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2020’s ‘wind of madness’ indicates growing instability

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Rising instability and unpredictable geopolitical tensions have led to a “wind of madness” across the world, Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday during his main annual press conference for journalists at UN Headquarters in New York. 

Following recent flare-ups in some hotspots, the UN chief observed that although de-escalation efforts indicated progress, the situation has now changed.  

“I have spoken about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe.  From Libya to Yemen to Syria and beyond — escalation is back. Arms are flowing. Offensives are increasing”, he said. 

Security Council resolutions ‘disrespected’ 

“All situations are different but there is a feeling of growing instability and hair-trigger tensions, which makes everything far more unpredictable and uncontrollable, with a heightened risk of miscalculation.  Meanwhile, Security Council resolutions are being disrespected even before the ink is even dry.” 

In laying out this and other “vicious circles” operating, the Secretary-General underscored the need for multilateral institutions like the UN to be more attuned to the global challenges of the 21st century. 

“In the year ahead I will press to break the vicious circles of suffering and conflict and push for a strong surge of diplomacy for peace,” he said. 

Coal addiction ‘dangerously strong’ 

Mr. Guterres continued his push for climate action, as rising ocean temperatures and subsequent ice melt are worsening the crisis. 

With carbon dioxide concentrations set to reach new highs, he called on “the big emitters” to lead the way forward in adaptation, mitigation and financing. 

 “We need a price on carbon, and an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. We are still seeing too many plans for coal plants – the addiction to coal remains dangerously strong,” he said. 

 The vicious cycle of poverty and inequality also must be broken, and Mr. Guterres reminded journalists that the UN this year kicked off a Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The 17 goals include ending hunger and poverty, providing quality education for all children, and achieving gender equality. 

Said the Secretary-General: “We know that progress on one Goal can generate progress on all – the virtuous circle we know is possible and that can point the way toward growth and prosperity for all.” 

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Health & Wellness

Breast cancer: an aggressive variant triggers a hunt for cures

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By Vittoria D’alessio

Breast cancer is the most common type in women and, in Europe alone, causes almost 92 000 deaths a year. Though this number is undoubtedly high, survival rates are improving. Advances in prevention, detection and treatment mean a patient now has a 90% chance of survival.

But one particularly aggressive variant is bucking the trend: triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), so named because it lacks three kinds of cell proteins. Tumours in this category account for around 15% of breast-cancer cases and the outlook is far worse than for other types.

Triple trouble

Tumours grow faster, spread more often before being discovered and are likelier to come back after treatment. And when TNBC does recur in other organs, an early death is likely, with survival rates as low as 11%.

Currently, no specific treatment exists for TNBC. The response usually involves surgical removal of the tumour followed by a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs that are known to work against other types of cancer. Often, however, the results are patchy and temporary.

‘After some time, the body often creates defences against this cocktail and it no longer works,’ said Dr Andreia Valente, co-coordinator of an EU-funded project to find cures for TNBC. ‘When this happens, the tumour usually becomes multi-drug resistant, meaning it doesn’t respond to any other type of chemotherapy treatment, and the cancer then becomes very aggressive.’

Dr Valente, who works at the University of Lisbon in Portugal, and her research partner Dr Helena Garcia coordinate CanceRusolution, a one-year Women TechEU initiative running until end-May 2023.

Rare metal

Efforts are focused on ruthenium, a rare, silvery-white metal known to be well-tolerated by the human body. From early experiments, it appears that the ruthenium-based drug the project team has developed both halts the growth of TNBC cells and stops them from spreading.

A second round of trials, this one on animals, is due to start soon. Alongside these, the researchers will be analysing the drug’s safety profile to ensure it is toxic to cancer cells but harmless to the rest of the body.

Chemotherapy is notorious for its brutal side-effects – ranging from nausea and lack of appetite to exhaustion and hair loss – because drugs that attack the fast-growing cells of a tumour typically kill healthy cells too.

