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Irish scientists are developing an advanced technology to speed up bone repair in adults who have suffered severe fractures and bone degeneration. This follows the identification of a gene which explains why children’s stem cells form bone very quickly.

Scientists at RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) and SFI funded AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) centre, in collaboration with clinicians at the National Paediatric Craniofacial Centre (NPCC) at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital, compared children and adult-derived stem cells in order to understand more comprehensively why children’s cells have an extraordinary capacity to respond to their environment and repair bone quickly.
Their study investigated the age-associated changes in the capacity of stem cells to form bone tissue, and identified a potential therapeutic target which opens new avenues to develop novel therapeutic target-specific biomaterials for restoring a child-like bone healing capacity in adults suffering from severe fractures and bone degeneration.
The RCSI and AMBER team carried out the study with Mr. Dylan Murray, lead clinician at the NPCC at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital.

In this study the researchers found that children’s stem cells are far more sensitive to changes in their physical environment and form bone quicker than adult-derived stem cells. Furthermore, by comparing the genetic expression of children and adult-derived stem cells, the researchers identified a particular gene (JNK3) that explains why children’s stem cells respond to their physical environment differently, creating more bone than adult cells, thus, suggesting its potential as a new target to promote enhanced bone repair. Building on a wealth of experience in advanced biomaterials in the RCSI Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG), the team is now utilising this knowledge to develop an advanced technology to facilitate enhanced bone repair.

Professor Fergal O’Brien from the Department of Anatomy in RCSI who is lead-Principal Investigator on the project and Deputy Director of AMBER said: ‘We are very excited by the identification of a key mechanism which influences bone formation in children and this study opens a new research avenue which will focus on therapeutic delivery in order to upregulate this gene with a view to replicating the enhanced bone regenerative potential of children in adults. Ultimately we hope that this research will lead to improved treatments for patients who have suffered severe bone loss through injury or disease’.

Commenting on the significance of the research, Dr Arlyng Gonzalez Vazquez, joint first author on the study said: ‘Our findings not only have major implications for tackling the decrease of bone repair capacity that occurs with age but also set the basis for a novel research strategy applicable to other tissues in the body’.

The research, which has just been published in Acta Biomaterialia – a leading journal in the biomedical engineering field, was the result of a multi-disciplinary effort between cell biologists, clinicians and engineers in the RCSI TERG and €58million SFI-funded AMBER Centre. Post-doctoral researchers, Dr Arlyng Gonzalez Vazquez and Dr Sara Barreto, the first authors on the study conducted the research under the supervision of Professor O’Brien in RCSI and Mr. Dylan Murray in Temple Street. This work was supported by the Health Research Board, the Temple Street Foundation (the fundraising arm of the hospital) and the Irish Research Council.

RCSI is ranked in the top 250 institutions worldwide in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2016-2017). It is an international not-for-profit health sciences institution, with its headquarters in Dublin, focused on education and research to drive improvements in human health worldwide.

Professor John Donegan from the School of Physics in Trinity College Dublin has been awarded €1.46m through Science Foundation Ireland’s Principal Investigator scheme. The funding will be used to investigate how laser technology could deliver more energy efficient devices for future optical networks. This will potentially lead to broadband speeds exceeding 100 Mb per second. This research is of particular interest to the ICT sector. Nokia Bell Labs have a keen interest in the project as the energy efficient devices being examined will likely complement the collaborative research activities they are currently undertaking with Prof Donegan’s team.

Optical networks use light to transmit information and are a critical part of the world’s Internet infrastructure. These optical networks currently use about 1% of the world’s total electricity supply, but the growth rate is immense and projections suggest it could reach 5% by 2022. For this reason, there is an urgent need to tackle the energy requirements of communications networks. Professor Donegan’s research will examine the individual semiconductor lasers that currently light up global optical networks and will attempt to develop lasers that can operate at a range of temperatures without changing wavelength –one of the main contributing factors to energy usage in optical networks. Professor Donegan’s approach is unique in this research field.

