US Launches 10 Year Program to Track DNA in 1 Million People

President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) has set forth on its ambitious journey, mapping the DNA of one million volunteers. The potential upside is massive, unlocking key genetic information that could finally turn the battle against many health disorders with more effective, targeted treatments for diseases like cancer and diabetes. The initiative could last more than a decade and cost over a billion dollars. Participants will share their genetic data, biological samples, lifestyle and diet information. Also under consideration are mobile health devices and wearables that will collect data about the participant’s health and environmental conditions between doctors’ visits.

The power of the initiative will ultimately be the creation of a standardized, central and shared repository of the one million volunteers. But exactly what data is collected, and how it will be transmitted and stored in the U.S.’s incompatible medical health systems has not yet been determined.

A “dream team” has been appointed by the President, including Andrew Conrad, Google’s “medicine man” and head of Google X’s Life Sciences team. Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures and Healthymagination, will also join the team. Tony Coles, also on the team, who is the CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics insists, “We count on the government, and academia, to really help us understand the basic biology of disease – they’re far better suited to unlock the mysteries of the human body than industry. Once they help us understand the basic biology of disease, we can very specifically target our resources, and use those insights to develop new therapies,” he said.

The private industry has collected similar patient data for years. But they have not been willing to share the data outside exclusive partnerships — some say selfishly. The data represents intellectual property used to create new revenue generating products; while the industry will point to the protection of patient’s data. Google’s 23andMe has already accumulated over 850,000 genotyped customers and just last month launched into drug research and discovery, using these same samples where customers have granted their permission; over 80% have done so.

Juggernauts such as Genentech, Illumina and Celera, have also been documenting citizen DNA long before the PMI. These companies already have the intellectual property, talent and expertise in precision medicine research. In fact, Illumina has been contracted to provide all of the sequencing, for the U.K.’s 100,000 Genomes Project.

The PMI is an extremely worthy goal; one that someday I predict, will be viewed as the science and medical world’s equivalent to NASA’s Apollo program. But — only when it makes it off the launch pad. Science history repeatedly has shown government should not go it alone.  The Human Genome Project, Space X, the World Wide Web and most similarly the U.K.’s 100,000 Genomes Project — all propelled forward only when the public and private sectors have partnered. Ultimately, it will take both to deliver a huge payload of health benefits to U.S. citizens.


CRISPR, Life Altering Genetic Innovation

The scientific community is in the midst of a gold rush in new technological applications all made possible by the CRISPR/Cas9 system. CRISPR, short for “clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats” is quite possibly the biggest innovation in biological science since PCR was developed over three decades ago. This is literally life altering genetic innovation.


Scientists have been modifying genomes for years, so what’s the big deal behind this new technology?

In the past, prior to 2010, in order to modify the genome of a mouse, researchers would transfer embryonic stem cells into a mouse embryo containing the genetic mutation of choice. It would then take three generations to see the desired mutation and actually start utilizing the mutation for research purposes. This resulted in large amounts of time and money spent on breeding two unnecessary generations of mice without the guarantee of success. If a researcher wished to modify five genes of interest, this process would be repeated, you guessed it, five more times.

Taking this into account, CRISPR only needs one generation. This system is precise, efficient, and flexible, allowing for multiple mutations to be made all at once. Its efficacy has been proven time and time again in mice, monkeys, and recently in non-viable human embryos by a group of researchers in China, which proves its potential to treat ANY genetic disease.

As applications of this system are developed, many billion-dollar opportunities will arise. With this much money at stake along with world changing potential, rights to the invention are sure to create a heated patent battle at the USPTO, begging the question; who owns the technology anyways?

Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier from Umea University in Sweden filed on March 15, 2013 – one day before the first-to-file rule took effect – and claimed a priority date of May 25, 2012. On the other hand, Feng Zhang of the broad institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts filed on October 15, 2013 under the accelerated examination program. The Broad Institute received patent No. 8,697,359 in April of 2014 claiming priority to a provisional application filed in December 2012.

As the Broad Institute continued to file applications for the technology, Doudna filed a Suggestion of Interference claiming that the Broad Institute Patents interfered with Doudna’s previous application. Pre AIA gives right to who created the invention first, unlike the first-to-file rules of today. An interference procedure is underway with oral arguments set for November 2016.

