UAntwerp involved in large-scale international research to be published in The Lancet.
School-aged children who are given anti-malaria drugs preventively are only half as likely to catch the disease. And that’s not all: their risk of anaemia decreases by 15%, and their school performance improves. All this has been demonstrated by international research in which the University of Antwerp was also involved.
An elderly couple in Kampenhout, a municipality near Brussels Airport, died from malaria at the beginning of October. Though this mosquito-borne disease is extremely uncommon at this latitude, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that it kills 400,000 people every year. High-risk areas include Africa, Central and South America, and South-East Asia. Malaria causes fever, headaches and chills, but also anaemia and organ failure.
Fortunately, drugs that halt the development of the disease have been available for many years. Lariam® and Malarone® are well-known brands. ‘The WHO advises that these drugs be given to pregnant women, toddlers and pre-schoolers in high-risk areas’, says Prof Jean-Pierre Van geertruyden, who works at the University of Antwerp’s Global Health Institute. ‘However, these recommendations do not extend to school-aged children.’
Less malaria equals less anaemia
A large-scale international study may be able to change that. More than 15,000 schoolchildren between 5 and 15 years old in seven African countries were examined by 33 scientists from 15 universities and research institutes, including UAntwerp and the renowned London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The children were given either a preventive medicine, a placebo, or no treatment.
The results are striking. Van geertruyden: ‘Preventive malaria treatment cuts the risk of catching the disease in half, and lowers the incidence of malaria-induced anaemia by 15%. Children aged 10 and over who are given this treatment do significantly better at school as well. Another research project carried out by UAntwerp also shows that school children are the ‘drivers’ behind the number of malaria infections in the population.’
Treatment combined with mosquito nets
According to Van geertruyden and his colleagues, these studies show that health campaigns involving preventive malaria treatments can have very positive effects. ‘This approach, combined with the use of mosquito nets and the introduction of the malaria vaccine – which is currently being tested – could ultimately help eradicate this disease.’
The results of the study will be published in the renowned scientific journal The Lancet Global Health on 22 October.
KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp join forces for sustainable ammonia synthesis.
The production of ammonia - a very important chemical building block as part of synthetic fertilisers, among other things - is one of the main sources of CO2 emissions. By combining two different technologies, researchers from KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp have now discovered a CO2-free alternative. This research has been made possible thanks to the Moonshot innovation programme of the Flemish Government.
Ammonia is a basic substance within the chemical industry and has many applications, of which engineered fertilizers are the best known example. The production of ammonia, however, is associated with a large amount of CO2 emissions. Worldwide, two per cent of CO2 emissions can be attributed to the production of ammonia. In the chemical industry in Flanders, ammonia synthesis even accounts for fifteen per cent of emissions.
The production is mainly based on the Haber-Bosch process, which was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. It works with a mixture of nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, which is then converted into ammonia by means of high temperature and pressure. The use of natural gas, as a source for hydrogen gas, causes large CO2 emissions.
Researchers of KU Leuven and the University of Antwerp have now achieved a first breakthrough in the search for a sustainable alternative to ammonia synthesis. Their research is supported by the Flemish Government via the Moonshot innovation programme, which aims to ensure a CO2-neutral industry by 2050.
In a first phase, plasma technology will be used. This is the research expertise of Professor Annemie Bogaerts (University of Antwerp). “A first hurdle to producing ammonia is splitting the nitrogen molecule N2. This is a very stable molecule, due to the triple bonding of two nitrogen atoms. Instead of using the high temperatures and pressures of the Haber-Bosch process, we use a plasma reactor.”
"Plasma is obtained by heating gas or introducing electrical energy into it. This creates a cocktail of different reactive particles in which new chemical reactions are possible. In the plasma reactor, you get electrical charges and high temperatures, comparable to lightning. These conditions allow us to split the stable nitrogen molecule N2. Nitrogen oxides are then formed as a result of the reaction with oxygen."
Inspiration from the automotive sector
Nitrogen oxides are better known as NOx. “The automotive sector already has the technologies to eliminate NOx molecules from exhaust gases, which is what we based ourselves on”, says Professor Johan Martens (KU Leuven). “We’ve adapted an existing filter so that it doesn't convert the NOx molecules into nitrogen, but into ammonia.”
