Asia Research News 2019

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the front lines

also inside The patience of physicists Food security for Asia Discovering scaly snails Printing skin and robots

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Guidance, Content, Distribution and Monitoring

Bring discovery to light and attract: Funding Collaborations Citations Investors


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topic 04 People 26 Space 30 Technology35 Environment 52 Medicine

Big data for HIV page 12

Treating jet lag page 14

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History of dark matter page 32

Macaques and malaria page 55


Welcome to the 2019 edition of Credit: Petrica Ciprian Kis | 123rf

Scanning electron micrograph of two HeLa cells, an immortal human cell line derived from a cancerous tumour of the cervix. Collected from Henrietta Lacks in 1951, it was the first human cell line to survive and grow in the laboratory. Cover credit: Anne Weston, Francis Crick Institute

Asia Research News Team Magdeline Pokar Laura Petersen Aya Kawanishi Nadia El-Awady Vivien Chiam Ruth Francis Sophie Protheroe James Tyrrell Daphne Ng


Xray Creative

Editorial Consultants Daniel Raymer Pokar Vellaykuti

Research featured in Asia Research News 2019 is based on information provided by the research institutions listed. Readers are advised to contact the researchers for additional information. All images used in whole or in part within this publication are credited to the respective image owners. ResearchSEA Limited and the Asia Research News team does not accept responsibility for any loss, damage or expenses incurred resulting from the use of information in this publication. ISSN 2042-0536 Copyright Asia Research News. We welcome you to reproduce articles in Asia Research News 2019, provided appropriate credit is given to Asia Research News and the research institutions featured.


General: Magdeline Pokar

Welcome to our 11th year of Asia Research News. We are pleased to bring you the latest findings in medicine, technology, social sciences, space and environment from across Asia. It is invigorating to learn how researchers are developing new ways to track and treat cancer, diabetes, HIV and even the flu. Equally as intriguing are the advances in computing power, nanotechnology and gene editing enabling these new tools and potential therapies. Researchers are also crafting creative solutions to widespread problems, from glasses that help stop short-sightedness in its tracks, to finding compounds in already available drugs to treat jet lag. Several collaborative projects are poised to make waves in everyday lives – find out more about Singapore’s smart hub for optical fibres, gender

equality issues in Myanmar, and bolstering Asia’s food security. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we invite you to look back and get to know some fascinating researchers from the past in our Moments in History series. Looking forward, we are thrilled to unveil our new and improved online home: While our ResearchSEA web portal has served as a trusted distribution point for Asia’s research news since 2004, we are excited that our new platform offers expanded functions for researchers, institutions, journalists and the public. Our aim, as always, is to help facilitate meaningful connections for research. Join the Asia Research News community and spread the word about exciting research developments in Asia.

Singapore: Vivien Chiam Japan: Aya Kawanishi





MEDICINE Did you know?

In Malaysia, the mistletoe fig is used as an ingredient in herbal drinks, coffee, supplements and massage oils, and is also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

Ficus deltoidea or Mas Cotek is an herb native to Malaysian rainforests.

The mistletoe fig reduces toxic oxidative stress in diabetic rat brains, while also keeping the cortex wrinkly and improving cognition.


Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) have shown that leaves from the mistletoe fig plant (Ficus deltoidea) can reduce learning and memory deficits in a rat model of diabetes. Recent studies have shown that diabetes is a risk factor for cognitive deficits and even dementias like Alzheimer’s disease. “Malaysia has the highest prevalence of diabetes among all Asian countries, making Malaysians particularly vulnerable to the development of learning and memory deficits,” says Nurdiana Samsulrizal, UiTM researcher and first author of the study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. Cognitive deficits in diabetes could result from toxic oxidative stress in the brain: damage to lipids, proteins, and DNA caused by free-floating ions and oxygen-containing molecules. Serendipitously, a potential therapy might come from a Malaysian herbal remedy. The mistletoe fig is a common SouthEast Asian plant used in Malaysian herbal medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It is known to have strong antioxidant prop-

erties that protect against oxidative stress. Building on their recent work showing that this plant can reduce blood glucose and raise insulin levels, the research group examined how leaves from the mistletoe fig affect memory, brain morphology, and markers of oxidative stress in a rat model of diabetes. The team trained rats on a standard spatial memory task in which they learned the location of an underwater platform. The diabetic rats performed poorly compared to control rats, indicating impaired spatial learning and memory. The team found that the normally complexly folded cortex had become smooth in the diabetic rats’ brains. Further analysis of their brains showed very high levels of oxidative stress markers and very low levels of antioxidants. In contrast, these signs and symptoms were reduced in diabetic rats that were treated with mistletoe fig leaves. These rats performed much better on the memory task than untreated rats, had a convoluted cortex, lower levels of oxidative stress markers, and higher levels of antioxidants in their brains. “We hope our results provide insight and an avenue of further research for developing neuroprotective therapies based on traditional herbal medicine,” says UPM veterinary physiologist Goh Yong Meng.

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Credit: Abdul Razak Latif | 123rf


Further information

Dr Nurdiana Samsulrizal | E-mail: Faculty of Applied Sciences Universiti Teknologi MARA

Associate Professor Goh Yong Meng | E-mail: Faculty of Veterinary Medicine Universiti Putra Malaysia

Credit: Somsak Nitimongkolchai | 123rf



KEY FLU TARGET IDENTIFIED A key cell receptor that facilitates influenza A virus infection has been identified following decades of research.

Viral infection starts when a virus particle attaches to a receptor on the surface of a host cell. The virus particle then hijacks cellular machinery to enter the cell and replicate, establishing the infection. The key receptor for the influenza A virus (IAV) has remained unidentified despite decades of research. A team led by Yusuke Ohba of Hokkaido University found that the calcium ion (Ca2+) channel – a transmembrane protein that allows Ca2+ to move across the cell membrane – is the key receptor for IAV infections. Treating human cells with calcium channel blockers, commonly used to treat hypertension, significantly suppressed IAV infections. The findings build on the group’s previous research demonstrating that changes in calcium ion concentration in host cells play an important role in IAV infections. The team found, using cultured human cells, that IAV binds to a calcium channel on a cell’s surface to trigger an influx of Ca2+. This is followed by virus entry and infection. Turning off calcium channel activity prevented IAV-induced Ca2+ influx and virus entry. The team found that the presence of sialic acid on the Ca2+ channel is crucial for virus binding. The researchers treated mice with calcium channel blockers through the nose before or after IAV infection. This led to a significant and dose-dependent reduction in the numbers of replicated viruses within cells. Mice infected with large numbers of IAV survived much longer and had better weight recovery following administration of calcium channel blockers compared to an untreated group, which died within five days. “We expect that the interaction between IAV and the Ca2+ channel could be a novel and important target for future drug development,” says Ohba. The study was published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

Human bronchial epithelial cells cultured with (above) or without (below) a calcium channel blocker prior to exposure to influenza A virus (IAV). Red signals show infected and replicated IAV. Treatment with calcium channel blockers significantly suppressed IAV infection. Credit: Fujioka Y. et al., Cell Host & Microbe, May 17, 2018


Credit: katisa | 123rf

Professor Yusuke Ohba | E-mail: Department of Cell Physiology Hokkaido University

Further information



DELIVERING TO BONE A gene-editing Trojan horse that sneaks up on osteosarcoma cells could help the fight against this aggressive childhood bone cancer.


Researchers at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) and colleagues have developed a delivery system to transport a gene editing technology to osteosarcoma cells and their metastases, depriving them of their ability to form new blood vessels. The system is comprised of peptides that specifically target osteosarcoma cells, and a protective fatty coating for CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing compounds, helping them evade degradation in the body. Designed by Ge Zhang of HKBU’s Institute for Advancing Translational Medicine in Bone and Joint Diseases and his team, the system has been tested in cultured mouse and human osteosarcoma cells, and in mice with osteosarcoma and its lung metastases. Osteosarcoma is a highly aggressive bone cancer in children and adolescents.

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Further information

It is often complicated by bone destruction and fracture, while cells detaching from the tumour can also settle in other tissues—a process called metastasis. Osteosarcoma metastasis significantly reduces chances of living beyond five years from first diagnosis. Vascular endothelial growth factor A (VEGFA) is a gene that is highly expressed in osteosarcomas. It encodes a protein that facilitates new blood vessel formation and tumour cell survival. Targeting VEGFA with the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editor – which can edit DNA by snipping out specific nucleotide sequences – is expected to suppress osteosarcoma growth and metastasis, but it has been challenging to develop targeted delivery systems. To overcome this, the researchers encapsulated a VEGFA gene editor in a protective lipopolymer coating composed of polyethylenimine, methoxypolyethyleneglycol, and cholesterol. The coating, called PPC, protects the gene editor from

Professor Ge Zhang | E-mail: Institute for Advancing Translational Medicine in Bone and Joint Diseases Hong Kong Baptist University

degradation by the body’s enzymes as it travels to its destination. Peptide molecules designed to specifically recognise and target osteosarcoma cells were attached to the lipopolymer coating. The delivery system successfully targeted osteosarcoma tissues and their lung metastases without accumulating in other tissues. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology decreased VEGFA expression and secretion, reduced new blood vessel formation in osteosarcoma tumour tissue, and inhibited tumour growth and metastasis. The researchers conclude in their study published in the journal Biomaterials that their work may pave the way for new clinical approaches using the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in cancer treatment. They next plan to test the system in a mouse model of human cancer and then move to clinical trials if the results are promising.

MEDICINE Insertion

LC09 aptamer PEG-PEI-Cholesterol (PPC) 10% Lactose



CRISPR/Cas9 plasmids Credit: HKBU




CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing compounds are mixed with a lipid polymer solution (PPC) (left), which leads to CRISPR/Cas 9 being spontaneously encapsulated by a protective lipid layer (center). Then molecules designed to specifically recognize osteosarcoma cells, called LC09 aptamers, are added to the exterior of the lipid layer (right). This enables the CRISPR/Cas9 compounds to specifically target and edit a gene controlling blood vessel formation in osteosarcoma cells, thereby limiting tumour growth.