Early results from CanceRusolution suggest a drug based on ruthenium would cause fewer side-effects in patients because healthy cells seem to be unaffected.

‘So far, from a toxicity point of view, the drug’s profile looks good,’ said Dr Garcia. ‘Our studies show that 24 hours after administering the drug, there’s a high concentration of the compound in the tumour, but in the surrounding blood and urine it’s almost gone. This means the secondary effects of our drug should be low.’

Cell traits

A healthy breast cell is packed with receptors – proteins expressed on the surface of the cell. They allow it to respond to hormones (for instance, by enlarging during pregnancy) and other vital molecules involved in controlling how the cell grows, divides and repairs itself.

Most cancer cells also possess receptors. To make an accurate diagnosis, a clinician will analyse a sample of diseased breast tissue to discover which receptors – known as biomarkers in this context – are being expressed.

Three biomarkers are commonly found in breast tumours and drugs have been developed to target all three. But TNBC is an outlier. It possesses none of these biomarkers and, as a result, provides no obvious pathway to sabotage tumour growth.

Trojan-horse approach

The drug developed by the team in Portugal gets around this problem by delivering the drug as a nanoparticle that enters the tumour through defects in the tumour’s blood-supply system. Once inside, it cracks open, Trojan-horse style, to release the active ingredient. This targets a completely different component of TNBC cells – the cytoskeleton: the complex network of interlinking protein filaments that fills the cell’s interior and acts as scaffolding.

‘The drug then destroys the foundations of the cell,’ said Dr Garcia. ‘Without a functioning cytoskeleton, the cell has no way of surviving. It splatters.’

With new funding, the researchers believe their drug could be ready for evaluation in humans within two years.

Diverse group

Thinking of TNBC as a single type of breast cancer is an oversimplification. It is in fact a highly diverse group of cancers.

Researchers, however, lack a classification of subtypes. Having one would allow them to zero in on new biomarkers that, it is hoped, would pave the way for new tailored treatments.

Classifying patients according to the precise character of their tumour, and seeking new targets for TNBC treatments, are pillars of another EU-funded project – P70-IMMUNEBREAST.

After studying 350 cancerous tissue samples, the project’s researchers have devised a classification system based on how much ‘kinase’ – an enzyme and another cancer biomarker – is expressed by a tumour.

Earlier research showed that one particular kind of kinase, P70S6K, is found in high levels in TNBC tumours.

‘What we’re interested in is the link between this kinase and the body’s immune response,’ said researcher Dr Rebeca Jimeno. ‘Tumours develop in our bodies and – when all goes well – our immune system recognises them and destroys them.’

The big question is why this system sometimes fails.

Immunity angle

Dr Jimeno, who is based at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, has found that when high levels of P70S6K kinase are expressed, fewer B cells are found in a tumour.

B cells recognise, infiltrate and finally destroy cancer cells. In other words, P70S6K allows cancer to hide from the immune system and grow undisturbed.

One of the next research steps is to find an appropriate inhibitor for this kinase.

‘Drugs are being tested, but I suspect it will be some years before one is found that’s well-tolerated by the body,’ said Dr Jimeno.

She is hopeful that a cure will eventually be found.

‘We’re trying so hard to find a solution for this unmet need, and I’m confident that one piece of research at a time, we’ll get there,’ said Dr Jimeno.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

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Scholz and Macron threaten trade retaliation against Biden

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Image source: International Affairs

After publicly falling out, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron have found something they agree on: mounting alarm over unfair competition from the U.S. and the potential need for Europe to hit back, – writes POLITICO.

The German chancellor and the French president discussed their joint concerns during nearly three-and-a-half hours of talks over a lunch of fish, wine and Champagne in Paris.

They agreed that recent American state subsidy plans represent market-distorting measures that aim to convince companies to shift their production to the U.S., according to people familiar with their discussions. And that is a problem they want the European Union to address.

