Current and former early-career scientists share their stories and tell how Europe has bet on them, making their high-risk research possible: from intelligent wireless sensors with vision abilities to RNA-based techniques to fight viruses, from the mathematical formulas of the MRI waves to optoceutics, the new technique that uses light to repair the heart after a stroke
The new generation of technologies is radically changing the face of what science has already achieved. Their seeds are being planted in European laboratories, where passionate young researchers have been playing their part in shaping a new world.
Empowering wireless sensors with vision capabilities
Matteo Cesana is a lecturer at the Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering of the Polytechnic of Milan, Italy. He teaches wireless networks, internet of things systems and traffic analysis. One of his research lines is 5G and the incoming 6G networks.
In 2011, he was 35 years old and he successfully applied to the call of the European Union's initiative "Future and emerging technologies (FET) young explorers": the scheme supported the most promising early-career scientists with innovative ideas in the fields of information and communication technologies (ICT) and computing.
The aim of the project co-coordinated by Cesana, called GreenEyes, was to develop new methodologies, practical algorithms and protocols to empower wireless sensor networks with vision capabilities.
He says: "At that time, most of the visual analytic tasks like face/object recognition were only carried out by powerful smartphone and computer hardware. We developed new solutions to apply these algorithms to tiny objects, to distribute these tasks on better operated and energy-constrained objects," explains the Italian scientist.
One of the possible applications is waste management in smart cities. A tiny camera with this embedded software can "see" and accurately distinguish between different rubbish materials such as glass or plastic in a bin, and then an automatic engine is activated to sort the waste properly.
Car parks can be also controlled by resorting to this gadget. "It can be used to detect objects or monitor the people's behaviour in any kind of surveillance system," adds Cesana.
At the early stage of his career, he found wireless communication a very stimulating area of research, with a high potential for fast advancement.
When I did my PhD on this topic, we had only 3G. My perception was that it was a flexible theme offering opportunities to be creative and catch up with other researchers."
Matteo Cesana, Lecturer, Department of Electronics, Information and Bioengineering of the Polytechni
Working on a pioneer FET project led his career to a more precise path: "First of all I learnt something new: computer vision and visual analysis were not my main research fields at that point. I could practice on machine learning algorithms, which are nowadays used in many different research fields, including wireless networks and 5G. Through that programme we were also able to recruit very smart people who now are part of my research group," he says.
The 5G technology did not exist in 2012-2015, when the project was running. Nevertheless, Cesana says that it can be easily coupled to the sensors studied at that time: "Now 5G would be perfect for transmitting visual content captured by GreenEyes local devices, especially if we consider large scale deployment of these visual objects."
Unveiling the secrets of RNA to fight pathogens
Professor Ilka Maria Axmann is head of the Institute for Synthetic Microbiology at Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf, Germany. The DNA molecule, which makes each species unique, has charmed her since she first heard about it in her high school biology classes.
As an engineer, Axmann is amazed that "we can assemble parts to derive something new" and that "we are now able to design organisms based on their DNA."
She was another "FET young explorer", who had the chance to coordinate an EU project when she was only 36. From 2013 to 2017, under RiboNets, Axmann and her international research team developed an RNA-based toolbox for cell engineering.
The Ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecule carries, among others, the instructions from DNA to generate proteins. The researchers have successfully "hacked the algorithms" of cells and programmed the community behaviour of bacteria, opening the door to various applications in biotechnology and medicine.
Axmann explains: "We designed nucleic acid sequences that can interfere with mRNAs (messenger RNAs) and thereby down-regulate gene expression, which might be used, for example, against biofilm formation." Microorganisms produce biofilms when they attach to each other or to a surface. These extracellular polymeric substances are resistant to antimicrobial agents.
Because bacteria evolves and becomes resistant to antibiotics, "it is an arms-race, and RNA-based technology is very fast and cheap" she highlights.
This solution was also used to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, the one tested by BionNtech and Pfizer. The substance injected does not contain the coronavirus itself, but the messenger RNA that provides instructions to a cell to activate the immune response.
The RNA technology has also helped in detecting pathogens in the fight against Zika virus or for the analysis of water quality.