ASIA RESEA RC H N EWS 201 9 Credit: (Composite) Rajesh Rajendran Nair & ktsdesign | 123rf


MEDICINE Project ROSE (Removing Obstacles to cervical ScrEening) is addressing the cultural needs of thousands of women while keeping up with the times.

Did you know?

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women worldwide. Approximately 90% of deaths from cervical cancer in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries.

A collaboration in Malaysia is piloting a novel cervical screening program that features the comfort of self-sampling and the ease of digital communication. Led by the University of Malaya in partnership with other universities, government agencies, non-profits and corporations, Project ROSE aims to significantly increase the number of women screened for infection and thus reduce rates of cervical cancer through early detection. Cervical cancer, caused mainly by infection with human papilloma virus (HPV), is the second most common female cancer in Malaysia, affecting about 15 in every 100,000 women. Cervical cancer develops slowly, so can often be easily treated if caught early. Despite regular awareness campaigns in the country and relatively easy access to healthcare facilities, only one in every five Malaysian women eligible for cervical screening will ever have one.

Yin Ling Woo, a gynaecological oncologist at the University of Malaya, together with experts at VCS Foundation and Malaysia’s Ministry of Health, developed Project ROSE to address the two main hurdles to screenings: time and discomfort. “One of the constant themes I’ve come across in my work is that ‘I’ve been so busy that I’ve not had time for screening’, or ‘I was so busy I did not think much of my symptoms’,” says Woo. “This is one of the realities of a full-time working mum and what makes a screening program like Project ROSE attractive. It saves time for women.” The ROSE solution makes it possible for women to receive test results via a mobile application on their phones and make follow up appointments easily. Woo and her team worked with VCS Foundation (the non-profit arm of Victoria Cytology Service Ltd.), which provides registry services for Australia’s national cervical screening program, to develop a solution that would be acceptable within the Malaysian setting. The app is paired with self-sampling to address the other main roadblock.



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Further information

Professor Yin Ling Woo | E-mail: Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology University of Malaya

Credit: karandaev | 123rf

MEDICINE Women in some parts of the world, “Self-sampling has been shown to including Malaysia, often avoid cervical be effective, particularly in the unscreening for reasons of modesty, or fear der-screened population,” Woo says. of discomfort from a pelvic examination. As a result of the screening, two During a conventional PAP smear, a clini- women have been identified for further cian swabs the cervix and tests the sam- treatment. The mobile application will ple for abnormal cells that could indicate facilitate tracking patients, sending them infection with HPV or cancer. Such tests test reminders, results and next steps as are recommended every three years for required. women between the ages of 25 and 49. An implementation research program, With Project ROSE, women self-in- Project ROSE aims to recruit 4,000 sert a small swab into their vagina at the women for the first phase of two pilot clinic to obtain a cell sample from their projects. The results will then inform cervix, which is then tested by clinicians changes to Malaysia’s National Cervifor HPV DNA. The women are informed cal Screening Program. The innovative of their test results within three days via program was chosen as a finalist for the the mobile app. Union for International Cancer Control So far, more than 2,000 women aged Awards. 30 to 65 have participated in the pro“I see the devastating effects of cervical gram. Woo reports that 99% of the wom- cancer on women and their families,” says en said they are willing to repeat HPV Woo. “By integrating the latest technoloself-sampling, which should be done gies in a human-centred approach, cerevery five years, or every ten years in vical cancer can now almost entirely be resource-limited settings. Since cervical prevented. I am hopeful we are taking cancer develops slowly, this test interval another step forward toward protecting should still help catch the disease early more women.” enough to treat most cases.

Credit: Kitsana Baitoey | 123rf



Credit: Internet Archive/Creative Commons

Esther Park (1877–1910), born Kim Jeomdong, was the first female Korean physician to practise modern medicine in Korea. As a student, Park worked as a translator for American medical missionary Rosetta Sherwood Hall, who inspired Park to become a physician. After studying medicine in the US, Park returned to Korea and worked at the nation’s first hospital for women, Bogu-yeogwan (pictured below). During the first 10 months there, Park helped more than 3,000 patients. She often travelled to remote villages, providing free medical services. Recognizing the importance of female education, she also trained the first generation of Korean female doctors.


Project ROSE sends cervical screening test results to women via a mobile phone app, as well as appointment reminders.

Credit: Ewha Medical Journal/Creative Commons

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MEDICINE An award-winning device employs nanotechnology to safely grow neural stem cells for replacement therapy research.

Researchers at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) have invented a device with a nanolayer of biomaterials that ‘massages’ neural stem cells, encouraging them to proliferate and specifically differentiate. The approach minimizes the use of growth factors in a culture medium, which can lead to tumour growth when transplanted into humans. “Stem cell therapies have shown great promise in treating neurodegenerative diseases,” explains HKBU neurobiologist Ken Kin-Lam Yung. “They involve the use of stem cells to cultivate healthy cells, tissues or organs that are transplanted into

people to replace damaged or dead cells and restore physiological function.” But currently employed methods for promoting proliferation and differentiation of neural stem cells involve the use of compounds that can lead to tumour development once the cells are transplanted into humans, he says. The nanolayer included in the new device physically massages neural stem cells that are in contact with it. The physical contact stimulates a specific signalling pathway that causes the neural stem cells to differentiate into targeted functional neurons, explains HKBU materials scientist Zhifeng Huang, who led the study together with Yung. “This ‘physical massage’ resembles the Chinese medicine acupuncture tech-

nique, causing the cells to differentiate into functional cells that are in urgent demand in cell replacement therapies for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, cancers and tumours,” Huang says. “This physical massage minimises the need for growth factors and should substantially reduce the risk of carcinogenesis in clinical trials.” The invention won the team the Gold Medal with Congratulations of Jury at the 46th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva held in Switzerland in April 2018. A US patent for the device has been filed. The team has established a spin-off company, called Mat-A-Cell Limited, to manufacture and distribute the device to research institutions and companies developing cell therapies.

NANOTECH MASSAGE PRODUCES SAFE BRAIN CELLS Neural stem cells become functional when placed on the nanomatrix. Copyright : HKBU

Neural stem cells become functional when placed on the nanomatrix.

Credit: HKBU



Further information

Professor Ken Kin-Lam Yung | E-mail: Department of Biology Hong Kong Baptist University

Dr Zhifeng Huang | E-mail: Department of Physics Hong Kong Baptist University


A new mouse model accurately mimics diabetic kidney disease in humans, suggesting new approaches for treatment.

Scientists led by Duke-NUS Medical School have designed mice that successfully emulate a severe form of kidney damage in humans with diabetes, called diabetic nephropathy. Genetic analyses of the mice led to the surprising finding that expression of genes controlling immune and inflammatory responses may play a causal role in promoting kidney damage, and suggest these pathways might be promising targets for therapy. Kidney damage in people with dia-

human diabetes, the team used two different strains of mice known to have different propensities for developing kidney disease. Using these two different strains provided a “powerful system” for identifying mechanisms associated with the development of nephropathy, the researchers explain in their study published in the journal Diabetes. The team analysed the genes expressed in glomeruli, the filtering units of the kidney and a primary site of damage in diabetes. They found that clusters of genes associated with activation of immune system and inflammatory responses were turned on in the susceptible strain

POWERFUL NEW SYSTEM FOR STUDYING DIABETIC KIDNEY DISEASE of mice, but were not activated in the strain that was resistant to kidney damage. “Our data suggest that inflammation and immune responsiveness may be critical features in determining susceptibility to kidney disease in diabetes,” Coffman says. As there are a number of available drugs for inhibiting the immune system and inflammation, the findings suggest that targeting these pathways might be useful for preventing or slowing the development of diabetic nephropathy. “Although the precise genetic determinants of susceptibility and resistance to diabetic nephropathy may differ between mice and humans, it is likely that the molecular pathways involved are similar,” the researchers say. “Such pathways are attractive as biomarkers for disease susceptibility and targets for therapy.” The study is among a crop of new diabetes research supported by DYNAMO (Diabetes Study in Nephropathy And other Microvascular Complications), which was launched in 2017 and involves 25 leading healthcare and research institutions across six countries, including Singapore.

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Federico Graciano | E-mail: Communications Duke-NUS Medical School


Credit: ktsdesign | 123rf

betes can lead to life-threatening kidney failure. In Singapore, diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage kidney disease requiring dialysis. There are strong ethnic and familial associations for kidney disease in diabetes, indicating a role of genetic factors in determining susceptibility. However, identifying the precise genes involved in diabetic nephropathy has been problematic. To learn more about the disease, researchers have worked for years to develop animal models recapitulating features of kidney disease seen in humans, as an approach for identifying its root causes in order to improve diagnosis and treatment for diabetics who have kidney complications. However, diabetic mice typically only develop minimal kidney damage. To develop a mouse model more closely recapitulating diabetic nephropathy in humans, Duke-NUS nephrologist Thomas Coffman and colleagues combined Type I diabetes with over-activation of a hormone system, called the renin-angiotensin system, which is known to be overly activated in humans with diabetic kidney disease. To reproduce the differences in genetic susceptibility to nephropathy seen in

Further information



BIG DATA PINPOINTS NEW TARGETS FOR Computational models reveal possible weak spots in the HIV surface protein, identifying new targets for drug and vaccine design.


Researchers in Hong Kong and the United States have identified potential weak spots in the part of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) genome that codes for proteins that help the virus attach to human cells. The team used a machine learning approach to make the finding, which could help guide vaccine development. More than 31 million people are living with HIV worldwide. While antiretroviral drugs can help suppress the virus, an effective vaccine or cure does not exist. HIV vaccine development is challenging because the virus mutates rapidly and mutations in HIV surface proteins, called envelope proteins, can make them invisible to the body’s immune system. “It is a very complex problem and a core reason why these viruses are so difficult to combat,” explains computational biologist Matthew McKay of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). To address these challenges, McKay and his team, in partnership with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, applied big data machine learning methods to publicly available amino acid sequence data to search for weak spots in certain regions of the HIV genome. Credit: HKUST/MIT

High escape/fitness cost

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Potential weak spots on the surface of the HIV envelope protein (red) represent targets for rational vaccine design. Mutations at these positions are anticipated to be deleterious for viral fitness, whereas those at the blue regions are expected to be more benign. Hence, it may be effective to design a vaccine that forces the virus to mutate at the red positions.