At stake are the rights to exclusively make, use, license, and sell the invention. The CRISPR/Cas9 system has the ability to completely alter how we treat genetic diseases, and may lead to the actualization of ‘designer babies’ – babies born with their traits hand picked by the parents. The discovery of a lifetime is up for grabs and it will be interesting to see who emerges with rights to the technology. Each party has issued liscences to large biotech companies ready to use the technology in grand-scale implication, however these projects have been delayed, pending the USPTO decision of this patent battle.

Gene therapy technique may help prevent cancer metastasis. 

The spread of malignant cells around the body, known as metastasis, is the leading cause of mortality in women with breast cancer.

Now, a new gene therapy technique being developed by researchers at MIT is showing promise as a way to prevent breast cancer tumors from metastasizing.

The treatment, described in a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications, uses microRNAs—small noncoding RNA molecules that regulate gene expression—to control metastasis.

The therapy could be used alongside chemotherapy to treat early-stage breast cancer tumors before they spread, according to Natalie Artzi, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and an assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who led the research in collaboration with Noam Shomron, an assistant professor on the faculty of medicine at Tel-Aviv University in Israel.

“The idea is that if the cancer is diagnosed early enough, then in addition to treating the primary tumor [with chemotherapy], one could also treat with specific microRNAs, in order to prevent the spread of cancer cells that cause metastasis,” Artzi says.

The regulation of gene expression by microRNAs is known to be important in preventing the spread of cancer cells. Recent studies by the Shomron team in Tel-Aviv have shown that disruption of this regulation, for example by genetic variants known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), can have a significant impact on gene expression levels and lead to an increase in the risk of cancer.

To identify the specific microRNAs that play a role in breast cancer progression and could therefore potentially be used to suppress metastasis, the research teams first carried out an extensive bioinformatics analysis.

They compared three datasets: one for known SNPs; a second for sites at which microRNAs bind to the genome; and a third for breast cancer-related genes known to be associated with the movement of cells.

This analysis revealed a variant, or SNP, known as rs1071738, which influences metastasis. They found that this SNP disrupts binding of two microRNAs, miR-96 and miR-182. This disruption in turn prevents the two microRNAs from controlling the expression of a protein called Palladin.

Previous research has shown that Palladin plays a key role in the migration of breast cancer cells, and their subsequent invasion of otherwise healthy organs.

When the researchers carried out in vitro experiments in cells, they found that applying miR-96 and miR-182 decreased the expression of Palladin levels, in turn reducing the ability of breast cancer cells to migrate and invade other tissue.

“Previous research had discussed the role of Palladin in controlling migration and invasion (of cancer cells), but no one had tried to use microRNAs to silence those specific targets and prevent metastasis,” Artzi says. “In this way we were able to pinpoint the critical role of these microRNAs in stopping the spread of breast cancer.”

The researchers then developed a method to deliver engineered microRNAs to breast cancer tumors. They embedded nanoparticles containing the microRNAs into a hydrogel scaffold, which they then implanted into mice.

They found that this allowed efficient and precise delivery of the microRNAs to a target breast cancer tumor site. The treatment resulted in a dramatic reduction in breast cancer metastasis, says Artzi.

“We can locally change the cells in order to prevent metastasis from occurring,” she says.

To increase the effectiveness of the treatment even further, the researchers then added the chemotherapy drug cisplatin to the nanoparticles. This led to a significant reduction in both the growth of the primary tumor, and its metastasis.

“We believe local delivery is much more effective (than systemic treatment), because it gives us a much higher effective dose of the cargo, in this case the two microRNAs and the cisplatin,” she says.

“The research offers the potential for combined experimental therapeutics with traditional chemotherapy in cancer metastasis,” says Julie Teruya-Feldstein, a professor of pathology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study.

The research team, which also includes MIT post doc Joao Conde and graduate student Nuria Oliva, both from IMES; graduate student Avital Gilam and postdoc Daphna Weissglas-Volkov, from Tel-Aviv University; and Eitan Friedman, an oncogeneticist from Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel, now hopes to move on to larger animal studies of the treatment.

“We are very excited about the results so far, and the efficacy seems to be really good. So the next step will be to move on to larger models and then to clinical trials, although there is still a long way to go,” Artzi says.


Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain: Where to Draw the Line?

Better across-the-board physician and patient education about the risks and benefits of opioids for chronic pain is key to stopping the US opioid epidemic, experts say.

