Brussels, 16 September 2005
A regular look at what’s going on the world of European research, showing the breadth and diversity of EU-funded research projects.
In this issue:
- Europeans woefully unaware of heart failure risks, study reveals
- EU scientists tackle degrading ink problem
- The many faces of biomass energy
- EU researchers explore the ‘lower levels’ of radiation-induced cancer
- Scientists dive deep into Europe’s diverse seas
The overwhelming majority of Europeans surveyed underestimate or misunderstand the threat of heart failure, say the researchers behind a nine-country study. The big challenge they now face will be to better educate the public about the problem in order to improve citizens’ health and, from that, their quality of life.
Today, around 14 million people in Europe suffer from a heart condition or failure and this number is forecast to increase to 30 million by 2020, according to the group behind the study. Nearly 40% of heart failure patients will die within one year of first hospitalisation and only 25% of men and 38% of women will survive more than five years following diagnosis.
With these facts as stark reminders of what is at stake with heart failure, the recent findings of the public awareness survey on the subject are timely. Carried out by SHAPE (Study on Heart failure Awareness and Perception in Europe), the research reveals, in the words of its lead author, a “woeful and worrying” level of ignorance. The study’s findings were recently published in the European Heart Journal, the official journal of the European Society of Cardiology.
Although almost 90% of people from the nine surveyed countries – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK – said they had heard of heart failure (HF), only 3% could identify the condition from a description of typical symptoms. This was despite 6% saying they had someone in their family with HF.
This poor awareness is putting lives at risk, according to the study’s lead author Dr Willem Remme, professor of medicine and director of the Sticares Cardiovascular Research Foundation, based in Rhoon, The Netherlands. “It has serious implications for individuals and for public health throughout Europe. If the public don't understand how common and life-threatening this condition is, then they are not likely to seek medical help early, and they are also unlikely to demand appropriate measures from healthcare providers,” he noted.
This was the first study of its kind to gauge awareness of HF among the general public in Europe. A total of 7 958 people in two age groups (25-45 year olds and 65-85 year olds) responded from the nearly 48 000 households randomly contacted across Europe. Participants answered 32 questions ranging from what they know about the disease to what can be done about it.
The results not only showed that most of the public taking part could not recognise the signs of HF, but that they also had major misconceptions about the condition. For example, when asked how seriously they should take such symptoms as breathlessness, tiredness or swollen ankles, only 29% thought these represented a severe complaint. This, according to the authors, is a serious mistake that could lead to delayed diagnosis of HF.
Given a list of conditions, only 9% of respondents could correctly identify HF as the biggest healthcare cost for governments – 40% said cancer and % HIV. In fact, HF consumes 2-2.5% of the total European healthcare budget, with 70% of that going on hospital admission.
“These results are pretty depressing," said Dr Remme, who is also chairman of SHAPE, which was established in 2002 by an independent group of medical specialists. "Ignorance of the symptoms and of what can be done to prevent and treat the condition could contribute unnecessarily to poor quality of life in tens of thousands of patients and thousands of premature deaths ... [which places] a heavy burden on health systems,” he claimed.
"We urge everyone to educate themselves about early signs that may mean risk of heart failure and see your doctor in good time. A tremendous amount can now be done with modern drugs and devices, together with lifestyle changes, to prevent the condition, to improve the quality of life for those who have HF and to reduce the need for costly hospital admission.”
SHAPE will soon start phase two of the project – a campaign to educate family doctors and the
public – aimed at boosting healthcare for this condition. Family doctors are being targeted
following the discovery, in a parallel study, that they also lack knowledge about HF, explains Remme.
He hopes to be able to present results from this phase in about two years.
For more information on this project, visit:
EU scientists tackle degrading ink problem
Valuable artefacts like da Vinci’s drawings, or paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt are under threat from corrosive properties in a certain type of ink. Now scientists, united in an EU-funded research project called InkCor, have developed an effective antidote that will help save these precious works of art.
Scientists have known for some time that alkalis need to be added to paper to combat decay induced by acids contained in some inks. The InkCor team took this one step further by isolating exactly which type of antioxidants slow the degradation. In fact, its treatment proved to prolong the lifespan of paper containing corrosive inks by more than ten-fold. “We first needed to establish what the inks were really made of and identify the main corrosive ingredients,” explains project coordinator Jana Kolar of the Slovenian National and University Library. “Only then could we develop a suitable solution.”
Art historians in the InkCor project set about collecting and analysing a number of historical recipes. Iron gall inks were widely used from the Middle Ages until the 20th century and their corrosiveness was believed to be caused by the acids and iron ions in the ink.
This problem was first documented in 1899 in St Gallen, Switzerland. Despite advances in recent years – notably, development of an aqueous stabilisation treatment – progress has been slow in this complex field due to the multitude of ink recipes concocted in ateliers and private houses all over Europe.