Envelope protein


Their method involves mapping the so-called ‘fitness landscape’ of a virus: the relationship between the virus’s genomic sequences and its ability to assemble, replicate and propagate infection. By discovering which genomic regions are most critical for reproduction, researchers can design vaccines to elicit antibodies that drive gene mutations in those areas, inhibiting the virus’s ability to spread. Knowledge of the genomic region that codes for HIV envelope proteins is a key to vaccine design, since they are the core targets of antibodies. Due to their high diversity, the fitness landscape of these proteins had remained unknown. Using machine learning, the researchers were able to map the fitness costs of mutations in specific parts of the genomic sequence encoding the HIV envelope polyprotein called gp160, revealing potential vulnerable regions in this protein. “This knowledge helps us understand which mutations appear most likely to allow the virus to escape from vaccine-induced antibodies, which can possibly assist in the design of new vaccines with enhanced efficacy,” says Raymond Louie, a member of McKay’s HKUST team and a lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Fitness landscape modelling can be applied to vaccine and drug design for other viruses and pathogens such as hepatitis C, which infects around three million people each year.

Further information

Low escape/fitness cost

Professor Matthew McKay | E-mail: Depts. of Electronic and Computer Eng, and Chemical and Biological Eng. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Dr Raymond Louie | E-mail: Kirby Institute University of New South Wales




Indian organic chemist Asima Chatterjee (1917–2006) studied the medicinal properties of plant products, especially compounds known as vinca alkaloids. Growing up, she shared her father’s interest in botany and pursued higher education during a period when it was unusual for women to attend university. In 1944, she became the first woman in India to be awarded a Doctor of Science. Chatterjee’s research led to the development of an anti-epileptic drug, Ayush-56, as well as several antimalarial drugs. A prolific scientist, Chatterjee published approximately 400 papers in national and international journals.



Developing a vaccine for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is challenging because it mutates so rapidly.

Did you know?

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There is currently no licensed vaccine against HIV or AIDS, but scientists are getting closer to developing one. Data from the first HIV vaccine trial to show a positive protective signal was released in 2009. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly, Wikimedia Commons Credit: Galina Peshkova | 123rf



FINDING COMPOUNDS TO REDUCE JET LAG Researchers investigated existing drugs for molecules that affect circadian rhythms and found a known anti-aging supplement reduced jet lag in mice.

A hormone used as a common anti-aging supplement shortened the circadian cycle and significantly reduced jet lag symptoms when fed to mice, according to research led by Nagoya University’s Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules.

Takashi Yoshimura, cell biologist Katherine Tamai, and colleagues took a ‘drug repurposing’ approach, screening over 1,000 compounds, including those approved by food and drug regulatory authorities in the US, Europe and Asia, and others under clinical trial, to search for already-existing drugs that can regulate the circadian rhythm in mammals. They found 46 compounds that lengthened the circadian period and 13 that

dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which is commercially available as an anti-aging supplement in the US, shortened the period of the circadian clock in cultured human cells in a dose-dependent manner. Mice were then exposed to conditions that advanced the light-dark cycle by six hours, similar to a trip from Japan to Alaska. Jet-lagged mice that were fed DHEA appeared to recover and adapt to the new time zone faster than mice that were fed normal food. Further investigations are required to evaluate the effectiveness of DHEA for the treatment of jet lag in humans. “We are currently expanding our chemical libraries and are now screening food additives and natural products to find other compounds that can regulate the circadian clock in humans,” says Yoshimura. “We hope to develop and deliver new and safe compounds that can be taken orally to cure jet lag.” ITbM is proud to present Japan’s most prestigious Chemistry award.

Credit: Dzianis Apolka | 123rf



The Nagoya Medal of Organic Chemistry

Studies show that approximately 5% of existing drugs may have an effect on circadian rhythms.

Jet lag is caused by a mismatch between external time cues and the internal biological clock. This clock plays an important role in regulating sleep/wake cycles, hormone secretion and metabolism. Frequent travel and shift work can chronically disrupt humans’ 24-hour rhythm, leading to sleep disorders, obesity and an increased risk of cancer in the long term. There are no medications currently available on the market to treat jet lag, and developing new drugs is expensive and time consuming. So, ITbM animal biologist Further information

shortened it. These compounds contained bioactive molecules used as anticancer, antibacterial, and contraceptive agents; hormones; vitamins; and drugs used to treat diseases related to the central nervous system, digestive system, heart and skin. Yoshimura and his group looked further into the circadian period-shortening compounds that could fast forward the circadian clock and relieve jet lag symptoms when travelling from west to east. They found that the steroid hormone

Professor Takashi Yoshimura | E-mail: Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (WPI-ITbM) Nagoya University

Find out more


Dr T. Katherine Tamai | E-mail: Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (WPI-ITbM) Nagoya University


MEMORY FOAM SCAFFOLD HELPS BONE REGENERATE A new scaffold expands to fill in bone defects and encourage tissue growth.

Credit: (Composite) eranicle & Shubhangi Kene | 123rf

Researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) have designed and fabricated a self-fitting bone scaffold by combining shape-memory foam with hydroxyapatite, the principal mineral component of bone. The scaffold can be implanted into bone defects to induce bone regeneration, enhancing recovery from injuries and fractures. Despite bone’s regenerative capacity, costly and invasive bone-grafting surgeries are needed to treat large defects caused by tumour removals or severe fractures. Tissue engineers are exploring the use of minimally invasive bone scaffolds that can act as a template for speedy tissue regeneration, and reduce hospitalization stays and infection risk. A team led by PolyU’s Hu Jinlian, in

collaboration with Sichuan University in China, developed a novel scaffold made of shape-memory polyurethane foam—a type of plastic material—and hydroxyapatite nanoparticles. The scaffold is compressed at 0°C and then implanted, eventually expanding to fill in irregular bone defects as it warms to body temperature. Other currently available bone scaffolds do not have such shape-memory, self-fitting properties. Mimicking the bone’s microenvironment, the scaffold has a highly porous, interconnected structure that allows cells to move within it and generate new tissue. The pores’ sizes and the scaffold’s mechanical strength are similar to those of the inner ‘trabecular’ layer of bone. The scaffold is biocompatible and not toxic to cells. The team examined how the scaffold facilitated bone regeneration in thighbone defects of nine rabbits, compared to nine

rabbits with unfilled thighbone defects. The scaffolds expanded from their compacted shape to fill the bone defects within 60 seconds. Twelve weeks post-surgery, bone tissue had grown into the scaffolds faster than it had grown in the defects in the control group. Specifically, the scaffold attracted bone-forming cells called osteoblasts and induced blood vessel formation. New blood vessels formed four times faster on the scaffolds than in the control group’s defect areas. Also, 5% of the bone surface was covered by osteoblasts in the experimental group, while almost no osteoblasts were found near the defects in the control group. “The results show that our scaffold has great potential for bone regeneration. We will work with potential partners to extend the experiments to large animal testing and clinical trials, and will explore more of the scaffold’s functions," says Hu.


Professor Hu Jinlian | E-mail: Institute of Textiles and Clothing The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Further information


MEDICINE Authenticating Chinese traditional medicines could become quicker and easier.

A quick and simple method can authenticate plants used in Chinese medicine, distinguishing genuine from counterfeit, wild from cultivated, and the plant’s geographical origin. Developed by the Food Safety and Technology Research Centre at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), the approach uses direct ionization mass spectrometry to detect compounds in a plant sample.

are approximately 80 lingzhi species, but only two of them, known as chizhi and zizhi, are described in China’s official compendium of drugs, “The Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China”. Some lingzhi species, which are similar in appearance to each other, are easily confused with the official types. Tianma can also be easily confused with two counterfeit species. Wild lingzhi and tianma are very rare, so medicinal varieties are often obtained through cultivation. The wild types generally have higher contents of the major



A team, led by analytical chemist Yao Zhongping, used the approach on two of China’s most popular traditional medicines: Ganoderma lucidum, a mushroom commonly known as lingzhi; and Gastrodiae Rhizoma, a tuber from an orchid plant, commonly known as tianma. A sample from each plant was loaded with chemical solvents. A high voltage was applied to the sample, leading to the formation of an aerosol-like spray that was analysed using mass spectrometry. The technique successfully identified the major active components in each plant, distinguishing genuine samples from counterfeit ones. A commonly used dataset analytical tool, called principal component analysis, was then used to differentiate wild from cultivated types, and identify the plants’ geographical origins. Lingzhi and tianma are both used to treat a wide variety of diseases. There

active components and thus a better curative value. Samples originating from different geographical locations vary in their components due to the different cultivation conditions. Conventionally, a technique called fingerprint chromatography is used to comprehensively identify the chemical composition of Chinese traditional medicines. However, it is labour-intensive and time-consuming, with the sample preparation and separating processes taking several hours. PolyU’s method is simple, takes only ten minutes, and has the potential to analyse other traditional medicines. The researchers therefore expect it to have a positive impact on the Chinese traditional medicine industry. The research findings were published in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta.

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Further information

Associate Professor Yao Zhongping | E-mail: Food Safety and Technology Research Centre The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Credit: photodee | 123rf


Investigations suggest a link between bile acid reflux and cancer of the upper throat.