“By combining plasma technology with concepts from the automotive industry, we can produce ammonia in a sustainable way. And the great thing is that the necessary raw materials, air and water, are available always and everywhere. For the production of the plasma, on the other hand, you can use renewable electricity from solar or wind energy.”
“We’ve found a convincing concept, now we need to develop this idea into an industrial process”, says Professor Bogaerts. “This is first done with a pilot set-up in the lab. Ultimately, we want to achieve a functional application that can contribute to the fight against global warming.”
“Our technology will not replace the Haber-Bosch process immediately, but it can provide a particularly valuable addition in the short term”, adds Professor Martens. “Unlike the current ammonia production, that takes place in a limited number of gigantic reactors, plasma technology can be used locally with small installations in different locations. Think of farmers in remote areas: they could use this technology, powered by solar or wind power, to produce their own fertilisers.”
The study ‘A new route towards green ammonia synthesis through plasma‐driven nitrogen oxidation and catalytic reduction’ by L. Hollevoet, F. Jardali, Y. Gorbanev, J. Creel, A. Bogaerts and J. Martens was published in Angewandte Chemie.
River blindness is the root cause, and nodding disease can easily be controlled by administering an anti-parasitic drug and exterminating the blackfly.
For several years now, researchers from the University of Antwerp have been collaborating with African scientists to investigate the causes of 'nodding disease', a mysterious form of epilepsy that only affects children on the African continent. Dr Joseph Nelson Siewe Fodjo, a researcher from Cameroon, has now discovered that river blindness is the root cause, and that nodding disease can easily be controlled by administering the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin and exterminating the blackfly.
Some 50 million people worldwide suffer from epilepsy and around 80% of them live in low- and middle-income countries, often in areas of Africa where river blindness occurs. The reason for this was unknown until recently, when Dr Joseph Nelson Siewe Fodjo, from Cameroon, investigated the correlation between river blindness and epilepsy during his PhD research under the supervision of Professor Bob Colebunders as part of a project funded by the European Community.
"The study confirmed the high incidence of epilepsy in areas where river blindness is not under control, such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. In some villages, up to 6% of the population had it," says Dr Siewe. "We discovered various forms of epilepsy associated with river blindness: mainly epilepsy with generalised seizures, but also nodding disease and Nakalanga syndrome, which is associated with severe growth retardation, retarded sexual development, cognitive disorders and sometimes bone deformities."
"We saw otherwise healthy children between the ages of 8 and 12 suddenly develop epileptic seizures. This often occurred in several children in the same family. The affected families usually lived close to breeding sites of the blackfly, the transmitter of the worm that causes river blindness. As many of them cannot afford treatment with anti-epileptic medication, people with epilepsy in these areas rarely live past the age of 30."
However, according to Dr Siewe, there is a simple remedy. "This form of epilepsy is perfectly preventable, simply by distributing ivermectin – a drug that cures river blindness – annually to the entire population. Twice a year would be even better, especially in combination with efforts to destroy the breeding grounds of the blackfly and eradicate river blindness altogether."
Further research is needed to find out exactly how the worm causes the brain damage that leads to nodding disease and other forms of epilepsy. "But in any case, there is an urgent need to step up efforts to alleviate – and hopefully even prevent completely – the immense suffering of families with children with epilepsy in many regions of Africa," concludes Professor Colebunders.
During the lockdown, 26% fewer patients were admitted to Belgian hospitals following a heart attack.
"Patients were more reluctant to go to the hospital, but on the upside, people got to unwind and relax more, resulting in fewer heart problem", says cardiologist Marc Claeys (UZA/UAntwerp).
With the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, many physicians sounded the alarm in the media: they feared that people with problems unrelated to COVID-19 would put off going to their doctor or even the emergency room out of fear of becoming infected with the virus. These physicians urged people not to postpone consultations, as this might increase the severity of their medical problems. Hard data to support this warning were not yet available at the time, however.
Prof. Marc Claeys, a cardiologist associated with UZA and the University of Antwerp, has now collected data on classic heart attacks (ST-elevation myocardial infarctions, or STEMIs) from Belgian hospitals in collaboration with the Belgian Society of Cardiology. He compared the situation in the first three weeks of lockdown (13 March – 4 April) with the same periods in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Approperiate care was always available
"In those three weeks, 26% fewer patients (188 compared to 254) were admitted to our hospitals following a heart attack compared to previous years", Claeys explains. "Furthermore, the number of patients who waited more than twelve hours to come to the hospital after the onset of pain doubled. About 6% did not survive the heart attack, which is comparable to the mortality rate before the COVID-19 outbreak. Some countries failed to provide approperiate care for people with serious heart problems in the midst of the crisis, but this was not the case in Belgium."
