Brussels, 14 October 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:
- Bridging the need for better transport and sustainability (road and rail transport, construction)
- A fresh image for marine biology (life sciences, science communication)
- Stakeholders meet to discuss alternatives to antimicrobials in animal feed (agriculture, health)
- EU scientists step up the fight against disease and injury (life sciences, health)
Bridging the need for better transport and sustainability
No ‘bridge is too far’ for an EU-backed consortium of surface-transport specialists investigating ways to build and renovate railway bridges to meet growing transport demands and, at the same time, allay concerns about sustainable construction in the sector.
Faster and bigger trains running more and more services on busier routes are on the horizon. But many existing railway bridges are ageing. To investigate the safety of these bridges and help the EU meet the growing surface transport demands, the Commission is funding a project to develop methods to better utilise the capacity of the existing infrastructure, and to come up with more efficient maintenance practices.
Some 30 partners across Europe are taking part in an EU-funded project, called ‘Sustainable Bridges’, which will, among other things, monitor railway bridges electronically, carry out fatigue testing on steel-reinforced concrete bridges and assess future traffic demands and how to lengthen bridge life.
Many of Europe’s rail bridges are old and in poor condition, which poses a major problem for rail-system operators. But with improved monitoring and maintenance, expensive renovation work could be avoided, which saves money and has potential environmental benefits.
“The railway bridges in Europe are a vital part of the transport system. They represent a value [in] the order of €20 billion. The objective is to increase the capacity of existing bridges by increasing allowable loads, speeds and capacities, increasing residual service lives, and enhancing management, strengthening, and repair systems,” according to the project information on ARAMIS, an Information System for R&D projects in Switzerland, one of many countries involved in the project.
Launched on 1 December 2003, the project is funded by the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) – Sustainable Surface Transport activities. Although much research has already been carried out in this area in the past, there is still scope for innovative testing and development, in order to establish safe procedures for managing and upgrading railway bridges.
Led by of Jan Olofsson of Sweden’s Skanska Teknik, project participants include rail operators, research organisations, universities, and private engineering firms. For example Swiss partner EMPA (Materials Science and Technology) will be responsible for testing and developing the automated monitoring systems. The information will be used to gauge the performance, endurance and safety of both existing and newly built bridges.
At the end of its four years, the project’s ultimate goal is to evaluate whether railway bridges in Europe will meet the 2020 goals – the joint strategy for European rail research ‘Towards a single European railway system' by 2020 – and provides the means for upgrading them if they fall short.
Among other things, the Joint Strategy 2020 document recommended the setting up of the European Advisory Council on Rail Research (ERRAC), which was done in November 2001. ERRAC then initiated and carried forward a Strategic Rail Research Agenda that is designed to help plan research programmes, particularly national and EU programmes, in line with the 2020 document. The Agenda, delivered in December 2002, addresses challenges, such as better service quality, intelligent mobility, enhanced productivity and interoperability.
According to the EU’s Sustainable Surface Transport Research website, “[The Agenda] describes a rail sector able to handle twice its current freight and passenger market share and three times the current freight and passenger volume by 2020.”
“The 2020 scenario would see increased capacity with heavier payloads and greater forces to be absorbed by bridges due to longer, faster trains and mixed traffic,” confirms the Sustainable Bridges website, adding that, “All types of bridges are being considered.”
Other key areas which the Sustainable Bridges project is covering include an inventory of railway bridges to help planning for the European transnational rail system, optimised monitoring methods, improved measures for renovating and reinforcing bridges, as well as thorough testing of the methods and systems deployed. Findings are being disseminated to end users through training courses and conferences, and guidelines will ensure rail operators are well informed on the best way to maintain different bridges.
A fresh image for marine biology
From the infinitesimal to the infinitely great – the Marine Genomics Europe Network of Excellence has organised a photo contest to find new images to communicate the beauty of our marine environment, from the eco-system scale to the tiniest structures and organisms.