Bile acid refluxing into the throat can initiate a cell death process that could lead to the development of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer affecting the back of the nose and upper part of the throat, according to a study conducted by researchers at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). Bile is produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. It is secreted into the upper small intestine to help digest fats. Bile acids can cause cancer in the digestive tract, and can cause chronic inflammation in upper parts of the respiratory tract when they reflux along with acidic stomach contents into the oesophagus and beyond, a condition known as gastrooesophageal reflux disease. Chronic inflammation of the nose and sinuses is associated with the develop-

ment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma. A large study involving almost 250,000 people in Taiwan showed that individuals with chronic rhinosinusitis had a 3.55-fold higher risk of developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma compared to those without it. But the underlying mechanisms that cause chronic inflammation to develop into cancer have not been clear. To better understand this relationship, Sang-Nee Tan and Sai-Peng Sim of UNIMAS’s department of paraclinical sciences investigated what happens at the molecular level when nasopharyngeal cells are exposed to bile acid. They published their results in the journal BMC Cancer. They found that cells exposed to bile acid initiated a process of cell death called apoptosis. This type of cell death can act as an anticancer defence by removing cells with damaged DNA. Some cells survive by repairing DNA before apoptosis is complete. However, if the DNA-repair

process itself is damaged, chromosomes can rearrange within the cell, which can lead to cancer formation. Specifically, the initiation of apoptosis activated an enzyme called caspase-3. Activated caspase-3 is known to free another enzyme, called caspase-activated deoxyribonuclease (CAD). Apoptosis initiation also led to damage in a gene involved in nasopharyngeal carcinoma, called AF9. The researchers added a caspase-3 inhibitor to the cells and found it prevented this damage from forming. This suggests that CAD plays a major role in damaging AF9. The researchers theorize that prolonged exposure to bile acid causes not only chronic inflammation of the nose and sinuses, but also increases the risk of chromosomal alterations that can spark cancer formation. However, further research is needed to confirm a link between bile acid reflux and nasopharyngeal cancer.


Credit: Tharakorn Arunothai | 123rf

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Credit: decade3d | 123rf

Associate Professor Sim Sai Peng | E-mail: Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

Further information



NOBEL-WORTHY CANCER RESEARCH Pathologist Katsusaburo Yamagiwa and his research assistant Koichi Ichikawa were the first to prove chronic exposure to chemicals can cause cancer in 1915. Ichikawa, then a student of Hokkaido University, conducted experiments under Yamagiwa’s supervision at Tokyo Imperial University, in which they induced tumour growth by rubbing coal tar on the surface of rabbit ears. Yamagiwa was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1925, 1926 and 1928, and again in 1936 with Ichikawa. They lost out to another scientist whose cancer research was soon found to be wrong, yet the prize was maintained. Today, the first samples of induced tumour are displayed in specimen rooms at The University of Tokyo and Hokkaido University.

Katsusaburo Yamagiwa Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Koichi Ichikawa Credit: Laboratory of Comparative Pathology. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Hokkaido University. All rights reserved.

Founded in 1876 as Sapporo Agricultural College, Hokkaido University is one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious universities in Japan. The university provides diverse degree programs for international students in the sciences and humanities. Boasting one of the biggest and most beautiful campuses in Japan, the university houses cutting-edge research facilities, a university hospital, and a wide variety of field research centers.



MITOC HONDRIA COME TOGETHER TO KILL CANCER CELLS Uncovered details of a molecular pathway in cancer cells could lead to improved treatment.


Dispersed mitochondria (top) aggregated when Arf6 was disrupted (bottom) in a cancer cell, leading to excessive production of reactive oxygen species.

Targeting a pathway that controls the movement of mitochondria, the powerhouses of all cells, could reduce cancer invasiveness and resistance to radiotherapy. A team led by Hisataka Sabe and Yasuhito Onodera, members of Hokkaido University’s Global Station for Quantum Medical Science and Engineering, studied the molecules involved in mitochondrial movements within highly invasive breast cancer cells. They identified a pathway that ultimately leads to the dispersion of these energy-generating organelles towards the cells’ periphery, increasing cancer invasiveness. When this pathway was blocked, mitochondria aggregated within the cell’s centre, where they started overproducing and leaking reactive oxygen species (ROS)—unstable oxygen-containing molecules. ROS are known to enhance cancer invasiveness; but in excessive amounts, they can lead to cancer cell death. Mitochondria are known to relocate within the cellular cytoplasm when different types of cells move. For example, they gather at the tail end of white blood cells moving toward a foreign invader, and at the leading edge of invading cancer cells. An adhesion protein on the cell surface, called integrin, is also known to promote cancer invasiveness. The mechanisms lying behind these movements, however, are still not fully understood. Some treatments, including ionizing radiation, increase the production of ROS within cancer cells, contributing to their anticancer effects. But some cancer cells develop a tolerance to ROS that allows them to handle more of them. The researchers wanted to investigate mito-

chondrial movements within cancer cells; and the relation between those movements on the one hand, and integrin and ROS on the other, both of which are also involved in cancer invasion. In the study published in Nature Communications, the team tagged a variety of molecules inside invasive breast cancer cells with fluorescent compounds to follow mitochondrial movements and ROS production. They then blocked key molecules that are involved in invasiveness. They found that a molecular pathway that facilitates the recycling of integrin within the cell, called Arf6-AMP1-PRKD2, also facilitates the localization of mitochondria. Integrin accumulation leads to the formation of an adhesion complex at the cell membrane, which ultimately induces trafficking of mitochondria to the cell periphery. Disrupting this pathway led to the aggregation of mitochondria near the cell centre, reducing cancer cell invasiveness. During the experiment, the team also directly modified the mitochondrial distribution, finding that mitochondrial aggregation by itself leads to the production of excessive ROS, resulting in cancer cell death. These findings suggest that the pathway favouring mitochondrial dispersal makes cancer cells more resistant to treatments that try to kill the cell by increasing reactive oxygen species production. According to the researchers, their findings indicate “a novel molecular link between cell movements and mitochondrial dynamics, which appears to be crucial for both the invasive activity and tolerance to reactive oxygen species of highly invasive cancers. Our findings may also lead to novel strategies to improve the efficacy of reactive oxygen species-mediated cancer therapies, such as ionizing radiation.”

Credit: Onodera Y., et al., Nature Communications, July 11, 2018

Sr Asst Professor Yasuhito Onodera | E-mail: Faculty of Medicine Hokkaido University

Professor Hisataka Sabe | E-mail: Faculty of Medicine Hokkaido University

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GENE REGULATOR GOES TO TOWN IN LIVER CANCER Hepatocellular carcinoma diagnosis, prognosis and treatment could improve by identifying a closely associated protein.

Analysing the levels of a protein, called TonEBP, could provide valuable insight into the likelihood of recurrence of hepatocellular carcinoma, an aggressive cancer of the liver, following its surgical removal. Drugs that target TonEBP could also be investigated for liver cancer treatment. Tonicity-responsive enhancer-binding protein (TonEBP) helps protect cells from stress, but also elevates the expression of pro-inflammatory genes in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Several studies have demonstrated that it also enhances tumour cell migration. But its role in tumour development and progression is unknown. Physiologist Hyug Moo Kwon of Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and colleagues in South Korea studied

types of gene mutations involved. In fact, TonEBP was more prevalent than any other molecular marker used to detect hepatocellular carcinoma. They also found that higher tumour TonEBP expression was associated with larger tumour size, advanced tumour grade, recurrence and its migration to other parts of the body, thus acting as a useful tool in predicting hepatocellular carcinoma prognosis. TonEBP’s role in hepatocellular carcinoma is linked to its involvement in inflammation, the researchers explain. When damaged liver tissue from a virus or alcohol, for example, becomes inflamed, liver fibrosis ensues, followed by cell death and compensatory proliferation of liver cells, and eventually cancer. TonEBP expression increases during the inflammatory phase, stimulating the expression of an enzyme, called cyclo-oxygenase-2, that leads to

Credit: woodoo007 | 123r

LIVER CANCER REACHES JAW IN RARE CASE Researchers at Universiti Teknologi MARA reported in the journal Medicine a rare case of hepatocellular carcinoma cells migrating from the liver and settling in the jawbone and shoulder blade of a 61-year-old man.

UNIST Professor Hyug Moo Kwon (standing) and Jun Ho Lee, lead paper author. Credit: Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology



completely removed cancerous tissues from almost 300 liver tumour patients. They also conducted experiments on mice that were deficient in TonEBP, and on cultured liver cancer cell lines. They found elevated expression of TonEBP in the tumour tissue of more than 90% of the patients studied. This is remarkable, the researchers say, given that hepatocellular carcinoma is a very diverse cancer in terms of its causative agents, the tumour architecture, how the cancer tissues look under the microscope, and the Further information

the production of prostaglandin E2, a hormone-like compound that promotes tumour formation and progression. Targeting TonEBP could be an attractive strategy to prevent the development, spread and recurrence of hepatocellular carcinoma, the researchers conclude in their study published in the journal Gut. “We are currently investigating the role played by TonEBP in the recurrence of liver cancer, as well as in chemotherapy resistance,” says Kwon.

Professor Hyug Moo Kwon | E-mail: School of Life Sciences Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology

Cancerous metastasis to the mouth is rare, accounting for only 1% to 4% of all mouth cancers. Only 70 cases of metastases in the jawbone from hepatocellular carcinoma, an aggressive liver cancer, have been reported in the scientific literature. Most mouth metastases are associated with lung cancer, but there was no evidence of lung involvement in this particular case. Metastasis to the shoulder blade is even more unusual. The doctors believe the cancerous cells migrated from the liver to the jawbone and shoulder blade by bypassing a common vascular route that goes through the lungs, and instead taking another route involving the blood vessels that surround the vertebrae. Ahmad Bakhtiar Md Radzi E-mail: Internal Medicine Universiti Teknologi MARA

MEDICINE A lens developed by optometrists in Hong Kong can delay the progression of short-sightedness in children.