“All physicians have to deal with chronic pain patients, and they need a basic understanding in pain management. [These] efforts can’t just focus on how to write opioid prescriptions safely, we have to teach people how to do proper pain management and it has to be more global, including consideration of alternative treatments,” said Ed Michna, MD, JD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and director of the Pain Trial Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Michna was featured in a debate about opioid prescribing here at the American Pain Society (APS) 2017 Annual Scientific Meeting.

But whether nationwide prescriber education on opioid use should be mandatory is a highly contentious issue, said panel member Douglas Gourlay, MD, director of the pain and chemical dependency division of the Wasser Pain Management Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

“I’ve always felt education is a far better way to control things than regulation, but it’s a contentious point and you need a minimum amount of regulation that provides a framework for this to work,” said Dr Gourlay.

“The idea that you learn enough in medical school or in residency to [prescribe opioids] safely is obviously not true. I think however we get education to clinicians, we need to do it carefully.”

Among key challenges is being able to say no to patients when necessary, Dr Gourlay said.

“One of the biggest problems is that it takes 30 seconds to say ‘yes’ [to prescribing an opioid] and 30 minutes to say ‘no’,” he said.

Likewise, proper education of patients is equally critical, experts agreed.

“The ounce of prevention of educating patients on what to expect will save you months of agonizing work with patients coming back,” said session moderator David Tauben, MD, chief of pain medicine, University of Washington in Seattle.

Dr Michna agreed. “I think setting realistic expectations with patients is the most critical thing, yet it’s the one thing that is rarely ever done, particularly in an acute setting. Surgeons don’t even ask about prior history of substance abuse and then the patient gets into trouble and then the problem is dumped on PCPs [primary care physicians] and other specialists. You need to know about the patients you’re operating on and then set realistic expectations in their treatment with opioids,” he said.

Greater Caution Warranted

Jane Ballantyne, MD, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington, argued for greater precautions with opioid prescribing for chronic pain and detailing the many known risks, including misuse, abuse, and death, in addition to risks related to high doses, such as falls and fractures in the elderly and a lower likelihood of returning to work.

Regarding analgesic efficacy, controlled trials are too time limited to make any determination about long-term efficacy, and anecdotal reports don’t tell the whole story, she said.

“Patient and prescriber anecdotal reports are influenced by opioid dependence. I mention that because I think it’s a very important component,” she said.

She underscored the need to develop strategies to prevent the known brain changes that occur with the continuous use of opioids — either short or long term — around the clock, spurring a cycle of analgesic tolerance and dependency similar to the cycle seen with addiction.

“In the addiction world, the drugs are no longer being taken to get the euphoria but to avoid the bad effects of withdrawal, and with chronic pain, patients need to continue to take the drugs to avoid withdrawal and the worsened pain that goes along with it. If, instead, we only used short-acting drugs occasionally, it could possibly help prevent these brain adaptations.”

In addressing the central debate question of where to draw the line, Dr Ballantyne emphasized starting with the identification of patients with chronic noncancer pain, for whom opioid use is generally considered not to be helpful.

As described in a 2014 position paper of the American Academy of Neurology, those should include the common conditions of acute low back pain with no pathoanatomic diagnosis, headache, and fibromyalgia, she said.

In identifying the most suitable candidates, she suggested carefully considering those who truly have few other options and treatment with the goal of providing comfort.

“One concept that I like is the idea that if you are prescribing opiate treatment to provide comfort, and not to provide function and normal quality of life in a younger person, then it is a reasonable choice,” Dr Ballantyne said.

“If the underlying cause of pain is disabling, then maybe that person’s a candidate, if they cannot be improved by primary disease treatment or lifestyle changes, and if other treatments are not possible, for example an elderly person who cannot tolerate other options, such as exercise or nonsteroidals.”

Lower opioid doses, as are increasingly being recommended in various states, also represent a place to draw the line in opioid prescribing. A nother consideration should be the estimated risk when prescribing , such as the higher risk among younger people for misuse or dependency compared with the risk among  older patients .

Overall, however, the multitude of safety concerns that have led to the opioid epidemic underscore the balance of risks over benefits, Dr Ballantyne said.

“If you look at risk/benefit analysis, it will rarely favor benefit over risk.”

In his counterargument, Dr Michna made the case that increasingly rigid laws and policies on long-term opioid prescribing for chronic pain often fail to address the needs of patients with chronic pain who do benefit from the treatment and do not misuse the drugs.