Drawing on everyday objects found around the house, historical recipes did, however, share common colour-forming ingredients – wood sap, steel filings, tea, etc. The team poured over old manuscripts citing how to elicit certain colours using sulphates and other elements. The effort paid off. The researchers discovered discrepancies which eventually led them to the current anti-corrosion solutions.
“This was an important finding,” stresses Kolar. “We know that similar damage to that caused by iron gall ink is inflicted upon paper and parchment documents by verdigris – a dark blue green basic copper acetate – often found in old illustrations and maps.” Noting large amounts of corrosive metal ions other than iron in the ink significantly changed the way the team would later attempt to stabilise these materials.
But a lot of work was still ahead of the team. The chemists and physicists in the project followed up the art historical studies by investigating the inks in numerous historical documents using sophisticated gentle nuclear acceleration techniques, such as proton-induced X-ray emission, suitable for analysing fragile artefacts.
The results were surprising. Not only did they find that, in addition to iron, several other metals
were present in various quantities in the ink, but some, like copper, were many times more destructive
to paper than iron. This, they suspected, could be the main source of decay set off by certain iron
gall inks. Having pinpointed the metals and acids responsible for the corrosion, the InkCor group
started developing a non-aqueous stabilisation treatment, which contained alkalis. Patents have been
filed for the resulting treatment. Meanwhile, the new stabilisation method could help save hundreds of
master drawings and shelves full of works containing iron gall ink.
The InkCor project is funded by the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme (City of Tomorrow and Culture Heritage Key Action). For more information, visit
The many faces of biomass energy
The ability to produce energy efficiently and cheaply is the beating heart of economic growth and all that it stands for – wealth creation, better quality of life, secure futures. Burning fossil fuels to keep the industrial wheels turning is becoming less and less viable, as stocks begin to deplete and the side effects of dirty energy production leave their mark on the environment. There are a number of EU-backed research projects investigating renewable alternatives – plant-derived energy sources known as biomass.
While perhaps less is heard about biomass than other better-known renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines, solar collectors and hydropower, it already contributes some 5% of total EU energy supply, and 65% of the total renewable energy production, where it is predominately used for heat and power applications.
To increase the share of biomass used as an energy source, more and better equipment is needed to produce both heat and power as well as to transport fuel. More research is essential to develop such equipment and this is one area which is covered by EU funds, through the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6) and in particular the sustainable energy sub-priority of the ‘Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems’ thematic priority.
Biomass means any plant-derived organic matter available on a renewable basis. Biomass energy systems use many different conversion technologies to produce solid, liquid and gaseous fuels. These can then be used to provide heat, electricity and fuels to power vehicles; using burners, boilers, generators, internal combustion engines, turbines or fuel cells.”
For example, power can be generated by co-firing traditional fuels with a small proportion of biomass on existing power plants; burning biomass in conventional steam boilers; biomass gasification; and anaerobic digestion. The same generators producing power also yield useful steam and heat in what is called ‘combined heat and power’ (CHP). Biomass can be used in fireplaces and kilns to heat homes and, on a bigger scale, for ‘district heating’ through the power grid. And, unlike other renewable energy sources, biomass can be converted directly into liquid fuels for transport – the two most common biofuels being ethanol and biodiesel.
Many of the ways for exploiting biomass have been used for a number of years, such as stokers for combustion, while others are only just being tested and put into circulation (e.g. gasification). Emerging technologies, such as ethanol from lignocellulose, show potential for becoming future sustainable energy producing techniques, but they have not yet been fully tested.
Several of the projects already funded by FP6 explore these and other novel techniques. One three-year, €2.5 million EU funded project, called BioCellus (Biomass Fuel Cell Utility System), is studying the performance characteristics of SOFC membranes for different gas compositions and operating conditions. The 16 partners will also develop an appropriate gas-cleaning method and will demonstrate a new stack concept using heat pipes.
Meanwhile, a four-year project with €10 million in FP6 funds, called ‘Renewable biofuels for advanced powertrains’ (Renew), is researching and developing second-generation biofuels for use in modern combustion engines. A wide range of pathways will be studied for the production of road fuels from a broad range of biomass, notably lignocellulose.
As set out in the EU White Paper ‘Energy for the Future: Renewable sources of energy’ the
medium- to long-term goal, to which this research effort is aimed, is to gain significant increases in
the use of biomass for energy production. But before this can happen, European research must play a key
role in overcoming technical hurdles and some non-technical ones, such as changing energy production
– and consumption – behaviour.
For more information on this research area, visit
EU researchers explore the ‘lower levels’ of radiation-induced cancer
The risks of getting cancer from ionising radiation, particularly high levels of exposure, have long been a focus of research and clinical study. But the carcinogenic impact of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation is a very different story. Natural and man-made sources of ionising radiation are numerous, subtle and, until fairly recently, have been difficult to identify, quantify and analyse at genetic and cellular levels of activity in the human body. The EU-funded project RISC-RAD is helping fill the gaps in scientific and medical knowledge about this subject.