A specially designed spectacle lens slowed down the progress of short-sightedness in a group of children by 60%, and halted it completely in one-fifth of them. The ‘defocus incorporated multiple segments (DIMS) spectacle lens’—designed by optometrists Carly Lam and To Chiho of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and research collaborator Hoya Corporation—offers a solution for short-sighted children for whom contact lenses are not appropriate. Short-sightedness occurs when the eyeball is too long relative to the focusing

power of the eye’s cornea and lens. Light focuses in front of the retina rather than on it, making distant objects appear blurry. The DIMS lens eliminates blurriness by containing a central optical zone that corrects refractive error. But it goes a step further, seeking to prevent the condition from worsening. The central zone is surrounded by multiple micro-lenses that extend toward the lens’s periphery. These lenses cause the eye to experience defocus when it looks through them, and this extra ‘work’ actually helps slow or even stop the lengthening of the eyeball, To explains. To test the DIMS’s effectiveness, 160 short-sighted Chinese children aged 8 to 13 participated in a three-year trial. The eyeball lengths of children using the lens

increased less than those who didn’t use it. Eyeballs completely stopped lengthening in 21.5% of the children using the lens, while lengthening stopped in only 7.4% of children not using the lens. The children in the treatment group reported that the DIMS spectacle lens was comfortable, allowed good vision at short and long distances, and good depth perception. Severe cases of short-sightedness can cause retinal detachment, which sometimes leads to permanent blindness or visual impairment. “The DIMS spectacle lens helps safeguard children’s vision,” Lam says. Launched commercially in the summer of 2018, the DIMS lens won several awards at the 46th International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2018.


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Credit: Kian Khoon Tan | 123rf


Spectacle lens designed by PolyU slows myopic progression.

Credit: PolyU

Professor To Chi-ho | E-mail: Head of the School of Optometry The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Professor Carly Lam | E-mail: School of Optometry The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Further information


MEDICINE A new model may help clinicians predict the possibility of death from severe dengue infection.

Researchers in Malaysia have identified two markers, obtained by a simple blood test, that might help with the early detection of mortality risk from severe dengue infection. Such information can help identify those at greatest risk faster, helping clinicians prioritize limited resources. The mosquito-borne dengue infection has been a problem in Malaysia for over a century, but the last few years have witnessed a spike in dengue infections and deaths. While a vaccine for dengue exists, there is no standardized treatment for infection. The most dangerous form of the infection, called severe dengue, often starts like dengue with a flu-like fever, but after a few days, the fever usually drops and life-threatening symptoms develop, such as persistent vomiting, severe bleeding and leakage of blood plasma from capillaries into surrounding tissues. Early detection and access to medical professionals who can help maintain

a patient’s body fluid volume is critical for survival – reducing disease mortality from 20% to less than 1%, according to the World Health Organization. This has prompted a group of scientists from Hospital Kuala Lumpur and Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia to build a model that predicts the possibility of death from severe dengue as early as possible. Physician Saiful Safuan Md Sani, his team at Hospital Kuala Lumpur, and emergency medicine doctor Julina Md Noor reviewed 199 cases of patients diagnosed with severe dengue. They investigated the lab results of their blood samples and came up with 21 possible models to predict the likelihood of death based on different combinations of biological markers. Ultimately, they found that the blood levels of bicarbonate and the liver enzyme alanine transaminase (ALT) were the best indicators for predicting the possibility of death as soon as severe dengue is diagnosed. The team was able to use its findings to develop a mathematical equation that measures

the odds of death based on these two indicators along with age and gender. The next step is to test the model in other populations and regions to validate its accuracy. “To confirm the model’s accuracy, we need to apply this equation in a prospective manner to patients who have not already been diagnosed with severe dengue,” says Md Noor. “Early identification of at-risk patients will alert the attending doctors to provide the patient with more vigilant care, such as moving them to the intensive care unit.” During the course of their research, the researchers found that 38.9% of the patients diagnosed with severe dengue still had a fever, which is unusual based on the conventional understanding that severe dengue only develops after the fever breaks. Interestingly, patients who were diagnosed during the fever stage were more likely to survive than those who developed symptoms later. The importance of timing of severe dengue onset also needs to be further explored, the researchers note.


Did you know?

75% of people affected by dengue live in Asia.

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Further information

Dr Saiful Safuan Md Sani | E-mail: Internal Medicine Hospital Kuala Lumpur

Credit: Wavebreak Media Ltd | 123rf


SMARTER HEALTH MONITORING A compact sensor noninvasively checks dengue severity and cholesterol at home or in any health care centre.

Professor Fatimah Ibrahim | E-mail: Centre for Innovations in Medical Engineering (CIME) University of Malaya

Further information

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Credit: Sergey Nivens | 123rf


Researchers in Malaysia have designed a portable monitoring system, called SmartMF, that uses tiny electric pulses to help monitor several health conditions, including dengue severity risk and total cholesterol levels. By avoiding the need for collecting blood samples and expensive lab tests, the noninvasive sensor can help reduce healthcare costs while making it easier to closely monitor health changes. Over the past 15 years, biomedical engineer Fatimah Ibrahim and colleagues at the University of Malaya have been studying the relationship between water and fat percentages in the body and various health conditions. Based on those findings, they developed algorithms that use changes in these body composition measurements to indicate cholesterol levels and the severity risk of a patient with dengue fever. They combined their software with a small sensor that measures fat mass and water in the body, and relays the results to a smartphone. The SmartMF system uses bioimpedance analysis (BIA) to measure body composition. Four electrodes are attached to the skin—two on the right foot and ankle and two on the right hand and wrist—which are connected by wires to a small electrical device (8 cm x 4.5 cm x 2 cm). The device sends a minute electric signal to two of the electrodes. This electric current passes quickly through the body’s water content, but finds resistance in fat cells, and the diminished signal is detected by the other two electrodes. The change in voltage of the electric

signal indicates the levels of water and fat in the body. Fatimah and her colleagues have been able to show how a relatively simple measurement like this can correlate to specific health conditions. To do so, they compared BIA measurements to conventional blood tests for 755 people, and found statistically significant correlations. They used this information to develop equations that predict conditions with high levels of accuracy. For example, they took blood samples from 207 patients with dengue, measuring haemoglobin and platelet levels, which indicate if a patient with dengue is showing signs of recovery or of progressing to the more severe stages of the disease. They also took BIA measurements of these same patients, and used the data to develop and then improve their algorithm. The SmartMF system can predict severe dengue risk with more than 95% accuracy compared to regular lab tests, the researchers report in the journal Medical & Biological Engineering & Computing. Similarly, they took blood tests for total cholesterol and BIA measurements of 260 healthy people. Their analysis found that SmartMF can predict if total cholesterol levels in the blood are within a normal range or high with more than 80% accuracy. The team is planning to bring different versions of the SmartMF system to market beginning in 2019. “This is such an exciting field for me as I can apply engineering principles to develop devices that have a meaningful impact on the community,” says Fatimah. “I hope, with SmartMF, we can further enhance healthcare system and quality not just for users in hospitals, but also for the general public to continuously monitor their health.”



INCREASING GENDER IN AN EVOLVING Researchers on the ground in Myanmar are investigating how women can get more involved in policymaking to ensure their voices are heard and needs are met as the nation embraces democracy.

The first openly contested elections since 1988 took place in Myanmar in November 2015. As this melting pot of cultures and traditions becomes a democratic nation, challenges remain around gender inequality, informed decision-making, and establishing peace among the country’s 135 different tribes and ethnic groups. The


Government of Canada and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have jointly funded five local research projects in Myanmar, all aimed at understanding how to effectively boost women’s roles, voices and access to re-

sources during this transition. These projects will be ongoing in collaboration with international research partners until 2020. Despite the resounding victory of Myanmar’s female leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, women’s representation in national, subnational and community governance remains low. While it rose from less than 5% in 2015 to more than 10% in 2016, there are still varying social and cultural norms across ethnic groups that bar women from taking leadership roles. Two of the local organizations, Gender Equality Network (GEN) and The Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (MIID), are both researching barriers and identifying pathways to political power, aiming to address problems in culturally sensitive ways. Gender Equality Network is working with Thailand’s Asian Institute of Technology and Canada’s McGill University to understand the factors that influence women’s and men’s opportunities and motivations to participate in politics at all levels in Myanmar. The group’s research will pay close attention to the pathways to participation, and try to identify what life experiences enable women and men to enter politics; and once involved, how they are promoted to more senior positions. They will also investigate how male and female politicians prioritize issues and think about leadership. “Very few studies have looked at women’s political participation in Myanmar, and

those that have focus on the top tiers of politics, failing to take into account progress made by women from less privileged backgrounds. Our team is attempting to fill some of the knowledge gaps,” says May Sabe Phyu, a human rights activist who heads GEN. In Shan State, May Pannchi, research coordinator at MIID, is conducting household surveys among seven ethnic groups to identify indicators that affect women’s economic and political participation at the grassroots level. Questions around women’s livelihoods, decision-making power within the household, and their perceptions about economic and political participation will be asked, and findings will be fed back to participating communities. “Women should be empowered in every sector,” Pannchi says. “More than half of our population is formed of women and we need to increase their capacities for economic and political involvement so that the country can develop and grow sustainably.”


Within government, there is a low level of awareness regarding the different needs of male and female citizens. Researchers at the Myanmar Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS) are focused on collecting high quality data on female and male citizens’ preferences for how budgets should be allocated in Myanmar. Credit: Wong Yu Liang | 123rf


Further information

Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar Initiative International Development Research Centre E-mail:

May Pannchi Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development E-mail:




Khin Ma Ma Myo, founder and director of the institute, and her colleagues, are developing an interactive budget app that encourages study participants to carefully consider trade-offs in their choices, revealing part of their thought processes and priorities. They will examine factors that feed into differences in budget preferences, such as family structure and control of household resources, as well as local and community gender customs. “We are the first researchers to use a tablet-based budget app in this way. We hope not only to deliver better data on budget preferences, but also to inspire researchers in and out of Myanmar to adopt a similar approach,” Myo says. Typically, studies show that females give higher priority to health and education and males to transportation. But the study will avoid putting people into gendered boxes, and the team will pay attention to more nuanced variables. Their data will inform policymakers on how different groups of citizens prefer to see the country’s resources distributed. Funding allocations could help address gender inequality issues, the researchers note. For example, increasing provisions for public utilities, such as water supply and household electricity, could free up time spent collecting water and firewood, allowing women to do paid work, study or leisure activities.