No Evidence of Long-term Benefit

He described several cases of patients with chronic pain benefitting from the long-term treatment, including an obese woman in her 30s with fibromyalgia who experienced such significant pain reduction with opioids that she became physically active and was able to lose more than 250 pounds.

Regarding a lack of evidence on any benefits of long-term opioid use in chronic pain, Dr Michna noted that evidence is also lacking on the benefits of other medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs have minimal analgesic effect for chronic pain conditions, such as low back pain and osteoarthritis.

“The paucity of evidence for long-term effectiveness is true of pain treatments in general. Why force people off of opioids when they are satisfied with the effect and using the drugs appropriately?” he said.

Dr Michna cited a recent editorial  by Kurt Kroenke, MD, and Andrea Cheville, MD, published in JAMA, which argued “the movement to virtually eliminate opioids as an option for chronic pain refractory to other treatments is an overreaction.”

He agreed with the paper’s assertion that “imperfect treatments do not justify therapeutic nihilism.”

“All I’m asking for is a rational approach. It’s all about individualization of care. Why don’t we have well-educated physicians and well-informed patients make the decision about their care?” said Dr Michna.

The most definitive solution, said panelist David A. Fishbain, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and adjunct professor of neurological surgery and anesthesiology at University of Miami Health Sciences, Florida, would be the development of a painkiller that doesn’t cause dependency.

“The next biggest advance will be an opioid that doesn’t have any addictive properties, and then this whole issue will be settled,” he said.

Portable scanner to reveal nutritional value of foods

A portable food scanner could tell you how much fat is in the food you eat. Image: Shutterstock/ gkrphoto
A portable food scanner could tell you how much fat is in the food you eat. Image: \

A personal scanner that reveals the nutritional value of your food could soon be helping you to eat healthily, thanks to a EUR 1 million prize that is being offered to the inventors who come up with the best working prototype. 

The scanner will be able to identify whether your sausages, burgers or croissants contain too much fat and salt, and even pick out traces of nuts or gluten.

It’s one of five Horizon Prizes where money is offered to inventors and developers who create a specific technology.

‘Healthy eating is a key way of limiting certain diseases like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,’ said EU project officer Gerald Cultot, who was involved in designing the terms of the prize.

‘There are these fitness apps which tell you how much energy you have spent, but you don’t have that many apps that tell you how much you have consumed, so it’s really about going to the other side of the spectrum and helping people to better measure their food intake,’ he said.

‘It’s really about going to the other side of the spectrum and helping people to better measure their food intake.’

Gerald Cultot, European Commission

The EUR 1 million prize will be split into a maximum of three awards – EUR 800 000 for the winner, and EUR 100 000 each to the first and second runner-ups.

In order to win the prize, the prototype needs to be able to analyse food composition, nutrition facts and potentially harmful ingredients such as allergens.

That’s a major issue because about 17 million Europeans suffer from food allergies, with 3.5 million of them less than 25 years of age, according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Horizon Prizes

The idea behind the Horizon Prizes is that they could attract people who might not apply for a standard research project, which are usually awarded to international research consortiums.

The foodscanner prize follows a prize for a bacteria test announced in February, prizes for better sharing of wireless bandwidth and for higher speed optical data transmissionannounced in March, and materials that can improve the air quality of cities in April.

‘With the prize contest we want to bring people to join our programmes that usually wouldn’t apply,’ said Barbara Kowatsch, an EU officer who has helped develop the new funding instrument.

The prizes are seen as an ongoing method for the EU to stimulate innovation. Next year’s prizes will be announced in the autumn. ‘Every year we target to have ambitious prizes in areas related to societal challenges,’ said Kowatsch.

Virus or bacteria? Soon a test could tell you

Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu. Image: Shutterstock/Mark Lorch
Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu.

If you have a cough and a runny nose, it’s hard to know whether you’re suffering from a viral or bacterial infection – and that’s important because it determines whether you need to take antibiotics or not.

Now there could be a test that will tell you if your symptoms are caused by a virus or bacteria during a visit to your doctor, thanks to a EUR 1 million prize that is being offered to the inventor who comes up with the best working prototype.

‘Upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold and bronchitis are a major reason for the prescription of antibiotics although these infections are often caused by viruses and in that case antibiotics are not necessary and not effective,’ said Birgit Van Tongelen, an officer at the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation who was involved in developing the idea for the prize.