EU-funded networks of excellence (NoE) are intended to tackle the fragmentation of European research by helping to structure and shape the way research is conducted in a particular field. Established in 2004, the Marine Genomics Europe NoE, involving 45 partners in 16 countries and more than 450 researchers, is working to develop and promote genomic approaches to marine biology.
This emerging field of research could greatly enhance our understanding of the marine environment. The seas, in particular the deepest areas of them, are the largest remaining unexplored zones on the globe and a crucial potential source of yet-to-be-discovered mineral and biological resources, offering a rich reserve of prospective components for medicine, food and industrial applications.
To give an idea of the potential of genomics in the marine sciences, its application in samples from the Sargasso Sea has already given rise to the discovery of 148 previously unknown phylotypes and 1.2 million unknown genes.
In addition to making genomics techniques more accessible to Europe’s marine biologists, however, the network also aims to communicate the importance and fascination of the marine sciences to a wider public. By sharing the excitement of scientific discovery and the beauty of the sea, they hope to inform, but also to ‘sensitise’ our citizens to the importance of science and the need to protect our natural marine heritage for future generations.
As part of its mission to inform, MGE has organised a photo contest open to PhD students and post-doctoral fellows linked to an MGE member institution. Entries were received in three main categories – ecosystems, organisms and cells – illustrating the beauty of the ocean at all levels, from the great expanses to the microscopic details. A fourth category on ‘Genomics’ is expected to be included in next year’s contest.
The three winners of the ImaGene contest this year are Katrin Brüder of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung (AWI), Germany, in the Ecosystems category, Galice Hoarau of the University of Groningen, The Netherlands (Organisms), and Rosa Bonaventura of the Istituto di biomedicina ed immunologia molecolare IBIM-CNR, Italy (Cells). They will each receive a prize of €1 000. In addition, the 25 best pictures received will be enlarged and printed to be made available to schools, museums, aquaria and other public places for display to students and the general public. The initiative aims to find a meeting ground between art and science which illustrates both the great beauty and the enormous scientific interest of the underwater world.
In line with the goals of the EU’s Science and Society Action Plan, which aims to make science more accessible to the general public, the MGE initiative illustrates one way to bridge the communication gap by speaking in images rather than words. These beautiful images will be on public display for the first time at the ‘Communicating European Research’ (CER) international conference which will take place in Brussels, Belgium, on 14-15 November 2005.
Stakeholders meet to discuss alternatives to antimicrobials in animal feed
The routine use of antimicrobials in animal farming should be a thing of the past once a European Union ban comes into effect next year. EU-funded researchers and specialists in the field met in Brussels over the summer to consider viable alternatives to these animal feed additives.
Antimicrobials are widely used in the farming for food industry to promote growth and prevent disease in animals by destroying or inhibiting the growth of bacteria. However, their routine use in agriculture is a cause of concern, with suggestions of links to antibiotic resistance in human health.
But as experts have pointed out, stopping antibiotic use in animals is a challenge requiring a multifaceted solution – at both EU and national levels – involving regulation, research and education, as well as changes in trade and farming practices. Alternatives to antimicrobials in animal feed need to be found to meet the EU-wide ban on these substances from January 2006.
Scientists, representatives from farming and food organisations and Commission staff met in Brussels, on 15 June, to discuss EU-supported research solutions to this challenge. Developing new veterinary drugs is just part of the solution: setting up better monitoring (from the fork to the farm) of the food chain and establishing incentives for the farming and food industry to use alternatives are also important, the experts agree.
Delegates at the June meeting discussed various alternatives to reduce the use of antimicrobials, such as changing farming practices and using substitutes which target gastric physiology. “All have advantages and disadvantages,” notes the website developed to report on the seminar. The site includes a series of presentations from different projects and stakeholders given to highlight ongoing EU research in the field and stimulate constructive debate.
Leading institutions represented at the seminar included the Swedish National Veterinary Institute (SVA), France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), the Interuniversitären Forschungsinstitutes für Agrarbiotechnologie (IFA) in Austria and the UK’s Institute of Animal Health (IAH). Some 13 projects – including new ones such as Ace-art, Phagevet-P, Poultryflorgut and Supasalvac – funded by the Union’s Fifth and Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP5/6) took part in the seminar.