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Continued next page Khin Ma Ma Myo Myanmar Institute of Gender Studies E-mail:

May Sabe Phyu Gender Equality Network E-mail:

Further information


PEOPLE Continued from page 27


yse how women in government positions can achieve positive change is by fosterDespite recent progress, Myanmar overseeing these programs influence how ing a research culture among leaders. remains divided with areas of conflict those needs are met. Regaining women’s EMReF provides training to sub-naand tension between ethnic and tribal trust in police and security forces after tional parliaments engaging with both groups. One in five people in Myanmar years of sexual violence remains a signifi- male and female members to improve lives in a conflict-affected area, notes Min cant challenge. The team is working to un- understanding of evidence-based policy. Zaw Oo, academic and peace negotiator, derstand how that might be achieved, and Their work attempts to challenge policywho founded the Myanmar Institute for what roles women can play to strengthen making based on the personal and politPeace and Security (MIPS). Operating security in ethnic minority states. ical interests of the decision makers, and as a start-up, MIPS is small and instead promote decision-making agile, which allows it to find innobased on independent research. vative ways to improve lives. Oo In doing so, the think tank aims to describes the institute as a “think improve the country’s research and do tank”. culture as a whole. As the government works to EMReF is also investigating negotiate agreements among Myanmar’s political landscape factions, MIPS provides technical more broadly, including how support to negotiators, including Myanmar’s traditionally patriarin-depth conflict analysis with chal social structure inhibits womnear-time situational updates en’s access to running for office, and analysis, as well as policy recexisting voter bias against female ommendations to mitigate the candidates, and equal access to severity of conflicts. The group is justice. Myat Thet Thitsar, CEO of Palaung woman weaving a conducting research to advise the EMReF says, “We want to see the scarf in Keng Tung, Myanmar. most effective path forward for new generation living in a society Credit: Myanmar Journalism Institute (Ricky) disarmament, demobilisation and free from armed conflicts and reintegration of citizens who have been CULTURE OF RESEARCH embracing the intrinsic values of human active in conflict. While much of the democratization beings.” To help maximize the benefits of peace process hinges on establishing peace, Did you know? for women, the team is investigating how some are working to nurture social and Men in Myanmar are twice as local governments can provide healthcare, political order through research. The Enlikely as women to engage in education and security services tailored lightened Myanmar Research Foundation paid work. to meet women’s needs. They will anal- (EMReF) believes that one way women


Researchers survey women and men about their priorities for government spending in Myanmar.

As of 2017, women held about 20% of elected and appointed positions across all levels of government in Myanmar, including the military. Only 1.5% of senior civil service positions are held by women, and only 0.1% of village administrators are women, according to data from Myanmar Information Management Unit.

Credit: Zwe La Pyae


Further information

Credit: Wong Yu Liang | 123rf

Min Zaw Oo Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security E-mail:

Myat Thet Thitsar Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation E-mail:


LEARNING LIFE OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM A multi-generational learning programme shows Hong Kong university students can learn much from older people in the community.

Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) is exploring how to enrich education beyond the classroom by encouraging university students to interact with older adults in the community. Educators theorize that an intergenerational learning environment that nurtures interpersonal communication and inspires self-inspection can ultimately lead to a more wholesome education. This sort of programme can benefit older adults as well. “We wanted to address a societal need to keep older adults in the community active, and an educational need to broaden student knowledge and raise social awareness,” says Atara Sivan, who heads the Department of Education Studies at HKBU. “In doing so, we hope to reduce the generational gap that has been forming in Hong Kong society.” The learning group was designed as a ‘community of practice’ (CoP): a group of people who work together to improve

their understanding of a shared interest or passion, in this case about healthy living and community involvement. The group included high school and university students, university staff and professionals, and older adults from a community centre. At the end of the first year, analyses of individual and group interviews, student bimonthly reflection journal entries, and notes from meetings were conducted to assess the project’s progress. The researchers reported their observations in the Learning Communities Journal. Although faculty guided the formation of the group, a key to the project’s success was the rotation of leadership of group activities among the students, who organically improved their leadership skills as teams assisted and learned from each other. They were able to incorporate collective input from faculty into their plans, rather than simply following advice or instructions. University students were given a degree of autonomy as they mentored high school participants in planning activities, and this served to improve self-confidence and promote a sense of project ownership.

The older adults reported that they learned skills related to exercise and craftwork, such as making bags. It was during these activities that students had the opportunity to interact and converse with the older adults. These interactions helped the students see that other viewpoints can help them succeed in life just as much as what they learn in school. Students came to understand that university classes are only one kind of education, and that they can learn a lot from the experiences of people who never attended college. As one student put it, “[the older adults] know a lot and they taught us how to approach things in life. Those were really useful lessons… The project provided an opportunity for me to learn about different things—not only history, but also [the older adults’] views, attitudes to life, how they view us and the universities and so forth. Learning about their views is something I deem most valuable for me.” Additional funding has enabled the programme to expand, providing opportunities for more university students to develop their leadership skills.

ASIA RESEA RC H N EWS 201 9 Credit: Faculty of Social Sciences, Hong Kong Baptist University

Professor Vicky Tam | E-mail: Education Studies Hong Kong Baptist University

Professor Atara Sivan | E-mail: Education Studies Hong Kong Baptist University

Further information



THE PATIENCE Studying the tiniest particles in the universe requires constructing detectors capable of tracking them; a process that needs a lot of patience and just the right amount of glue.

A team from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU) completed the fourth and most outer layer of the Silicon Vertex Detector (SVD) in May 2018. This layer consists of 16 delicate panels, called ladders, that will pinpoint the locations of scattered particles from an electron and positron collision inside a particle accelerator with 35-micron accuracy. Such

precision is essential for detecting particles potentially new to science. If they exist, they will appear in the sensitive detector in precise locations unpredicted by current theories. Experimental physicists smash particles together at very high speeds in order to study the most fundamental properties of matter that govern everything from subatomic particles to the largest galaxy. But unlike many researchers in Europe or the US who collaborate with engineers to make detectors, Kavli IMPU physicist Takeo Higuchi says Japanese researchers tend to do the majority of detector-building themselves.

“We want to do the physics, and that is why we made this detector,� he said. The construction of the SVD took six years. Why so long? "It's simply very, very difficult," Higuchi said. A finished ladder is roughly 70 cm long, and is assembled from silicon sensors. These sensors are lined with electrodes called strips. When a particle passes through a sensor, the strip closest to its point of contact sends out an electric signal. For the detector to work without fault, it requires clear-cut wire bonding and just the right amount of glue. Too much glue and it could seep out over the electrodes.

Credit: Belle II Collaboration / Kavli IPMU

ASIA RE SEA RC H N EWS 201 9 Credit: Belle II Collaboration / Kavli IPMU


Further information

Associate Professor Takeo Higuchi | E-Mail: Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe University of Tokyo


OF PHYSICISTS Too little and the ladder could fall apart. This alone took two years to perfect, plus an additional two years to assemble a ladder with good mechanical precision. The ladders are then arranged in a lantern shape, completely enveloping the interaction area inside the particle accelerator to ensure the detection of all particles that result from a collision. The gap between two ladders at any point is less than one millimetre, and the distance between two sensors is a mere 100 microns, meaning that, if any ladder is out of line, the sensors risk coming into contact and breaking. Higuchi says developing a good lad-

der was not the most difficult part. It was the final two years of making 19 of them (16 for the accelerator and three spares). "Making many of the same thing is difficult. Humans forget. Or they get lazy and are tempted to take shortcuts," Higuchi said. To minimize any mistakes, the team wrote down everything they did in a 200-page manual, and constantly added notes. All versions of the manual, which total more than 4,000 pages, are now a precious memento locked away safely at Japan’s High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), where the detector currently resides.

The SVD was made for the international Belle II Experiment, hosted by KEK. The experiment, scheduled to begin data analysis by February 2019, will search for physics unpredicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. Current theories have successfully predicted many phenomena and particles, but they do not give an explanation for the nature or identity of dark matter and dark energy, which makes up most of the universe. Finding new physics that helps solve those mysteries would help move us closer to explaining nothing less than the origin of the universe.

Credit: Belle II Collaboration


Takeo Higuchi tests electrical quality (topleft) to build one delicate panel, called a ladder (left), of the Silicon Vertex Detector (above). Sixteen panels precisely arranged in a lantern shape will detect the position of scattered particles from high-energy collisions with extremely high accuracy. The manuals (background) describing how to build the detector number more than 4,000 pages.

Credit: Kavli IPMU


S PAC E Images of more than ten million galaxies are helping physicists map dark matter, revealing clues about how the universe behaves.

Combining Einstein's theory of relativity with one of the most powerful telescopes in the world has helped an international team of researchers measure where and how dark matter structures grow in the universe. Their analysis suggests cosmic structures might be evolving more slowly than previously predicted.

existence of black holes, and the bending of light from distant stellar objects. If cosmologists confirm that the observed universe is evolving more slowly than the theory predicts, it would mean an entire branch of physics has not yet been discovered. Dark matter is responsible for the formation of galaxies, and dark energy is responsible for accelerating the ongoing expansion of the universe. Together, they make up 95 percent of the universe. Mapping the density of dark matter in today's universe and reconstructing his-

Suprime-Cam (HSC) Survey. This 870 megapixel camera, attached to the 8.2 metre Subaru telescope at the summit of Maunakea, Hawaii, surveys the sky, drawing a detailed map of the universe. It is enabling researchers to study galaxies billions of light years from Earth. These galaxies existed billions of years ago, but their light is only reaching Earth today, making it possible for researchers to study the universe from its infancy. Using the information from these images, the researchers were able to make

MAPPING HISTORICAL CHANGES IN DARK MATTER A team led by the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe constructed a map of dark matter throughout the history of the universe by analysing images of more than ten million galaxies. The results appear to challenge current understanding of the fundamental laws of physics. “If further data shows we’re definitely right, then it suggests something is missing from our current understanding of the Standard Model and the general theory of relativity,” says physicist Chiaki Hikage. According to Einstein's general theory of relativity, gravity warps space and time. To date, this theory has successfully predicted the expansion of the universe, the

torical maps of dark matter going back 13 billion years could help study changes in dark matter over time. Such a comparison could also elucidate how dark energy has influenced dark matter’s growth in the universe. Dark matter is not visible, but its effects can be seen on the shape of galaxies. Since the gravity of all matter, including invisible dark matter, bends the path of light, far away galaxies appear distorted to observers on Earth. Researchers can calculate how the dark matter is distributed in the universe through the distortions of galaxies. Hikage and his team analysed images of ten million galaxies from the Hyper

Credit: HSC Project



Further information

Project Assistant Professor Chiaki Hikage | E-mail: Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe University of Tokyo

the most detailed three-dimensional map of dark matter in the universe to date. The map was consistent with past studies. However, it also suggests cosmic structures might be evolving more slowly than predicted by other research teams. Hikage explains that more data is needed. “With a little more work, if we can get better accuracy, we might be able to find something concrete. This is a big motivating factor for me.” The researchers will continue to analyse more HSC Survey data, bringing them closer to discovering whether science needs to rewrite its rules about the universe.