The overuse of antibiotics is a major problem because it is making them less effective by allowing bacteria to develop resistance to them. It is estimated this causes 25 000 deaths per year and over EUR 1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses in Europe alone.

Over two fifths of Europeans do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viral colds and flu, according to an EU survey.

‘These infections are often caused by viruses and in that case antibiotics are not necessary and not effective.’

Birgit Van Tongelen, an officer at the EU’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation

The prize, which is being launched on Thursday, aims to help solve that by giving doctors a way to prove to patients that their infection is viral or bacterial, and convince them that antibiotics won’t help in case of viral infections.

The winning test must ideally work in less than 30 minutes, be simple to use and not too intrusive, and a panel of at least seven specialists will chose the winner at the end of next year.

The UK-based Longitude Prize launched an award to develop a rapid test for multiple infections that can provide information on the type of bacteria and level of antimicrobial resistance. The prize will be awarded at the end of 2019.

Garage scientist

Horizon Prizes are challenge-based awards which offer cash to whoever can most effectively meet a defined challenge. They are called inducement prizes because the aim is to stimulate innovation and encourage people to come up with unconventional solutions to problems that matter to European citizens.

The theory behind the prizes is to attract people who might not have applied for a standard research project, which are usually awarded to international research consortiums. ‘The idea is to also attract the scientist in their garage,’ said Van Tongelen. ‘Any individual can apply.’

The antibiotics prize is one of five Horizon Prizes where money is offered to inventors and developers to solve a specific problem.

German SME CureVac beat 12 other contestants to win the first innovation inducement prize in 2014 for its RNActive technology, which could enable vaccines to be made that won’t spoil if they are left out of the fridge.

This Futuris video looks in depth at the CureVac project:

In addition to the antibiotics prize, the five prizes launched this year include EUR 3 million for a materials-based technology to remove pollution from the air and EUR 1 million for a device that can scan food.

A robotic doctor is gearing up for action

A new robot under development can send information on the stiffness, look and feel of a patient to a doctor located kilometres away. Image credit: Accrea

A robotic doctor that can be controlled hundreds of kilometres away by a human counterpart is gearing up for action.

Getting a check-up from a robot may sound like something from a sci-fi film, but scientists are closing in on this real-life scenario and have already tested a prototype.

‘The robot at the remote site has different force, humidity and temperature sensors, all capturing information that a doctor would get when they are directly palpating (physically examining) a patient,’ explains Professor Angelika Peer, a robotics researcher at the University of the West of England, UK.

Prof. Peer is also the project coordinator of the EU-funded ReMeDi project, which is developing the robotic doctor to allow medical professionals to examine patients over huge distances.

Through a specially designed surface mounted on a robotic arm, stiffness data of the patient’s abdomen is displayed to the human, allowing the doctor to feel what the remote robot feels. This is made possible thanks to a tool called a haptic device, which has a soft surface reminiscent of skin that can recreate the sense of touch through force and changing its shape.

During the examination, the doctor sits at a desk facing three screens, one showing the doctor’s hand on the faraway patient and a second for teleconferencing with the patient, which will remain an essential part of the exchange.

The third screen displays a special capability of the robot doctor – ultrasonography. This is a medical technique that sends sound pulses into a patient’s body to create a window into the patient. It reveals areas of different densities in the body and is often used to examine pregnant women.

Ultrasonography is also important for flagging injuries or disease in organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys or spleen and can find indications for some types of cancer, too.

‘The system allows a doctor from a remote location to do a first assessment of a patient and make a decision about what should be done, whether to transfer them to hospital or undergo certain treatments,’ said Prof. Peer.

The robot currently resides in a hospital in Poland but scientists have shown the prototype at medical conferences around the world. And they have already been approached by doctors from Australia and Canada where it can take several hours to transfer rural patients to a doctor’s office or hospital.

With the help of a robot, a doctor can talk to a patient, manoeuvre robotic arms, feel what the robot senses and get ultrasounds. Image credit: ReMeDi

With the help of a robot, a doctor can talk to a patient, manoeuvre robotic arms, feel what the robot senses and get ultrasounds.

‘This is to support an initial diagnosis. The human is still in the loop, but this allows them to perform an examination remotely,’ said Prof. Peer.


