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World Changers: December

By Ashmita Shanthakumar

A deep dive into the world-changing research by Team UofG.

Last year was an impressive one for research at the University of Glasgow; from aiding the development of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to groundbreaking studies on malaria, dementia and cancer. The success continued into the final month of the year with a series of important studies. 

Starting with the story that has dominated the past year, UofG continues to lead the way with research on Covid-19. Two recent studies in collaboration with UofG researchers shed more light on the vaccines. A recent study published by the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR) has found that the Delta variant may be able to evade vaccine-induced immunity as mutations change the shape of the Covid-19 spike protein preventing antibody recognition. Their work highlights the importance of getting boosters as vaccine-induced immunity may not be strong enough for the variants. Another joint project from Scotland and Brazil also had similar notions as it suggested that Covid-19 vaccine protection wanes over three months. Professor Vittal Katikireddi at the University of Glasgow said: “Our analysis of national datasets from both Scotland and Brazil suggest that there is a considerable waning of effectiveness for the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, with protection against severe Covid-19 falling over time.”

Another big issue for 2021 was the environment. In December, UofG won £1.5m for a new project for sustainable mining in the Philippines. The project is called PANAMA, a Filipino word that means legacy/heritage. The transition to clean energy worldwide is going to require certain minerals that are critical for this technology. Mining these minerals will create a big carbon footprint so this new project aims to mine them in a sustainable way. Doing this will help the transition to net-zero without further harming the planet. This project will promote sustainable mining in the Philippines by empowering scientists, mining companies and more for an environmentally friendly future. 

In addition to this future project, the University also ran a study on fish genetics which could inform future conservation policy. This study looks at how commercial fishing impacts species evolution. The genes that were most affected had to do with brain function and development but the specifics (growth, metabolism, etc.) depend on the density of the population. Dr. Crespel, the lead author of the study says that “our results highlight the need to consider environmental factors when predicting effects of human-induced selection and evolution”. The study shows how human behaviour can affect the environment when it comes to species populations and genetics. 

The University has led on a series of nanotechnology projects this year and this continued in December. Its Optics group led an international group of scientists to create a new imaging technique. This technique allows 3D imaging video rates through a fibre the width of a human hair. This technology will allow for single fibre imaging devices that can be part of industrial inspection, environmental monitoring, and even medical imaging. Currently, medical imaging devices require more fibres making devices the thickness of a finger, but this technology could change that. 

UofG researchers have also been looking at health conditions. A new study led this December marks the first study of the prevalence of chronic pain in those with long-term conditions and different levels of multi-morbidity. They found that participants with four or more long-term conditions were three times more likely to have chronic pain and thirteen times more likely to have widespread chronic pain than people without long-term conditions. Dr Neha Issar-Brown, Director of Research at Versus Arthritis said: “These findings are important not only to improve our understanding of chronic pain associated with multiple long-term conditions but will also lead to improved management and treatments for the millions of people who experience the devastating impact of living with pain.” 

Finally, the University has been working on a new system of data analysis. The system is called Vitamin, and it can analyse data from a single signal collected by a gravitational wave collector in less than a second. Previously, a full analysis of a signal could take days to be completed. Hunter Gabbard, lead author of the paper describes the technology:  “Gravitational wave astronomy has provided us with an entirely new way to listen to the universe, and the pace of developments since the first detection in 2015 has been remarkable.”

The full paper Bayesian parameter estimation using conditional variational autoencoders for gravitational-wave astronomy can be read in Nature Physics.


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