Pandemic learnings and pest control developments: News from Imperial

Paul Kellam. Credit to: Denitsa Nikolova
Paul Kellam. Credit to: Denitsa Nikolova
Here’s a batch of fresh news and announcements from across Imperial.

From a talk to discuss pandemic learnings, to a new way to identify the sex of pest species, here is some quick-read news from across Imperial.

Pandemic learnings

Professor Paul Kellam , in the Department of Infectious Disease , discussed lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic in preparing for future health crises at the ScienceBusiness conference on health innovation and the future of medicines development in Brussels this week.

Professor Kellam outlined that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, work streams that would usually run in succession, from early research to translation, to clinical trials and then to regulatory approval, instead ran in parallel where possible, which allowed the development of vaccines to be achieved at great speed. He also highlighted the workings of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, that worked with companies on the development and clinical trials of vaccines, as part of the pathway to independent regulatory review of the final product.

Professor Kellam’s key lesson from the pandemic was the importance of making scientific advice and evidence as open and transparent as possible, allowing the evidence to be used to engage with the decision makers and the public. He also spoke of the need for diversity of opinion and thought within future scientific advice, including the input of social scientists, economics, and policy experts in designing solutions to any future health crisis.

Pest control

Agricultural pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly, or medfly (Ceratitis capitata), cause significant crop losses, so finding new ways to tackle infestations is crucial for feeding a growing global population. One technique involves creating sterile males using radiation and releasing these in the wild, where unsuccessful mating reduces local populations and saves crops.

Often, groups of males and females are irradiated and released together. However, studies have shown that male-only releases are more cost effective, as well as reducing crop damage as there are fewer females to pierce the skin of fruits while laying eggs. The issue has been that methods for simple sex-sorting of medflies using markers have caused genetic instabilities and unwanted fertility problems during the rearing stage.

Now, a team led by Dr Angela Meccariello at Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences and Omar Akbari at the University of San Diego, California, have created a fluorescent marker that identifies males and females with 100% efficiency with no detrimental effects. The marker can separate the sexes early in their development and could also be easily modified for other similar pest species, like the Mexican fruit fly.

Read the full paper in Scientific Reports.

Studying space shocks

Using data from the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, which has Imperial-built kit on board , researchers have analysed energetic particles in a shock wave caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on the timescale of seconds. This unprecedented resolution allowed the team, led by researchers, to understand how small irregularities in the shock wave front create energised particles.

Combining the data with modelling, they showed how particles from the solar flare are accelerated to become ’suprathermal’ - possessing more energy than would be possible from thermal excitation alone.

First author of the study Dr Domenico Trotta , from the Department of Physics , said: "The physics of such shock waves are fundamental to understanding the sources of energetic particles in the Universe, but studying them remotely is difficult. Spacecraft like Solar Orbiter that fly directly through ’interplanetary’ shock waves provide crucial insights into longstanding puzzles in astrophysics."

Read the full paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Entrepreneur search

Imperial’s two biggest entrepreneurship competitions are once again on the lookout for the next cohort of innovators.

The flagship entrepreneurship competitions are WE Innovate and the Venture Catalyst Challenge, both open to students, alumni and early career researchers.

WE Innovate champions women-led teams with an entrepreneurial idea to explore, during a six-month programme that supports 25 teams through masterclasses, business coaching and mentoring, and the chance to win a share of £30,000.

The Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC) is Imperial’s flagship entrepreneurial competition for students, alumni and early career researchers to develop a venture for commercialisation and win a share of £100,000.

Applications for the 2024 programmes for both competitions are now open, with a closing date of Sunday 26 November.