The ReMeDi project could speed up a medical exam and save time for patients and clinics. Another EU-funded project – United4Health (U4H) – looks at a different technology that could be used to remotely diagnose or treat people.

‘We need to transform how we deliver health and care,’ said Professor George Crooks, director of the Scottish Centre for Telehealth & Telecare, UK, which provides services via telephone, web and digital television and coordinates U4H.

This approach is crucial as Europe faces an ageing population and a rise in long-term health conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Telemedicine empowers these types of patients to take steps to help themselves at home, while staying in touch with medical experts via technology. Previous studies showed those with heart failure can be successfully treated this way.

These patients were given equipment to monitor their vital signs and send data back to a hospital. A trial in the UK comparing this self-care group to the standard-care group showed a reduction in mortality, hospital admissions and bed days, says Prof. Crooks.

‘The human is still in the loop, but this allows them to perform an examination remotely.’

Professor Angelika Peer, University of the West of England, UK

A similar result was shown in the demonstration sites of the U4H project which tested the telemedicine approach in 14 regions for patients with heart failure, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). For diabetic patients in Scotland, they kept in touch with the hospital using text messages. For COPD, some patients used video consultations.

Prof. Crooks stresses that it is not all about the electronics – what matters is the service wraparound that makes the technology acceptable and easy to use for patients and clinical teams.

‘It can take two or three hours out of your day to go along to a 15 minute medical appointment and then to be told to keep taking your medication. What we do is, by using technology, patients monitor their own parameters, such as blood sugar in the case of diabetes, how they are feeling, diet and so on, and then they upload these results,’ said Prof. Crooks.

‘It doesn’t mean you never go to see a doctor, but whereas you might have gone seven or eight times a year, you may go just once or twice.’

Crucially, previous research has shown these patients fare better and the approach is safe.

‘There can be an economic benefit, but really this is about saving capacity. It frees up healthcare professionals to see the more complex cases,’ said Prof. Crooks.

It also empowers patients to take more responsibility for their health and results in fewer unplanned visits to the emergency room.

‘Patient satisfaction rates were well over 90 %,’ said Prof. Crooks.

Finger prick test wins EUR 1 million to fight antibiotic resistance

The test can quickly tell if an infection is viral or bacterial. Image credit: European Union

A finger prick test that can show almost instantly whether an infection is bacterial or viral has won EUR 1 million from the EU as part of the first-ever Horizon Prize.

It’s important as antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections yet often the symptoms of bacterial and viral infections are very similar.

The unnecessary use of antibiotics is leading to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria known as superbugs which cause around 25 000 deaths in Europe each year, according to EU data.

At a special ceremony in Leuven, Belgium, the Minicare HNL test was awarded the first-ever Horizon Prize, a funding mechanism that allows small firms and inventors to access research funding by offering solutions to a pre-defined problem.

The EUR 1 million prize will be used to get the finger prick test ready to be commercialised, and the developers hope it will mean doctors prescribe fewer antibiotics.

‘There is a misuse and abuse of antibiotics today and that’s because doctors don’t have the tools to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections,’ said Professor Per Venge, the founder of P & M Venge AB, a Swedish medical research company which is behind the Minicare HNL test along with Philips Diagnostics in the Netherlands.

The winning product is a small handheld device that can check a drop of blood for the presence of human neutrophil lipocalin (HNL).

‘There is a misuse and abuse of antibiotics today and that’s because doctors don’t have the tools to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections.’

Prof. Per Venge, Minicare HNL

‘HNL is a protein that blood cells release when they have a bacterial infection, but they won’t if there is a viral infection,’ said Prof. Venge. ‘That means it is possible to measure elevated levels of HNL as a sign of bacterial infection.’

The device is being designed for general practices as well as emergency departments. Since antibiotics don’t work on viruses this would allow doctors to safely avoid prescribing them.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at the World Health Organization, said: ‘Compelling evidence shows that (antimicrobial) resistance is driven by the total volume of antibiotics used.’

Biggest risk

The biggest risk is in complex medical treatments such as hip replacements, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy and the care of premature babies, as the patients are dependent on antibiotics to keep infection at bay.

Jeroen Nieuwenhuis, a senior director at Philips, said it would be years rather than decades before the device would be available in doctors’ offices.

‘We now have a proof of concept which is very encouraging, but before we can get to a test that can be used in a practice there is still a lot of development to be done so we have to validate it on many more patients.’