Claeys sees two reasons for the decrease. "For one thing, people may have been afraid to come to the hospital. But that fear was unjustified, as hospitals separate COVID-19 patients from other patients. Our research also shows that continuity of care was maintained, even at the peak of the crisis."
Positive effect of relaxation
A second aspect highlighted by the Antwerp-based cardiologist is the fact that patients were less exposed to triggers during the lockdown because they had to stay at home. After all, factors such as air pollution, cold and stress can provoke heart attacks. Claeys: "There was significantly less road traffic and the air was cleaner: measurements indicate that pollution was 30% lower. In particular, there was less nitrogen dioxide in the air. And we also know that relaxation and lower stress levels have positive effects on the functioning of the heart. Those are aspects we have to keep in mind, even after this crisis."
Claeys and his team are continuing to monitor the situation and aim to track the number of heart attacks throughout the course of the pandemic. The results of the research covering the first three weeks of the lockdown have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Cardiologica.
The Khalid Iqbal Lifetime Achievement Award USA is presented to Professor Christine Van Broeckhoven in recognition of a distinguished career in Alzheimer's disease research.
Her pioneering work to unravel the genetic etiology of neurodegenerative dementia received numerous and prestigious awards e.g. the American Potamkin Prize (1993), the Belgian Excellence prize Joseph Maisin (1995), the American Zenith Award by the Alzheimer Association USA (2005), the International Women in Science Award for Europe (2006), the European Inventor Award for Research (2011) and the American award for Medical Research of the MetLife Foundation (2012).
Among the scientists she mentored, many became professor or other esteemed and up-and-coming researchers in the field of Alzheimer’s disease research.
During her career, she has been engaged in science communication to the general public about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. For her societal engagement, she received the Belgian title of Grand Officer in the Order of Leopold (2006) and French Order of Chevalier dans La Légion d’Honneur (2008). The community honored her by a Portrait Stamp in the honorary series ‘This is Belgium’ (2004), and other prizes. She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hasselt, Belgium (2014), for her research and societal engagement. And recently, she received the Lifetime Achievement award for Science Communication from the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (2020), for her years of work as a top global expert who has found a way to improve her research through contact with patients, caretakers, citizens and politicians.
Deltaray, a spin-off of Antwerp University and imec is taking quality control to the next level with the introduction of its 'Accelerated 3D XRAY' technology.
Deltaray’s solution allows manufacturers to inspect products for possible defects up to 100 times faster and with a much finer granularity (up to 50 microns).
This speed enables total quality control, as every manufactured item is internally checked in a fully automated way. The spin-off's initial focus is on the medical devices, pharmaceutical and automotive industries.
“Inspecting larger numbers of samples using X-ray technology is one option to detect costly production errors, especially since products contain increasingly sophisticated components. Or one could decide to have all product runs manually inspected – which obviously comes at a high cost,” says Dirk Hamelinck, CEO of Deltaray. “But now there is the Deltaray approach, using X-ray to accurately scan each product on the production line in detail and perform a full 3D quality check of every product without slowing down the production process.”
Leading manufacturers into the Quality 4.0 era
“Our Accelerated 3D XRAY portfolio sets a new quality control standard for companies that want to deliver zero-defect products,” says Hamelinck. “It detects production errors ten to a hundred times faster than existing computed tomography (CT) systems. And it accommodates a much finer granularity, measuring defects with an accuracy of up to 50 microns. Our initial focus is on the medical devices, pharmaceutical and automotive industries, enabling manufacturers to inspect complex and high-tech products such as syringes, implants, (petrol) pumps much more efficiently.”
“Inspired by the digital revolution, manufacturing has recently undergone a fundamental transformation – also referred to as Industry 4.0. Efficiency and productivity have increased dramatically, the customer experience is paramount and quality requirements are higher than ever before. Given this new business reality, the introduction of Deltaray’s Accelerated 3D XRAY portfolio marks an important step forward when it comes to quality control. The technology enables manufacturing companies to enter the Quality 4.0 era,” says Rudy Lauwereins, vice president of R&D at imec. “Since the Deltaray team has focused on international business opportunities from the start, the brand-new spin-off has received tailored support from imec’s venturing team and the imec.istart accelerator program.”