Professor Donegan, commenting on the award, said: “The world as we know it depends critically on the wired internet for communications. Each day, billions of e-mail and webpages traverse the net and there is a substantial cost in operating this network. A major impediment to growth in the future is the electrical power required to operate the net. Our research will investigate a range of new laser structures that operate with much improved efficiency and I look forward to further testing our devices with industry.

“These lasers are quite efficient, but still require an in-built cooling system to keep the laser at a precise wavelength. Since hundreds of lasers operate on the network, they cannot be allowed to shift wavelength when they operate. The challenge therefore is to develop lasers that are “athermal”, i.e. operate at a range of temperatures but do not change wavelength. This is the research challenge that we will address with this funding. The research team will also look at a range of different semiconductor laser structures and work on the integration of new materials sets, coupling semiconductors, oxides and polymers, into the standard materials for optical communications lasers.”

Professor Donegan is an Investigator in two Science Foundation Ireland research centres in Trinity: AMBER, the materials science research centre, and CONNECT, the centre for future networks and communications. This award, which will benefit both centres, will run until 2022 and will support a team of five researchers, two post-doctoral researchers and three graduate students.

An order of knighthood has been bestowed on Professor Stefano Sanvito, Director of the CRANN Institute at Trinity College Dublin and Principal Investigator in Trinity’s School of Physics and the Science Foundation Ireland funded centre, AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research).

The order that Professor Sanvito received, the Order of the Star of Italy, is bestowed by decree of the President of Italy, head of the order, on the recommendation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Previous recipients have included Charlene, Princess of Monaco, Carlo Ancelotti (football manager for Bayern Munich), former Italian Presidents Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Francesco Cossiga, Fabio Luisi (Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera) and Frank Sinatra.

This title is given annually by the Italian President to outstanding figures from Italy and the world. The knighthood was given to Professor Sanvito for his contribution in undertaking a primary role in the promotion of relations of friendship and collaboration between Italy and other Countries. The order was awarded in the Provost’s House, Trinity by Giovanni Adorni Braccesi Chiassi, Ambassador of Italy to Ireland, on behalf of the President of Italy.

Professor Sanvito (a native of Milan in Italy) has been the CRANN Director since 2013. During that time, the Institute was successful in securing €57m in funding from Science Foundation Ireland and industry to establish the AMBER centre. Professor Sanvito is internationally renowned as a theoretical and computational physicist and has published over 250 scientific papers including those in prestigious journals such as Nature. Among the various research achievements of Professor Sanvito’s career there is the discovery of new magnetic materials and the creation of a computational tool, Smeagol, to simulate nano-devices.

Ambassador Adorni Braccesi, Ambassador of Italy to Ireland said, “I learned with great pleasure that the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, has bestowed upon Professor Stefano Sanvito, at my suggestion, the decoration of “Cavaliere” in the order “Stella d’Italia”. The order is conferred on Italian citizens abroad and on foreign citizens who have contributed significantly to the prestige of Italy, undertaking a primary role in the promotion of relations of friendship and collaboration between Italy and other Countries and in intensifying the relations with the Italian communities in the world. I am honoured today to confer this Decoration on Professor Sanvito in the hallowed halls of Trinity College Dublin where he is a leading authority in the fields of theoretical and computational Physics and I thank the Provost, Dr. Prendergast for welcoming us to celebrate Professor Sanvito’s achievements.”

Provost of Trinity College, Dr Patrick Prendergast said, “I would like to congratulate Professor Sanvito on receiving this award. Trinity College Dublin is internationally recognised for its leading nanoscience research. It is through research at our flagship nanoscience institute CRANN, where Professor Sanvito is its Director, that we are now in this position. Ireland is taking a globally recognised leadership position in nanoscience and scientists of the calibre of Professor Sanvito are critical in building our reputation in this area.”

Professor Stefano Sanvito said, “I feel honoured and privileged to receive this award, and to receive it here among the Trinity walls. This is one of the highest honours that a Country can award to an individual and I am happy that this time goes to a scientist. I am extremely thankful to all the students and researchers, who have worked with me over the years in Ireland, to my colleagues at Trinity, who have supported my research, and to my family, who has been so close to me all the time.”