The other two finalists were ImmunoPoC, a business working on a finger prick test that can differentiate between bacterial and viral infections within 15 minutes. The other, PulmoCheck, is developing a device that reacts to body fluids from a bacterial infection within two to six minutes.

Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, presented the award and spoke of the growing risk of drug-resistant bacteria: ‘Most bacterial diseases used to be extremely deadly. Now, in just a few days, you can get cured – and we take that for granted.

‘All three finalists that came here tonight are working to revolutionise diagnosis,’ he said. ‘To break the doubt that leads to out-of-control antibiotic use.’

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Europe can solve superbug crisis – Prof. Herman Goossens

Prof. Herman Goossens started European Antibiotic Awareness Day in 2008 after a study showed large numbers of Europeans thought antibiotics can kill viruses.

As the European Commission publishes a new plan to fight the threat from drug-resistant superbugs, Professor Herman Goossens, the initiator of the first European Antibiotic Awareness Day, says he is optimistic that scientists and industry can work together to solve perhaps the biggest challenge of our time.

What is the worst-case scenario if the problem of drug-resistant bacteria, known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), is not solved?

‘Think of a man with acute prostatitis – a benign infection that we currently treat with oral antibiotics. Normally they are treated at home but if the bugs that cause the infection are resistant to antibiotics, we need to keep these patients in hospital for weeks where they have intravenous antibiotics. If the bugs then become resistant to the heavy-duty drugs that we use in hospitals, we would go back to the era where people were at risk of dying from minor infections.

‘Similarly, cancer patients are frequently admitted to hospital due to infections but can usually be treated successfully. If the antibiotics no longer work, they may die not of their cancer but of an infection.’

It’s almost a decade since you initiated the first annual European Antibiotic Awareness Day in 2008. What prompted you to take this initiative?

‘A Eurobarometer study in 2005 asked Europeans whether antibiotics can kill viruses as well as bacteria. The answer, of course, is no. But large numbers of people got it wrong. There were a couple of interesting things about this.

‘For a start, the results were worst in southern and eastern EU countries. In other countries, including Belgium and France, levels of knowledge were much better. It turned out that Belgium and France had run annual awareness campaigns since 2000 and 2002, respectively. And we also saw from some collaborative EU projects – such as GRACE – that awareness campaigns successfully feed into attitudes.

‘The other interesting thing was that countries that did poorly in the Eurobarometer survey had higher antibiotic consumption. In Europe, we have great data on antibiotic use which enables us to understand the problem, devise interventions and measure the impact.’

From your work at the University Hospital of Antwerp, in Belgium, have you seen any improvements?

‘In some areas, yes, but it’s not a universal success story. Antibiotic use in humans and animals has changed. This is thanks in part to European initiatives to tackle a common hospital bug, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Patients have benefited from EU-wide research and policy initiatives that ultimately made hospitals safer.

‘However, with bacteria such as those that live in the gut, the situation has gotten worse and worse.’

AMR has risen up the political agenda at European and global level. What material impact, if any, has this had?

‘Last year was the most significant ever in terms of attention from senior global leadership and this will be carried forward into the G20 meeting in Hamburg on 7 to 8 July where the German government has put it on the agenda. Last September, the UN General Assembly recognised the One Health approach to addressing AMR (where medical doctors, veterinarians and policymakers collaborate). Countries have until September 2017 to produce their national action plans on AMR and I know that some – China and India, for example – are already significantly increasing their activities.

‘The impact is huge and the EU has taken the lead for many years not only by publishing reports and making strong statements, but also by significantly funding research and public health initiatives. For example, in the countries participating in the Joint Programming Initiative on Antimicrobial Resistance (where EU Member States coordinate their research to avoid duplication), we found that 33 % of the total investment in research on solving AMR came from the EU. The data also suggests significant underfunding of research on antibiotic resistance by the (EU) Member States.’

‘Tackling antibiotic resistance, as well as so many of our current problems, the solution can only ever be at a European, or even a global level.’

Professor Herman Goossens, University Hospital of Antwerp, Belgium

Do you think the European Commission’s new AMR action plan frames the problem in the right way? What is your response to the concrete proposals it contains?