The Deltaray technology was developed within VisionLab, an imec research group at Antwerp University. “For more than ten years, we have been conducting extensive research into this technology,” comments professor Jan Sijbers, co-founder and scientific advisor to Deltaray. “The underlying research track pursued a much quicker inspection of complex mechanical products, thereby offsetting manufacturers’ concerns such as cost and the shortage of skilled employees. With our technology, we can screen a product in a very detailed way using just a few scans.”
Deltaray has been selected to represent Belgium at EuroQuity, a prestigious online platform where promising companies and investors can meet.
Antwerp researchers launch website to compare coronavirus impact per country.
All European countries are currently fighting the coronavirus. The capacity of their respective health systems will play a decisive role in their efforts to combat COVID-19. UAntwerp scientists have developed a method to compare the pressure on different countries' health systems in real time.
The exponential growth in the number of reported SARS-CoV-2 infections is currently having a major impact on daily life across the globe. The measures taken by governments are mainly aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. This way, epidemiologists and other researchers modelling the disease hope to make the incidence curve less steep and spread it out over time. This is what is referred to as "flattening the curve".
"One of the main concerns is the capacity of our healthcare systems," explains Prof. Philippe Beutels (UAntwerp). "That capacity is limited and may not be sufficient. The number of cases and hospital admissions will skyrocket if social distancing measures are not respected. Countries are now trying – each in their own way – to increase the number of hospital beds, intensive care beds and healthcare workers available to care for patients with serious symptoms. But the extra capacity they can make available ultimately depends on their base capacity, and that is what we are basing our analyses on."
Beds, doctors and expenses
The University of Antwerp launched a study into the pressure on healthcare systems throughout Europe by analysing several indicators of these systems’ capacity. They took the number of hospital beds, the number of physicians and the total healthcare expenditure per country into account to assess the impact of COVID-19 on European countries.
"We are also introducing an indicator based on the number of nurses and doctors as well as the number of beds in intensive care units," says Beutels. "After all, extra beds are only useful if extra medical staff are available too. The indicators are presented in relation to the situation in Italy on 11 March, the day the country was no longer able to cope with the situation. Different countries can also be compared."
Very high pressure in Spain
The indicators are very time sensitive due to the rapid spread of the virus, which is why PhD students Frederik Verelst and Elise Kuylen have also developed a website where the indicators can be monitored in real time.
Verelst: "Comparing the number of deaths to the number of hospital beds, we see that there is tremendous pressure on Spain as we speak. Compared to the baseline situation in Italy on 11 March, the pressure in Spain on 21 March was already three times as high. And in the Netherlands, too, the situation is gradually evolving towards the Italian scenario (see figure). In Italy, the pressure on the healthcare system is now six times higher than last week."
The analyses currently show that the countries under the most pressure are Spain and the Netherlands, followed by France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Belgium.
The University of Antwerp has launched Rapid European COVID-19 Emergency Research response (RECOVER), in collaboration with 9 international partners.
The launch comes in response to the impact of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic in Europe. This project was selected for funding by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 research framework and builds on many years of investment by the European Commission in clinical research preparedness for epidemic response.
RECOVER will address the most urgent questions for patient and public health by conducting medical research to address key knowledge gaps, such as those about best approaches to prevent further spread of the disease and about the virus interactions with the human host. In this way, RECOVER will provide scientific evidence that can be used by clinical, public health and policy decision-makers about how best to protect health and save lives. These efforts will complement ongoing research in China and other parts of the world.
RECOVER officially launched its activities on 10 March in Amsterdam in a meeting attended by the international partners, European Commission, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). RECOVER’s consortium agreed on immediate next steps which include:
- A survey to understand EU citizens’ experience of COVID-19 and its impacts;
- A study to understand household transmission and the impact of interventions to mitigate transmission;
- A study to better understand if and how children may contribute to the spread of the virus;
- Recommendations to the EU on protecting the health of those at the frontline of tackling the spread of the outbreak.
- The results of all RECOVER studies will immediately inform the European response to COVID-19.
“We are very grateful that the European Union is supporting initiatives that tackle this new outbreak,” says Herman Goossens, Coordinator of RECOVER and Professor at the University of Antwerp. “We are looking forward to working with our European and Chinese partners to broaden the understanding of this disease and thereby save lives.”