Credit: HSC Project/UTokyo

(Above Left) The 3-dimensional dark matter map of the universe inferred from one of the six HSC observation areas is shown in the background with various shades of blue (brighter areas have more dark matter). The map was inferred from the distortions of shapes of galaxies in the HSC data which are indicated by white sticks. The stick lengths represent the amount of distortion and the angle of the stick corresponds to the direction of the distortion. (Above Right) The measurements are enabled by the light from distant galaxies that travels through the universe and gets deflected by matter at different epochs in the universe, before reaching the Subaru telescope.


Credit: (Composite) Rostislav Zatonskiy & Luis Manuel Tapia Bolivar | 123rf

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Check out the short "HSC Mass Map" video from Kavli IMPU showing a 3D map of how mass, including dark matter, is distributed throughout the universe. Like this still shot shows, the areas with more mass are represented by brighter red and yellow colours, and less mass represented by blue and black.


Something new in peer-review education. Announcing ACS Reviewer LabTM, a free online course from ACS Publications, designed to educate researchers on the fundamentals of peer review featuring six modules and interactive exercises.


TEC HNOLOGY The ability of thermoelectric materials to convert heat into electricity has been more than doubled. This could help reduce the amount of wasted heat, and thus wasted fossil fuel, in daily activities and industries.

Researchers from Hokkaido University and colleagues in Japan and Taiwan have improved the ability of thermoelectric materials to transform wasted heat into usable electricity by significantly narrowing the space through which spread electrons move. More than 60% of energy produced by fossil fuels is lost as waste heat. One way to address this problem is to convert the wasted heat into electricity using thermoelectric materials. But improving the conversion rate has been difficult. Thermoelectric materials convert heat into electricity when there is a temperature difference; a phenomenon known as the Seebeck effect. Scientists have been investigating ways to confine electrons to a

narrow space to enhance conversion rates. In 2007, researchers built an artificial superlattice composed of ultrathin conducting layers sandwiched between thick insulating layers. This yielded higher voltage but did not improve conversion rates. Researchers have predicted that performance can be significantly improved if widely spread electrons are confined into a very thin conducting layer. But this had not yet been proven experimentally. The research team, led by Hiromichi Ohta of Hokkaido University, designed a superlattice in which electrons are spread 30% further apart than in previous experiments. This resulted in much higher voltage and doubled the thermoelectric conversion rate recorded from previous methods. “This is a significant step toward reducing the amount of heat wasted by power plants, factories, automobiles, computers, and even human bodies,� says Ohta. The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Credit: solarseven | 123rf



Spread electrons are confined to a narrow space within a superlattice to enhance thermoelectric conversion.

Credit: Hokkaido University

Professor Hiromichi Ohta | E-mail: Research Institute for Electronic Science Hokkaido University

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Dr Sidharthan Raghuraman works on the Modified Chemical Vapor Deposition (MCVD) system, which is used for the fabrication of optical fibre preform. Credit: COFT

SINGAPORE’S FOR PRACTICAL From air-conditioned clothing to cancer screening tools, the Centre for Optical Fibre Technology (COFT) is paving the way for a light-based future.



Fibre optics—strands of transparent glass or plastic, thinner than a human hair—have long fascinated scientists and engineers. Extremely flexible and able to carry light over large distances, optical fibres have enabled breakthroughs in communications and data transfer. But the applications don’t stop there. The Centre for Optical Fibre Technology (COFT) in Singapore is exploring diverse ways to use optical fibres: from cancer screening and materials processing to wearable technology. Founded in 2014, COFT is the newest of five centres, collectively dubbed The Photonics Institute, based at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. The institute’s main mission is to translate fundamental research about technol-

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ogies based on light photons, a field known as photonics, into next-generation devices. COFT is home to Singapore’s first fibre-drawing tower, a key tool for manufacturing new fibre designs. Staff use this and other tools to fabricate the whole range of optical fibres, from passive and active silica fibres, to soft glass and polymer fibres. Having all of the necessary equipment on-site means that designs can be realized quickly and readily optimized. Take, for example, one of COFT’s early success stories: a kilowatt-class fibre laser system, built to deliver a high power optical beam, which the team developed from scratch within two years. The flexible form of a laser based on optical fibres makes it a versatile tool for robot-led industrial applications such as drilling or welding. Also, fibre lasers can be less susceptible to knocks or vibration, as the fibre integrates key laser elements,

Assistant Professor Wei Lei | E-mail: Centre for Optical Fibre Technology Nanyang Technological University

such as mirrors and amplifying material, that would otherwise need to be carefully aligned. “Presently we are working with high power fibre laser systems operating at one and two micron wavelengths. But in the longer term we aim to cover the entire spectrum from ultraviolet to mid-infrared,” says Wenn Jing Lai, one of COFT’s three senior programme directors. The more wavelengths that are available, the wider the range of materials that can be laser-machined, which includes surface treatments as well as precision cutting. Examples include metals, plastics, glasses and also biomaterials such as teeth or bone. Now that they have a demonstration unit up and running, Lai and her colleagues are searching for industrial collaborators to explore applications in more detail. She is particularly excited about the prospects of using fibre lasers to enable additive manufacturing or 3D


SMART HUB PHOTONICS printing, which would open the door to rapid prototyping and custom manufacturing for a wide range of industries, from defence to medical devices.



means that developers are needing to get smarter and find new ways of increasing bandwidth. Photonics is a major enabling technology, with high speed integrated optical circuits beginning to replace slower electronic circuits at data centres. Novel optical fibres could also play a big role in supporting larger amounts of data traffic, explains Lei Wei, director of COFT. Using COFT’s suite of fabrication tools, his group is constructing ultra-compact multicore designs that feature multiple strands of optical material drawn down into a diameter no bigger than today’s single core—or single stranded—fibres. “Currently, we can successfully integrate up to seven cores—or strands— without sacrificing the thickness of the fibre,” he comments. “That means we can enlarge the data transmission capability seven-fold with a single fibre.”

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One of the most well known applications for optical fibres is telecommunications, which today involves the transmission of mind-boggling amounts of digital information around the globe. Rising demand for data-hungry services such as streaming high definition video

Credit: COFT


Fibre optics are also well-suited for sensing inside the body as they can be deployed without having to make large incisions in the skin. By teaming up with clinicians, COFT researchers can engineer solutions that are well matched to patient needs. For example, a surgeon at Singapore General Hospital approached COFT about developing a fibre optic device to detect a form of pancreatic cancer called pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma. “Right now there is almost no way to detect it at early stage development,” says Linbo Liu, who heads up the centre’s medical fibre programme. “We hope to design a fibre optic device to

deliver light into the pancreas to classify cancerous lesions much earlier than is possible today.” Based on reflected light gathered at the end of a fibre inserted into the body, the team is prototyping a system to differentiate between normal tissue, low grade cancer and cancer of a higher grade. More generally, the delivery of diagnostic light through small and flexible fibres could help surgeons scan suspicious areas and locate lesions in various sites in the body, such as in the stomach, colon and oesophagus.

Ms Jing Zhang, a PhD student in COFT, fabricates multi-functional fibres for high-tech clothing.

Continued next page Credit: danciaba | 123rf


TEC HNOLOGY Continued from page 37


Like all staff at the centre, Wei has a broad vision for the future of optical fibres and the possibilities that different material formats bring, which includes using fibre optics to advance wearable technology. “Commercially available wearable devices such as smart watches are typically treated as accessories,” says Wei. “They are an optional part of our daily life, but the angle we are taking is to consider them a necessary part.” His group is exploiting the textile nature of optical fibres to construct hightech clothing that can sense the wearer’s heartbeat or temperature distribution. Most recently, the scientists have been using thermoelectric fibres to generate an active cooling effect that equates to a temperature drop of around 6°C. Future products based on the concept could include air conditioning T-shirts powered by fibre-shaped batteries.


THE FATHER OF FIBRE OPTICS Charles Kuen Kao (1933–2018) was an engineer who is regarded as the father of fibre optics. His work in the 1960s on longdistance signal transmission using very pure glass fibres revolutionized telecommunications, enabling innovations such as the Internet. Kao shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009 for this achievement. Born in Shanghai, he lived and worked in Hong Kong, the UK, Europe and the US, including at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory and The Chinese University of Hong Kong.




Bringing such a wide range of projects under one US$3.6 million facility is a key part of the centre’s blueprint for success. Researchers are encouraged to collaborate with each other and partner with organizations from all over the world, such as the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore, Harvard Medical School in the US, the University of Southampton in the UK, and Max Plank Institutes in Germany. The centre has hosted numerous visiting scientists to join forces with its 50 or so researchers and students since opening its doors. “Today we are working with many experts in different parts of the world; collaborating with some of the best institutes in our field,” explains Perry Shum, the centre’s founding director. It’s this passion for a collaborative environment, combined with the tools enabling rapid exploration of new ideas, that is elevating COFT’s reputation as an important hub for photonics development. By innovating bespoke solutions based on optical fibres, Shum, Wei and their colleagues hope to make valuable contributions to a world increasingly transformed by photonics.

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Credit: The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Assistant Professor Wei Lei | E-mail: Centre for Optical Fibre Technology Nanyang Technological University

Charles Kao doing an early experiment on optical fibres at the Standard Telecommunications Laboratory, United Kingdom.

