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The European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen, responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, began his two-day visit in Dublin meeting with researchers in AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland funded materials science centre based at Trinity College Dublin. Since the research centre’s launch 18 months ago, AMBER researchers have been awarded over €12 million in funding from the European Commission, across 18 research projects.

A selection of AMBER Principal Investigators, whose research is funded by the EC, were given the opportunity to present their progress to date across their research projects to Vice-President Katainen. Two of the researchers presenting, Professor Daniel Kelly and Professor Wolfgang Schmitt, were both awarded ERC Consolidator Grants this year. The ERC Consolidator Grant is awarded to those with over 7 and up to 12 years of experience since completion of PhD, and is to encourage highly talented researchers at an early stage of their career.

Professor Daniel Kelly’s research, which was awarded €2 million in funding by the EC, focuses on producing biomaterials which can be used to regenerate both cartilage and bone in a diseased joint. His research uses biomaterials containing adult stem cells, and could potentially be used to print hip or knee implants for osteoarthritis sufferers. This is the next generation of implants and are intended to be used to target specific clinical problems in orthopaedic and cardiovascular medicine. Professor Wolfgang Schmitt’s research, which was awarded €2 million in funding by the EC, looks at metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) for energy storage and conversion. The ultimate aim of his research is to harvest light and convert it into chemical energy – which is the ultimate, sustainable, green energy solution.

Following his visit to AMBER, Vice-President Katainen said: “Investing in research is a priority for the EU so I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet several EU-funded researchers at AMBER today. I am confident that the Investment Plan for Europe will be instrumental in supporting research-related projects across Europe. Today I have seen first-hand how AMBER is conducting world-class material science research which will not only help to solve societal challenges but also help to boost our competitiveness and create the jobs and growth needed in Europe.”

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Acting Director at AMBER, said, “We are privileged to have had European Commission Vice-President responsible for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, visit us here at AMBER. At AMBER we are working to educate the next generation of researchers and create breakthroughs that influence everyone’s quality of life; such as the development of next generation computer chips; new medical devices, implants and pharmaceuticals which will improve patient care. The European Commission’s funding is imperative to AMBER continuing to establish a leading international position for Ireland in materials science and continue to provide world leading research that includes productive engagement with industry and the creation of new jobs.”

Vice-President Katainen’s visit concluded with a demonstration in AMBER’s lab, where Dr Keith Paton, working with Professor Jonathan Coleman conducted his ‘Graphene Kitchen Blender’ experiment. Prof. Coleman pours graphite powder (the “lead” in our pencils) into a blender, adds dishwashing liquid, mixing at high speed, and creates graphene. This method has been refined to produce industrial quantities of high quality graphene. Described as a wonder material, graphene is a single-atom thick sheet of carbon. It is extremely light and stronger than steel, yet incredibly flexible and extremely electrically conductive. Richard Coull, Lead Engineer working with Prof Valeria Nicolosi demonstrated how graphene and other 2-dimensional materials could be printed to make devices such as flexible batteries.

Major new EU funding for research into diabetes was announced today by a group led by RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) and AMBER (Advanced Materials for Bioengineering Research). The DRIVE (Diabetes Reversing Implants with enhanced Viability and long-term Efficacy) consortium involves fourteen partners from seven European countries and has received €8.9 million funding as part of the Horizon 2020 - Research and Innovation Framework Programme.

The DRIVE programme will create thirteen new jobs in Ireland and it will develop natural materials and new surgical devices to enhance the transplant and survival of insulin producing pancreatic islets for the treatment of diabetes. The DRIVE programme is co-ordinated by Dr. Garry Duffy, Department of Anatomy and Tissue Engineering Research Group, RCSI and AMBER Investigator. In addition to the fourteen partners, the DRIVE consortium brings together internationally recognised academics, large medical devices industries and clinical experts in islet transplantation including Oxford University. Irish partners include Dublin City University, University College Dublin and Boston Scientific.

Diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease characterised by high blood sugar (glucose). If not treated carefully, diabetes causes several debilitating side effects including heart disease, damage to the eyes, kidneys and nerve endings (e.g. hands, feet) and can lead to premature death. The total number of people living with diabetes in Ireland is estimated to be over 225,000. According to the international diabetes federation (IDF), 382 million people worldwide have diabetes and in 2013 an estimated 5.1 million deaths were attributable to the disease, representing 8.4% of global adult mortality. Blood glucose is high in diabetes because of the inability of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar. Currently the main treatment for diabetes is the daily injection of insulin. In patients where control is poor, transplantation of pancreatic cells (which contain insulin-producing β-cells) is possible. However there are challenges with this therapy including the short supply of donor pancreases, the need to use 3-4 pancreases to get enough β-cells for treatment and poor graft survival and retention at the transplant site.

