is affected by the evolution of the European Union will be an essential part of chronicling the development of democracy in the region. A special study group called IRICE (Identities, International Relations and Civilisations of Europe) was created for this purpose in 2002. Through the IDEE project, the group, whose research associates represent 14 European countries, aims to study the links between national identity, European identity and the democratisation process in Europe, particularly whether a new form of equilibrium is emerging in the framework of European integration.

In its earlier work, the research network had established that there was an old European identity associated with feelings of belonging to a common culture. However, these feelings did not lead automatically to political unity. European consciousness was seen as more important and much more recent, arising from the concerns generated by two World Wars. This feeling played a major role in the subsequent process of European integration. ‘European sentiment’ or ‘European patriotism’ based on emotions remained weak and did not create as many emotions as national sentiment.

With the feeling of belonging to the European Community (1958-1992), or to the European Union (after 1992), a new political identity was born. But this identity came with its own practical problems regarding decision-making processes. The classical balance of power between states was replaced by a balance of power between institutions. This new balance of power, however, is fragile and creates competition among citizens. Individual citizens have great power over mostly smaller matters at the national level, but have little influence at the European level, where big decisions are made. This situation, the research points out, may create a crisis in the European democratic system. But such a crisis could also promote a new European consciousness, a desire for more robust European-level institution building and, hence, more democracy.

The group’s observations highlight influences that can create a dilemma for citizens in reconciling their nationality with a notion of ‘europeanity’. Their latest study reveals a paradox which shows that compared with earlier times when the unification process was a dream, European feelings actually weakened as the Community was being built. A further conclusion is that, during the European integration period, a multiple-identity perception has emerged. A new equilibrium has replaced the former conflict between national and European identities.

Since 2000, the IDEE participants have produced 14 collective books. Their findings represent an important source of authoritative information on key issues relating to the understanding of European integration that should be important for experts, journalists, civil servants and politicians interested in European issues.

Project title: IDEE

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Robert Frank, Unité Mixte de Recherche "identités, Relations Internationales et Civilisations de l'Europe" (France), Prof. Hartmut Kaelble, Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany)

Nominee for the EU Descartes Prize 2005

Field of research: Life Sciences

Blockers of inflammatory cells reverse disease

Chronic inflammatory diseases are diseases that lead to the development of long-lasting or frequently recurring inflammation in various parts of the body. Examples include arthritis, lupus (a condition that causes the body to attack its own tissues), and inflammatory bowel disease. Investigating these diseases and finding treatment options is very important to society. The PITCID research team developed a novel approach for the treatment of these types of diseases based on finding and neutralising a family of PI3K enzymes, which are proteins that trigger activity in the cells of the body.
These enzymes are known to be involved in the development of inflammatory conditions. When these conditions reach a certain state, the white blood cells that normally destroy bacteria in the body become over-activated and attack the body’s own tissues.
Previous research had shown that PI3Ks could play a significant role in the progression of disease. Today it is known that these enzymes are involved in many cellular processes. In addition to causing inflammatory and allergic disease, they also play a part in the heart’s function. The researchers found that, by deleting the gene for PI3K, inflammatory responses could be reduced. “We reasoned that if we could block cell migration to the target tissue by deactivating PI3K, this would be sufficient to prevent inflammation,” Prof. Wymann states. “If so, we would have a potential answer to chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, atherosclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and more.”
The project has generated a vast amount of biological data and small molecule inhibitors, which were successfully tested in models of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. In addition, the efforts of the research team validated new drug targets in inflammatory, allergic, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases.
“The great impact of chronic inflammatory diseases, in terms of both human suffering and economic cost, makes their alleviation a high priority for the medical fraternity,” observes PITCID project leader Matthias Wymann, professor at the University of Basel, Switzerland. One of the challenges, however, is to develop effective medications without undesirable side effects.
Published data from the project has attracted interest from major pharmaceutical manufactures and researchers across Europe are currently engaged in turning the PITCID results into marketable products.
Project title: PITCID

Project teams – contact persons: Prof. Matthias P. Wymann, University of Basel (Switzerland), Prof. Reinhard Wetzker, Klinikum der Universität Jena (Germany), Prof. Emilio Hirsch, Dipartimento di Genetica, Biologia e Biochimica ( Italy), Prof. Bart Vanhaesebroeck, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (UK), Dr. Christian Rommel, Serono Pharmaceutical Research Institute, Serono International S.A. (Switzerland), Prof. Ana C. Carrera, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) (Spain)

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