One of the first large projects of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to get off the ground, RISC-RAD was launched on 1 January 2004 as an Integrated Project with EU funding of €10 million and a consortium of 29 research partners from 11 countries working in the field of radiation-induced cancer arising from damaged DNA. The 48-month project’s work includes research on DNA repair, genomic instability and tumour development.
Though RISC-RAD reaches its halfway mark only at the end of this year, participants are already clarifying the issues of their work for the remainder of the project’s timeline. This is based on a comparison of research results at RISC-RAD’s first annual meeting of scientists earlier this year in Germany.
“Everyone reviewed the results of their research carried out in 2004 and came up with a strategic focus for the remainder of the project’s duration,” said Axel Meunier, RISC-RAD’s Communications Assistant, who also works for France’s national nuclear agency, Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA), which coordinates the project through Dr Laure Sabatier. “There was pretty much a consensus about the direction ahead: to focus on the carcinogenic effects of low-dose effects of radiation”.
Indeed, the results of RISC-RAD-sponsored work on low-dose radiation are already trickling in from researchers across Europe. For instance, a trio of researchers at CNIO, Spain’s national cancer centre, saw the results of their work on telomeres published in an August edition of the prestigious journal Science. As specialised nucleoprotein complexes, telomeres are the physical ends of linear chromosomes and have important functions in the protection, replication and stabilisation of chromosomes. The CNIO researchers show how telomere length, among other factors, affects epidermal stem cell biology and its possible role in cancer.
Such early research results are useful to other RISC-RAD participants, particularly those involved in modelling and simulation, noted Meunier. “To a certain extent, RISC-RAD’s modelling work depends on the completion of research in the other work packages,” he said. “However, deliverables are rolling in every six or twelve months, so they will soon start to incorporate the data into their modelling. It’ll be a continuous feedback loop that adjusts the modelling assumptions as more research data becomes available.”
Noting that a research project of only four years cannot produce definitive results in a field as
complex as cancer, Meunier said RISC-RAD nonetheless benefits enormously from the multiplier effects of
an Integrated Project. “There is great value in being able to pull together research results from
so many participants across Europe working at the same time on the subject. The distillation of
know-how just wouldn’t be the same with everyone working separately in their own corner of
For more information on this project visit
Scientists dive deep into Europe’s diverse seas
With marine species disappearing at an alarming rate and increasing evidence that our sensitive marine ecosystems are under threat, one EU-funded research network of European marine institutes, MarBEF, is engaged in a struggle to assemble all relevant knowledge and get it out to the relevant stakeholders. That means not just to scientists, but also to decision-makers, industry and the public at large.
Europe’s vast seas are home to tens of thousands of microbial, plant and animal species. These organisms, the genes they contain and the habitats they occupy form part of the rich tapestry of life or biodiversity on Earth. Increasingly, overexploitation, pollution and climate change threaten to tip the intricate balance of our marine ecosystems, with unknown consequences. Scientists in the MarBEF (Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning) Network of Excellence (NoE) are tackling this and other questions crucial to understanding and protecting life in Europe’s oceans and seas.
MarBEF – funded under the EU’s Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6) – brings together over 400 of Europe’s top marine researchers spread across almost 60 institutes in 17 countries. Important to MarBEF is the ability to integrate scientists from diverse backgrounds, such as marine ecology, biogeochemistry, fisheries management, taxonomy, socio-economics and social sciences.
MarBEF comes at a critical juncture. Evidence is mounting that climate change is happening. Scientists estimate that species are disappearing between 100 and 1 000 times faster than background or ‘normal’ rates and, for the first time in history, we have a real awareness of this change and its potential impacts. The distribution of species in the ocean is shifting, as they adapt to warming seas. But without knowing exactly where these species originate, such changes could go undetected. MarBEF scientists are looking at how life in European waters changes over large areas and long timescales as a background against which to assess these events.
Researchers in MarBEF are also establishing how the effects of biodiversity loss can cascade through entire ecosystems. The link between biodiversity and human health is undeniable, if sometimes imperceptible. A key feature of MarBEF is the way in which it defines marine ecosystems and how we value them. From the provision of goods, such as food and medicine to the ‘behind the scenes’ services, such as recycling of waste and climate regulation, these processes maintain the health of the planet and the human population.
MarBEF has just launched the second phase of its research programme to make European marine biodiversity research more relevant to scientific development and more visible worldwide. The research covers the breadth of Europe’s seas, from arctic to subtropical climes, and from densely populated coastal regions to little-known deep-sea ecosystems.
The knowledge gained from this research will be used to inform society of the risks of placing
excessive pressure on marine resources. It also helps decision-makers find effective strategies to
manage these resources. Working together in an integrated way, MarBEF’s scientists also hope to
boost knowledge of the wealth and variety of life in Europe’s marine waters and further unravel
the secrets of how these life forms interact to shape functional systems that have evolved over
billions of years.
For more information on this project, visit
More headlines about research in Europe can be found at http://europa.eu.int/comm/research /headlines/archives_en.html