The DRIVE consortium will address these challenges by developing a completely new system to deliver pancreatic β-cells effectively in a targeted and protected fashion. This will mean that fewer donor pancreases are needed for cell transplantation allowing more patients to avail of a more effective longer-lasting treatment with less demand on donor pancreases. Additionally, the consortium will investigate the combination of DRIVE’s technology with future stem cell-derived β-cells that will widen the availability of islet transplantation therapy to all insulin-dependent patients.

Dr. Garry Duffy, Department of Anatomy and Tissue Engineering Research Group, RCSI and AMBER Investigator, commented on the research funding: “We are delighted to lead the DRIVE programme and to translate new collaborative research for the benefit of patients with diabetes mellitus. Regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies have the potential to revolutionise the treatment of patients who have diabetes, and through DRIVE we will develop new technologies to enhance stem cell therapies for these patients by increasing targeting and ease of delivery using advanced biomaterials.”

DRIVE’s β-System consists of a β-Gel, which contains the pancreatic β-cells within a pancreas mimicking gel; which itself is protected within a capsule called a β-shell. This is delivered using a specialised injection catheter, called β-cath, which offers a more minimally invasive surgical procedure than is currently used. Boston Scientific Ireland Ltd. are working with RCSI on the new surgical procedure.

The current transplantation technique offers patients natural glucose control for 1-2 years. DRIVE’s β-system aims to provide control for up to 5 years by increasing the longevity of the β-cell transplant. The system offers further advantages through the slow release of immunosuppressant drugs by the β-shell, reducing the patient’s need for long-term anti-rejection medication, which has harmful side effects. The β-shell will also be retrievable, so it can be removed and replenished after the 5-year period. DRIVE’s 5-year work plan will include laboratory testing, with a view to human testing at the end of the project.

Professor Paul Johnson, Director of the Oxford Islet Transplant Programme and Professor of Paediatric Surgery at the University of Oxford, said: “Over the past 10 years, the transplantation of particular pancreatic cells known as islet cells (which can sense blood sugar levels and release insulin to maintain normal levels) has achieved promising results in adults who have developed the severest complications from insulin-dependent diabetes. The challenge is to now make sure that more people can benefit from this minimally-invasive treatment. Ultimately we would hope that it can be used to reverse diabetes in children soon after diagnosis. The DRIVE Consortium brings together some of the leading researchers in Europe in the fields of bioengineering, cell biology, and cell transplantation. The overall aim is to develop novel membranes to protect the transplanted islets from rejection ensure that islet transplantation can be undertaken without the need for the patient to take anti-rejection medication, with all the associated complications. This programme of research could be a real game-changer for people with Type 1 diabetes and the team in Oxford are very excited to be part of this state of the art research collaboration.”

The DRIVE Consortium represents a major interdisciplinary effort between stem cell biologists, experts in advanced drug delivery, research scientists, clinicians and research-active companies working together to develop novel therapeutics to address the challenges of treating diabetes. The researchers will optimise adult stem cell therapy using smart biomaterials and advanced drug delivery, and couple these therapeutics with minimally-invasive surgical devices.

Welcoming the announcement, Professor Ray Stallings, Director of Research at RCSI said: “RCSI’s leadership of the DRIVE consortium builds on the College’s expertise in regenerative medicine and industrial collaboration. This new programme will help accelerate the development of new treatments for the benefit of patients, in keeping with our strategy of bench to bedside translational research.”

RCSI researchers involved in the consortium include Dr Helena Kelly (Deputy Co-ordinator) and Dr Eduardo Ruiz-Hernandez, both from RCSI School of Pharmacy; and Professor Seamus Sreenan and Dr Diarmuid Smith Consultants in Diabetes and Endocrinology. The project, which has received €8.9 million direct EU contribution, is funded by the European Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Framework Programme from June 2015 to May 2019. Dr Duffy’s proposal was the highest ranked application across all the Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies (LEIT) proposals throughout Europe, ranked 1st out of 18 funded from 62 projects submitted at Stage 2, and 326 submitted at Stage 1.

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Job Vacancies
13.05.15

AMBER currently has four research vacancies available:

> Two postdoctoral researchers are required for an industry driven project exploring the reversible capture and release of carbon dioxide using new supramolecular coordination complexes and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). The positions are supervised by Professor Wolfgang Schmitt (School of Chemistry) within the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) Centre and is closely associated with a recently established Trinity College Campus company. Vacancies arise for highly motivated researchers with strong experience in Physical and/or Inorganic Chemistry or Materials Science. More details here.