Nevertheless, it is a research field that still needs to be further investigated: "It is not possible to fully predict the behaviour of organisms solely based on their nucleic acid information. We are missing information in-between. Moreover, RNA, in general, is quite unstable, which makes it tricky to apply to cells or to store it, as shown with the Covid-19 vaccine from BioNTech, which has to be kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius," she states.
Being at the helm of a FET project helped Ilka to take a new step towards an academic career. "Overall, RiboNets allowed me to independently expand my research focus to diverse disciplines and to cooperate internationally, which is the key for establishing a researcher career. Finally, my junior professorship was recently tenured, in 2019, so that I am now full professor at HHU Düsseldorf," she says.
Studying the mathematics of electromagnetic waves
Engineer and PhD student in applied physics, Marine Moussu aspires to help society by contributing to a better diagnosis of patients through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). She is studying waves applied to biomedical imaging at the Institute Fresnel in Marseille, France.
At only 27 years old, Moussu recently received the 2020 Young Talents Prize L'Oréal-UNESCO supporting promising French women in science. She was rewarded for her work on ceramic coils, namely special antennas, designed for MRI microscopy, which will help doctors to better see inside the human body.
"My goal is to develop theoretical tools to model these coils using electromagnetism equations, in order to improve their efficiency. At this stage, in particular, we are focusing on wrist imaging," she says. Thanks to these ceramic antennas, the waves sent by the hydrogen atoms of the water in a scanned tissue are better captured, more accurately measured and reveal sharper images.
"Proposing a coil with higher performance would help the diagnosis and the follow-up of cartilage injuries due to arthritis and evaluate the benefits of therapeutic trials, since this disease still has no treatment. Medical imaging is key to a better and earlier diagnosis of many diseases and enables a deeper understanding of the biological systems, like the brain," she explains.
Moussu has enjoyed studying the equations of waves since she met them for the first time. She has been fascinated by the predictive power of such mathematical formulations on paper for experimental and complex phenomena. Her motivation came from her desire to do something useful for people.
"I guess that my volunteer experience in a non-profit association operating in a cancer hospital was significant in the decision to develop tools for medical imaging," she confessed.
Working on a FET project, called M-Cube, gave her a further boost to continue on this path. During the last three years, she has been collaborating with European researchers with complementary skills:
"Growing into such an international environment and visiting other laboratories has broadened my outlook on scientific research. It has been a great opportunity to work in a consortium of researchers who have decided to join their forces to tackle a high risk project whose final goal is a better health in society," Moussu concludes.
Repairing the heart with light
Biotechnology is indeed a fast-developing field that aims to save lives. Even if it is a risky research area, it attracts many young scientists. Biomedical engineer Alessandro Pellegata, 36, is one of them.
After working in one of the most prestigious paediatric research centres in the world, the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health in London, UK, in 2019 he was enrolled in the FET project Lion-Hearted at the Centre for Nanoscience and Technology of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Milan.
His research is focused on the innovative techniques for the regeneration of the heart and the vasculature.
This area of medicine aims at repairing a tissue or an organ of the human body that has lost its function. It is included in a larger area of "advanced therapies", as it encompasses medical science, biotechnology, and engineering.
"During my studies it was hard for me to choose between medicine and engineering. I tried to do something that really mixes the two of them. It is an area at the crossroads of many disciplines," says Pellegata.
He is working in a team of scientists whose goal is to develop a therapy that could stop the scarring of the heart and blood vessels' tissues after a stroke. By implanting specific polymer nanoparticles, activated by light, a functional tissue can be formed.
"My part in this teamwork is to understand how these nanoparticles interact with the cells of the heart and the blood vessels. They will most probably be injected into the veins through a solution," he explains.
For Alessandro, this research represents a great opportunity to develop new skills, by working with people with different scientific backgrounds: "It opens up your mind, broadens your perspectives, but it is also challenging as you're not doing the same tasks every day. Besides, I had the chance to enrol on a senior postdoc study. Hopefully, this project will achieve some prestigious results that will boost my career," he says.
This innovative technique that uses light to regenerate tissues is called optoceutics: it promises to overtake the traditional methods that use invasive physical stimuli, electrodes and drugs.
The researchers are now testing different organic materials and structures to find the best components for the nanoparticles, and the appropriate sources of light to which the patients will be exposed, once their conditions has been stabilised after a heart attack.