Most of those present conceded that the road ahead is challenging because of the complexities of animal digestive systems and a lack of knowledge on how feed and feed additives interact with microbial ecology. The stakeholders discussed how to change animal management systems to reduce the need for such additives, as well as the global issue of imports from areas with different production systems, and how to meet the regulations in this field.
The meeting report lists a number of key outputs which EU-funded research hopes to deliver on. These include filling the knowledge gap on basic gut physiology, including interaction with gut flora and feed additives; and the need for further research in the area of gut colonisation, in particular the bacterial genes involved.
Researchers also need to look into better animal management systems – for example in diet formulation, assessing the animal’s health status, and following appropriate weaning practices – which minimise the need for additives in feed. More research is also needed on the chemical, physiological, regulatory and trade-related aspects of antimicrobial use in animal feed, the 28-page seminar report notes.
EU scientists step up the fight against disease and injury
Scientists from various fields are teaming up for tissue engineering in a new EU-supported clinical engineering project, called STEPS, in order to help patients suffering from major diseases – such as diabetes and heart disease – and chronic injuries and inflammation.
A consortium of EU-funded researchers plans to make human tissue grown from stem cells viable – both clinically and commercially – in the next four years. The clinical scientists involved in the STEPS project will target conditions afflicting Europeans, such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic ulcers, degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and injuries like serious burns and damaged muscles and ligaments.
The €25 million STEPS (Systems Approach to Tissue Engineering Processes and Products) project, funded by the European Commission and led by the University of Liverpool and Italian pharmaceutical company Fidia, will boost development of tissue engineering, assembling experts from academic and industrial partners across Europe.
Through its 25 partners, STEPS is taking a ‘systems approach’ to tissue engineering and associated technologies. This uses new infrastructure, logistics and the know-how of STEPS’ multidisciplinary team of partners to develop systematically life-saving therapies: from lab to clinic.
Stem cells have been described as the body’s master cells. Scientists predict they can be used as a human cell ‘repair kit’ by generating healthy tissue to replace that damaged by injury and disease. But it is not a mix and match kit – exact tissue match-up is key for the body to accept the transplantation.
“For tissue engineering to be successful clinically, it has to be able to generate exactly the right type of tissue, specific to a patient, in a cost-effective manner,” noted the project coordinator Professor David Williams, director of the UK Centre for Tissue Engineering at the University of Liverpool, in a statement.
Tissue engineering is an emerging technology which has the potential to provide therapies for wide-ranging diseases and chronic injuries. It involves taking human cells, such as stem cells, such as stem cells from blood or bone marrow, and encouraging them to produce new tissue through the use of growth factors.
Despite progress, tissue engineering has yet to achieve wide clinical and commercial success, according to Williams, but this could change thanks to this major new project bringing together a critical mass of scientists with diverse expertise – from stem cell biology to bio-manufacturing processes, through ethics specialists and commercial advisors.
“At the moment, we can successfully produce a very small amount of tissue, but nothing good enough to replace large areas of skin or cartilage,” he was recently quoted as saying in Wired News. The appropriately named STEPS project wants to scale up the process.
A lot of the science is there, he continued, but more research is needed. Scientists can, for example, extract stem cells from bone marrow and get them to produce tissue, but the process could take weeks or even months and be very costly. “We want to produce tissue faster,” Williams confirmed.
And the potential of clinical tissue engineering is a major scientific – and commercial – draw card. Researchers in his Liverpool lab have been developing methods of growing a variety of tissue, including human arteries, from adult stem cells. Blood vessels grown in the laboratory could be used to replace furred up arteries in patients suffering from coronary heart disease.
The new Integated Project is one of the large research contracts in the EU's Sixth Research Framework Programme. STEPS is being supported under the thematic priority ‘Nanotechnologies and nanoscience, knowledge-based multifunctional materials, and new production processes and devices’.