“RECOVER is a unique project, integrating fundamental biological knowledge with social and clinical research, harnessing the power of science to understand and tackle COVID-19,” says Sylvie van der Werf, Scientific Coordinator of RECOVER and Director of the Virology department at Institut Pasteur.
RECOVER originates from the EU-funded PREPARE project (Platform for European Preparedness Against (Re-) emerging Epidemics) and will inform future research response efforts to further strengthen Europe’s preparedness for emerging infectious disease outbreaks.
RECOVER is selected for funding by the European Union (2020 – 2022) and originates from PREPARE to respond to the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. It is positioned as PREPARE's research response plan addressing the most urgent questions for patient and public health level interventions through a set of research response activities, combining: clinical studies in primary and hospital care; epidemiological studies and modelling; and clinical biological studies. RECOVER includes essential needs for preparedness and response and will inform future research response efforts to further strengthen Europe’s and global clinical research preparedness to future emerging infectious diseases.
PREPARE is funded by the European Union (2014 – 2021), to establish a European clinical research network covering primary care and hospital care in all EU Member States. Our response to severe outbreaks of infectious diseases is often delayed, isolated, and fragmented. PREPARE implemented large-scale clinical studies to build a European infrastructure for rapid clinical research responses in the face of new infectious disease threats. These clinical studies in inter-epidemic periods will train PREPARE in mounting a rapid, coordinated deployment of Europe’s clinical investigators. PREPARE is coordinated from the University of Antwerp in Belgium.
Scientists analyse world-famous painting in great detail with unique scanner.
Rembrandt's Night Watch is currently undergoing thorough examination. Researchers from the University of Antwerp are also doing their part, analysing the masterpiece down to its crystal structure with their special scanner.
Pro. Dr. Herman Goossens (UAntwerp) is following the events closely to ensure health and security of European citizens.
On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) China office was informed of patients infected with pneumonia of unknown aetiology in Wuhan, China. Evidence suggested that the initial cluster of cases was related to exposure in a seafood market in Wuhan (closed 1 January 2020). In the three weeks since that notification, numbers have escalated to 222 confirmed cases (218 in China, 2 in Thailand, 1 in Japan, and 1 in South Korea). There have been six deaths related to the outbreak, of which the most recent case was announced on the 21st of January. Of note is that 15 healthcare workers have become infected, one of whom is critically ill. The cause of this outbreak has been identified as a novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
The first genetic sequence of the 2019-nCoV was shared on 12 January, aiding the rapid development of diagnostic kits, instrumental for adequate outbreak preparedness and response. Today, WHO confirmed clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the 2019-nCoV with some suggestion of sustained transmission. The start of Lunar New Year holiday on 25 January will involve significant population movement within China and cross-border, exacerbating potential for spread of the virus. On 22 January, the Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, will convene and Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations to ascertain whether the 2019-nCoV outbreak constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
University of Antwerp to hold rector elections in March.
It is now safe to say that Herman Van Goethem will be serving a second term as rector of the University of Antwerp. The deadline for candidates to submit their applications was Friday, 17 January 2020. Only one was received, in which the lawyer and historian re-applied, with no challengers entering the ring.
On 31 August, the first term of Prof. Dr Herman Van Goethem as rector of the University of Antwerp will come to an end. This means that rector elections are to be held this spring. Applications were open to all full professors and professors with a full-time appointment at UAntwerp until Friday, 17 January. The only application received was that of current Rector Van Goethem.
That does not mean that there will be no elections: from 9 to 13 March, the first round will be held. The vote will only produce a valid result if the candidate for the position of rector obtains more than 50% of the votes, as voters can also choose to vote blank.
Everyone will cast their vote
A new development in this election procedure is that all employees and students of the University of Antwerp will cast their votes. In the past, only professors got one direct vote each, while everyone else (Assistant Academic Staff, Contract Research Staff, Administrative & Technical Staff and the students) voted for an electoral college in preliminaries.
The Board of Governors decided to change things: "Everyone now gets to cast a direct vote," says Prof. Herwig Leirs, chairman of the Board of Governors. "However, votes will be weighted differently, with the votes of professors weighing in at two thirds. The votes cast by Assistant Academic Staff plus Contract Research Staff, by the Administrative & Technical Staff and by the students will each account for eleven per cent."
On 1 September, the re-elected rector will commence his second (and final) four-year term.