Both leaders agreed that the EU cannot remain idle if Washington pushes ahead with its Inflation Reduction Act, which offers tax cuts and energy benefits for companies investing on U.S. soil, in its current form. Specifically, the recently signed U.S. legislation encourages consumers to “Buy American” when it comes to choosing an electric vehicle — a move particularly galling for major car industries in the likes of France and Germany.

The message from the Paris lunch is: ‘If the U.S. doesn’t scale back, then the EU will have to strike back. That move would risk plunging transatlantic relations into a new trade war.’

Crucially, Berlin — which has traditionally been more reluctant when it comes to confronting the U.S. in trade disputes — is indeed backing the French push. Scholz agrees that the EU will need to roll out countermeasures similar to the U.S. scheme if Washington refuses to address key concerns voiced by Berlin and Paris, according to people familiar with the chancellor’s thinking.

Before bringing out the big guns, though, Scholz and Macron want to try to reach a negotiated solution with Washington. This should be done via a new “EU-U.S. Taskforce on the Inflation Reduction Act” that was established during a meeting between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Pyle.

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Futuristic fields: Europe’s farm industry on cusp of robot revolution

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By Sofia Strodt

In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves swiftly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.

“Farmdroid” has made life a lot easier for Mark Buijze, who runs a biological farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the very few owners of robots in European agriculture.

Robots to the rescue

His electronic field worker uses GPS and is multifunctional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, all Buijze has to do is enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.

‘With the robot, the weeding can be finished within one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and roughly four to five workers if done by hand,’ he said. ‘By using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it has to go in the field.’

About 12 000 years ago, the end of foraging and start of agriculture heralded big improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological advancements.

In the current era, however, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one tech trend: artificial intelligence (AI). While already commonly used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and face recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.

Now, advances in research are spurring farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from meeting field-hand needs to detecting crop diseases early.

Lean and green

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require far greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.

One reason for using robots is the need to forgo the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not just mundane but also arduous and time consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune grapevines.

‘In both cases, robots would help,’ said Pinel, who is research and development project manager at France-based Terrena Innovation. ‘That is our idea of the future for European agriculture.’

Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With some 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, it is pioneering a robot technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

‘This initiative is quite innovative,’ said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. ‘It has not been done before.’

In the weeds

AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

‘If you grow a crop like potatoes, typically you plant the crop once per year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times per year,’ he said.

Plus, there is the question of speed. Often machines work faster than any human being can.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, is particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory and days of analysis.

‘With this robot everything is done in the field,’ De Santos said. ‘It can take several samples per hour, providing results within a matter of minutes.’

Eventually, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.

Unloved labour

Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand not because they can work faster than any person but simply because no people are available for the job.

Even before inflation rates and fertiliser prices began to surge in 2021 amid an energy squeeze made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, farmers across Europe were struggling on another front: finding enough field hands including seasonal workers.

‘Labour is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,’ said van Evert. ‘It’s costly and hard to get these days because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can take away this obstacle.’

The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so it can work in tandem with farm robots.

For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labelled by researchers in ways than can later be read by the AI.

Driverless tractors

The system then uses these large amounts of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – think about the autocorrect feature on laptop computers and mobile phones, for example.

A farming controller comparable to the “brain” of the whole operation decides what needs to happen next or how much work remains to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras – gathers and stores more information as it works, becoming “smarter”.

Crop protection

FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks including disease detection.

Take drones, for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect sick crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

‘If you can’t detect diseases in an early stage, you may lose the produce of an entire field, the production of an entire year,’ said De Santos. ‘The only option is to remove the infected plant.’

For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so identifying and removing diseased plants early on is crucial.

Pooling information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos said. Sharing data gathered by drones with robots or feeding the information into models expands the “intelligence” of the machines.

Although agronomist Pinel doesn’t believe that agriculture will ever be solely reliant on robotics, he’s certain about their revolutionary impact.

‘In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a couple of small robots in the field and let them work all day,’ he said.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.   

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