‘Yes, it has a number of new proposals and strengths, including a lot more attention on One Health, which is exactly what we need. The plan makes several recommendations on how the public and private sector could collaborate more closely, such as by building networks for clinical trials on new antibiotics and diagnostics. It also commits to a stronger EU presence at global level, which I welcome. Indeed, it is crystal clear that for tackling antibiotic resistance, as well as so many of our current problems, the solution can only ever be at a European, or even a global level, despite the curr

Printed solar cells thinner than your hair could power your phone

Nanotechnology could give us extremely thin solar panels that could power phones. Image credit: Flickr/ Kārlis Dambrāns

Extremely thin printable solar panels could power your phone and are amongst a range of new ways nanotechnology is opening the door to a clean energy and waste-free future.

Nanotechnology, a science that focuses on understanding materials on an atomic scale, is helping researchers and businesses introduce new technologies that could transform our economy into a greener, less wasteful one.

‘Nanotechnology as a field has an enormous role to play in moving our planet to sustainable and intelligent living,’ said Professor Martin Curley from Maynooth University in Ireland, speaking on 21 June at the EuroNanoForum conference, in Malta, organised by the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the European Union and co-funded by the EU.

He explained to an audience of businesspeople and researchers that nanotechnology holds the potential to spark ‘an explosion of innovation’.

One area where this innovation could have its biggest impact is with how we generate, use and consume energy.

Speaking at a session dedicated to nanotechnology in clean energy generation, Prof. Alejandro Pérez-Rodríguez, from the department of electronics at the University of Barcelona, Spain, said solar energy and photovoltaic (PV) technology itself could be considered a nanotechnology sector.

‘In all PV technologies and devices we put some nanotechnology … If we want to move to devices with higher functionality, lower weight, higher flexibility, different colours, then we need to integrate more nanotechnologies into their materials and architecture.’

At the same session, Artur Kupczunas, co-founder of Saule Technologies, explained how his company is using nanotechnology to print solar panels using perovskite crystals, a cheap and highly sensitive mineral that was first found in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1839.

They produce thin layers of solar cells that are somewhere near one-tenth of the thickness of a single human hair. This innovation could greatly reduce the cost of producing solar energy while transforming any surface into a solar panel, from walls and road-side barriers to the surface of your smartphone.

‘The most interesting factor is the (reduction of) overall costs,’ said Kupczunas, explaining that this means the technology could be easily scaled out across the market.

Fuel cell

At the same session, John Bøgild Hansen, a senior scientist from Haldor Topsøe, a Danish chemical engineering company, explained how they have been using nanotechnology to look at the atomic level of gases in order to better understand their properties.

This knowledge contributed to creating a fuel cell for greener biofuel production. Their process extracts pure hydrogen from plant materials while reusing any CO2 emissions created during the process to help power the production cycle, preventing any fossil fuels entering the atmosphere.

This, he believes, is a way to ‘break the bottleneck’ on biofuels which currently struggle to get public and private support.

‘If we want to move to devices with higher functionality, lower weight, higher flexibility, different colours, then we need to integrate more nanotechnologies into their materials and architecture.’

Prof. Alejandro Pérez-Rodríguez, University of Barcelona, Spain

‘If we want the conveniences we have today from liquid energy carriers (oil, natural gas etc.) for transport … hydrocarbons (biogas) are the best,’ he said.

Storing wind and solar energy during unstable weather is another gap in our sustainable energy future.

Professor Magnus Berggren and his team at Sweden’s Linköping University are looking into using nanotechnology to harness the molecular properties of a plastic conductive material called PEDOT:PSS. They combine this knowledge with nanocellulose, a product made from plants or oil, to create an organic material that stores energy.

‘If we make a (PEDOT:PSS) battery the size of a refrigerator it can store (enough energy for) the needs of a family in a house or an apartment for a day,’ he said.

Because of its ability to charge quickly, it could be a way to compensate for the under- or over- production of wind and solar energy during calm or cloudy days. This, in turn, could break cities’ dependency on fossil fuels.

‘You need to store when you are over-producing and release when you are under-producing,’ Prof. Berggren explained.


Nanotechnology also has the ability to make technology smaller, extend the life-cycle of electronics, improve manufacturing processes, all of which would mean less waste has to go to the landfill.

Speaking at one of the sessions, Joe Murphy, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an association in the UK dedicated to promoting waste as a resource, explained nanotechnologies ‘may enable us to create a new material palette’ that allows future products to be recycled more easily.

‘At the moment we have a lot of barriers to recycling … nanotechnology may enable us to do more,’ he said.