There are 5 classes within the Order - Knight Grand Cross, Grand Officer, Commander, Officer and Knight – Professor Sanvito receives the title of Knight, or Cavaliere.

Researchers in AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre, hosted in Trinity College Dublin, have used the wonder material graphene to make the novelty children’s material silly putty® (polysilicone) conduct electricity, creating extremely sensitive sensors. This world first research, led by Professor Jonathan Coleman from TCD and in collaboration with Prof Robert Young of the University of Manchester, potentially offers exciting possibilities for applications in new, inexpensive devices and diagnostics in medicine and other sectors. The AMBER team’s findings have been published this week in the leading journal Science*.

Prof Coleman, Investigator in AMBER and Trinity’s School of Physics along with postdoctoral researcher Conor Boland, discovered that the electrical resistance of putty infused with graphene (“G-putty”) was extremely sensitive to the slightest deformation or impact. They mounted the G-putty onto the chest and neck of human subjects and used it to measure breathing, pulse and even blood pressure. It showed unprecedented sensitivity as a sensor for strain and pressure, hundreds of times more sensitive than normal sensors. The G-putty also works as a very sensitive impact sensor, able to detect the footsteps of small spiders. It is believed that this material will find applications in a range of medical devices.

Prof Coleman said, “What we are excited about is the unexpected behaviour we found when we added graphene to the polymer, a cross-linked polysilicone. This material as well known as the children’s toy silly putty. It is different from familiar materials in that it flows like a viscous liquid when deformed slowly but bounces like an elastic solid when thrown against a surface. When we added the graphene to the silly putty, it caused it to conduct electricity, but in a very unusual way. The electrical resistance of the G-putty was very sensitive to deformation with the resistance increasing sharply on even the slightest strain or impact. Unusually, the resistance slowly returned close to its original value as the putty self-healed over time.”

He continued, “While a common application has been to add graphene to plastics in order to improve the electrical, mechanical, thermal or barrier properties, the resultant composites have generally performed as expected without any great surprises. The behaviour we found with G-putty has not been found in any other composite material. This unique discovery will open up major possibilities in sensor manufacturing worldwide.”

Professor Mick Morris, Director of AMBER, said: “This exciting discovery shows that Irish research is at the leading edge of materials science worldwide. Jonathan Coleman and his team in AMBER continue to carry out world class research and this scientific breakthrough could potentially revolutionise certain aspects of healthcare.”

Prof Coleman is a partner in Graphene flagship, a €1 billion EU initiative to boost new technologies and innovation during the next 10 years.

A video about the new material G-putty is available here, http://ambercentre.ie/site/media.

* Sensitive electromechanical sensors using viscoelastic graphene-polymer nanocomposites, Boland et al, Science 9 Dec 2016 (http://www.sciencemag.org/)

About Graphene

Graphene consists of atomically thin layers of carbon atoms and has a range of superlative properties – the strongest and most conductive material among others.

Prof Coleman was announced as a recipient of a €2.2m European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant earlier this year. The prestigious ERC Advanced Grants are only made to Europe’s most distinguished researchers. Coleman’s work has been published in prestigious international journals such as Science, Nature, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Materials and nature Communications, as well as featuring in New Scientist, the New York Times and on CNN. He was recently included by Thomas Reuters in their Highly Cited Researchers 2016 list.

About AMBER

AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) is a Science Foundation Ireland funded centre which provides a partnership between leading researchers in materials science and industry to develop new materials and devices for a range of sectors, particularly the ICT, medical devices and industrial technology sectors. The centre is hosted in Trinity College Dublin, working in collaboration with CRANN (Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices), the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering and with University College Cork and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland.

About the Graphene Flagship

The Graphene Flagship is the EU’s biggest ever research initiative. With a budget of €1 billion, it represents a new form of joint, coordinated research initiative on an unprecedented scale. Through a combined academic-industrial consortium, the research effort covers the entire value chain, from materials production to components and system integration, and targets a number of specific goals
that exploit the unique properties of graphene.

Tasked with bringing together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the space of 10 years, the Graphene Flagship hopes to facilitate economic growth, new jobs and new opportunities for Europeans as both investors and employees.

http://graphene-flagship.eu