> A senior postdoctoral researcher is required for an industry driven project exploring the reversible capture and release of carbon dioxide using new supramolecular coordination complexes and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). The positions are supervised by Professor Wolfgang Schmitt (School of Chemistry) within the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) Centre and is closely associated with a recently established Trinity College Campus company. Vacancies arise for highly motivated researchers with strong experience in Physical and/or Inorganic Chemistry or Materials Science. More details here.

> A research assistant is required for an industry driven project exploring the reversible capture and release of carbon dioxide using new supramolecular coordination complexes and metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). The positions are supervised by Professor Wolfgang Schmitt (School of Chemistry) within the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) Centre and is closely associated with a recently established Trinity College Campus company. Vacancies arise for highly motivated researchers with strong experience in Physical and/or Inorganic Chemistry or Materials Science. More details here.

Professor Stefano Sanvito, Acting Director at AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland funded materials science centre based at Trinity College Dublin and his team, in collaboration with researchers at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, have discovered how hybrid organic/inorganic perovskites, which have been used as highly efficient solar harvesting materials, really work. These are compounds where an inorganic crystal (like a standard semiconductor or metal) is interposed with organic molecules, also arranged in a crystal-like structure. While it has been known in recent years that solar energy harvesting is extremely efficient in these materials, scientists did not understand how they worked. Now AMBER researchers have the answer, by using state-of-the-art material modelling simulation tools (a process that involves creating and analysing a digital prototype of a physical model or material to predict its performance in the real world) and focusing specifically on the electronic properties of these materials, the researchers have revealed that the light is “captured” by the inorganic crystal alone. What makes this material different to other solar harvesting materials, however, is that the electronic structure of these inorganic crystals is changed because of the motion of the molecules.

This discovery will now allow researchers to design even more efficient solar harvesting materials, using the knowledge gained from being able to map these materials. This research has this week been published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.*

Silicon is the most commonly used material in solar harvesting. There are ample amounts of silicon on our planet, and it is also a non-toxic material. However, its manufacturing process is expensive. This means that a standard solar panel will have a payback time (the time needed to pay back the energy used in creating it) of several years.

The perovskite materials have only recently entered the solar energy harvesting arena and have made progress at unprecedented speed. In only two years solar cells made of such materials have improved the efficiency from 1% to over 20%. A further advantage is that these materials can be grown chemically and do not use expensive high-temperature processes, unlike silicon. A solar cell made of these perovskites has a payback time of 3 months. Unfortunately, although very efficient, to date these new materials have been shown to be unstable in humidity and contain lead, a toxic element. However, due to this new research, new compounds can be designed to eliminate these drawbacks.

Professor Sanvito, AMBER and Professor of Condensed Matter Theory at Trinity’s School of Physics said: “Every hour the Sun irradiates the Earth with as much energy as that used by the entire planet in one year. Harvesting such enormous energy in an efficient and cost-effective way would mean abundant green energy for the entire human race. Developing and improving our knowledge of solar energy harvesting is crucial. This is an exciting discovery. Now that we understand how these new materials work we can design new compounds to use for solar energy harvesting. A further advantage is that the materials can be grown chemically and not with expensive high-temperature processes.”

Dr. Mohammad Khaleel, QEERI’s executive director, said: “Our remit at QEERI is to conduct research that addresses critical national priorities concerning energy and the environment. At the forefront of this is the development of research on solar energy. This discovery opens up a new avenue for the design of solar harvesting materials, which could result in increased energy efficiency as well as reduced costs. We are looking forward to continuing collaboration with AMBER to develop this further.”

The research to date was done in collaboration with AMBER and QEERI. The two groups have been working together for a year and the AMBER research team has visited QEERI for a total of 3 months.

Dr. Sabre Kais, Director of the theory modeling and simulation group at QEERI, said: “This discovery, and subsequent published paper, is the outcome of the hard and diligent work we have conducted as a theory group in this area.”

Prof Sanvito has applied with QEERI for further funding of 1m USD to the Qatar National Research Fund (http://www.qnrf.org/). Dr. Fadwa El-Mellouhi, Senior Scientist at QEERI and co-author of the paper, said: “This funding would be very beneficial, allowing us to expand our research and use the state-of-the-art high throughput materials screening, data analytics and advanced experimental characterization.”

* The full paper can be viewed at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150427/ncomms8026/abs/ncomms8026.html