Credit: danciaba | 123rf

Life Photonics Using light-based technologies for a sustainable future.

At Hamamatsu, we believe that light holds the key to industrial creativity. Photonic technologies promise a wide variety of applications and will generate new industries in the fields of health, energy, environmental resources, and communications.

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Bonding microfluidics • MicroTAS biochip • Lab-on-a-chip devices Since bonding is carried out by surface activation using light, it does not damage materials, it helps downsize equipment, reduces its cost, simplifies processes, and allows bonding only at the desired position. [This technique can be applied to various materials of microfluidic devices.]

Photomuliplier tubes (PMT), multi-pixel photon counter – si photomultipliers (MPPC), avalanche photodiodes (APD) and PIN PDs are capable of low-light-level detection. They convert light into electrical signals adaptable to various kinds of applications, including extremely weak fluorescence or luminescence measurements. They offer diverse device characteristics and shapes, in addition to analog or digital outputs. PMT Readout circuit Opera�ng voltage Gain Amplifier Temperature sensi�vity Response �me

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INVISIBLE NANOFILM ENABLES ON-SCREEN FINGERPRINT DETECTION A transparent, flexible smartphone sensor also measures skin temperature and tactile pressure, which could combat fingerprint forgery and make mobile devices even more compact.


Fingerprints have become a popular password alternative for mobile devices, but accommodating the hardware necessary for biometric-enabled privacy can be a headache for designers. Developers are keen to maximize screen size in relation to the rest of the device, which makes integrating fingerprint readers into smaller products, such as smart watches, a big challenge. Researchers in Korea may have found a solution: an on-screen detector featuring an invisible network of nanofibres that can be placed over a portion of the display. Because the ultrathin fingerprint reader is sensitive to tactile pressure and skin temperature, the design could boost security by distinguishing between real and artificial fingerprints. The sensor, called a transparent capacitive detector, was developed by a team of engineers led by Jang-Ung Park and Franklin Bien at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea. To fabricate the detector, scientists deposited a small quantity of highly conductive, ultra-long, silver nanofibres and fine silver nanowires onto a flexible plastic film separated by thin insulating layers. The porous nano-networks allow light to easily pass through, which is essential for preserving the optical characteristics of the host display beneath them. The fibres are also mechanically strong, remaining intact when the plastic films are folded or curved. Patterned to create a fingertip-sized matrix of 80 x 80 detection points, the crisscross of nanofibre strips registers a fingerprint (ridges and valleys in skin pressed up against the screen) based on

the capacitance at each node in the sensor array. Additional active elements include a thin film of temperature-sensitive molecules and a layer of pressure-sensitive silicone elastomers, which provide further outputs from the unit. The spatial resolution of the sensor array is sufficient to satisfy criteria set by the FBI for extracting fingerprint patterns, the team reports in the journal Nature Communications. The pressure sensitivity

Credit: onyxprj | 123rf

exhibited by the design could potentially eliminate the need for an activation button on smartphones, leading to further device miniaturization. Having demonstrated the feasibility of on-screen fingerprint detection, the team is now gearing up for mass production and hopes to see its ideas incorporated into devices in the near future, explains Park, who is now at Yonsei University. Credit: Novi Elysa | 123rf


Further information

Associate Professor Jang-Ung Park | E-mail: School of Materials Science and Engineering Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology

Associate Professor Franklin Bien | E-mail: School of Electrical Engineering Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology


Credit: thelightwriter | 123rf

CARS ‘SEE’ PEOPLE USING ENHANCED RADAR Concepts for boosting WiFi coverage could also help car sensors distinguish walking pedestrians from other slowly moving objects.

The MIMO configuration provided a clear distinction between different kinds of approaching targets, while there was a degree of overlap in the data during the SISO experiments. The finding indicates MIMO-enhanced Doppler estimation could improve automotive detection schemes. If fitted to a typical car, this enhanced radar system could alert drivers to pedestrians in the process of crossing the road while obscured by parked vehicles. The researchers plan to develop a working prototype of the MIMO-based automotive radar technology and then use it to take real-time measurements of various obstacles on the road, including pedestrians. Numerous outdoor trials are vital to train computers to distinguish between pedestrians and vehicles so they can accurately alert drivers of regular cars, and even self-driving cars, to make precise decisions.


Multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) concepts that have improved WiFi coverage around homes and offices could also benefit automotive radar, as demonstrated by researchers in Malaysia and Japan. Instead of using a single emitter and collector to send and receive information, MIMO-based designs feature an array of transmitters and detectors. The configuration generates a much richer data set of digital signals for computers to process. So how does this help vehicle sensing? Radar can travel around objects that would ordinarily block a driver’s line of sight. It is also much less affected by bad weather, such as fog, compared to camera-based systems. But one area where automotive radar can fall short is resolution, which can lead to confusion in distinguishing between walking pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles. This is where MIMO fits in.

Scientists from Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia and Tokyo Denki University in Japan compared the performance of a single input single output (SISO) Doppler radar with a MIMObased radar. Both types detected moving targets by sensing a Doppler shift in the frequency of emitted pulses and reflected signals bouncing off objects in motion. Advancing objects produce a positive shift in frequency, and targets heading away from the detector can be identified by negative changes in the reflected signals. But thanks to the richer data set, MIMO measurements produced much thicker Doppler lines across the recorded spectrogram than SISO measurements. The MIMO bands contained Doppler shifts, indicating the overall velocity of a target, and so-called micro-Doppler signatures; seen, for example, when walking pedestrians swing their arms. The thicker the line, the easier it is for the radar system to interpret these signatures correctly.

Credit: Mykhailo Bokovan | 123rf

Dr Idnin Pasya | E-mail: Microwave Research Institute Universiti Teknologi MARA

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Nanopapers could pave the way for development of paper-thin electronics.

Recent progress in understanding how nanopaper effectively conducts heat shows its potential as a transparent, cooling material for flexible electronics, according to a review published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials.

components such as conductive films and foldable solar cells. Until recently, a standardized method for measuring heat conductivity in 2D materials was lacking, making it difficult to know how effectively heat travels in nanopaper. Heat travels in 2D materials in two directions – along their length, which is called ‘in-plane’, and through their thickness, called ‘through-plane’. Both metrics

transparency while enhancing its thermal conductivity. White print papers are not good at staying cool because air within the pulp structure inhibits heat transfer. A team led by Uetani also found that heat conductivity in nanopaper is affected by the size of fibre grains and their orientations. This made them suspect that nanopaper can be designed to carry heat in desired directions. Their experiment showed


that nanopaper strips conducted heat better along the length of the fibres, more so than across or perpendicular to them. Other research found that nanopapers disperse heat well because the material has less thermal resistance between its fibres than other materials, such as carbon nanotubes. One study reported that nanopapers have pores that are generally too small for heat to travel through, which helps direct the heat to move along the fibres themselves. To measure heat conductivity in nanopapers, Uetani’s team used a technique that applies temperature waves to the surface of a 2D material and then checks the temperature response on the backside of the sample. This method is quick, applicable to small samples or highly thermal conducting materials, and allows separate

Nanocellulose, the biopolymers making up plant cell walls, can be used to conduct or transfer heat in desired directions by moving the heat along the length of the plant fibres.

Credit: Kojiro Uetani Credit: Kojiro Uetani

Electronics need a cooling system to diffuse excessive heat and prevent thermal failure, but such systems are normally bulky and unsuitable for thin technologies. Researchers are learning how nanocellulose—the biopolymers making up plant cell walls—could be used to solve this problem. Nanocellulose has various potential applications ranging from electronics to buildings, thanks to its intrinsic high physical strength and heat management properties. Its thin-sheet form, called nanopaper, is an ideal candidate as a cooling material for paper-thin electronic


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need to be measured separately. Kojiro Uetani at Rikkyo University and Kimihito Hatori of plastics company Bethel reviewed studies reporting on the best ways to measure heat conductivity in nanopapers, and comparing nanopaper performance with other materials, such as polymers, composites and papers. The studies find that heat dissipates faster in nanocellulose than in general crystalline polymers, which have a defective structure that obstructs heat transfer. Mixing nanocellulose with composites increases its mechanical properties and

Assistant Professor Kojiro Uetani | E-mail: Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research (ISIR) Osaka University

Nanocellulose fibres are seen using a scanning electron microscope.

measurements along and perpendicular to the sample thickness. Other techniques that have been investigated take a long time, or do not support measurements in both directions, making them less appealing. Further research may reveal other heat management mechanisms hidden in plant-derived material, the reviewers conclude.

Mikiko Tanifuji | E-mail: Science and Technology of Advanced Materials National Institute for Materials Science



Soft robots are made with highly compliant materials such as fluids, gels and polymers so they can mimic functions present in living organisms.

Credit: Suljo | 123rf

3D printing shows potential for fabricating personalized ‘soft’ robotic hands and hearts. But challenges need to be addressed.

Three-dimensional printing offers unique advantages, but still faces many challenges, for fabricating small, flexible robots that can navigate through the human body and other confined spaces, according to a review in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials. Researchers at South Korea’s Jeju National University examined the latest research and developments in fabricating soft robots using 3D printing technologies. Their study concludes that 3D printing is well suited to build robots with complex external shapes and an internally porous structure. Even so, the field is still new and major gaps must be addressed in order to print robots using multiple materials that readily adhere to each other. Soft robots are made with highly compliant materials such as fluids, gels and polymers so they can mimic functions

present in living organisms. In the last few years, there has been a significant trend toward using 3D printing for their manufacturing instead of conventional moulding and casting approaches. Many 3D printing technologies are available. They all convert digital data into three-dimensional objects by adding successive layers of a material until the object is fabricated. The printing technologies use different types of materials and layering approaches. For example, researchers used ‘selective laser sintering’ of powdered metals to develop a multi-finger soft robotic hand that can lift, grip, spin and precisely position objects. Other materials used to 3D print soft robots include dielectric elastomers: polymers that change their size and shape when stimulated by an electric field; shape memory polymers, which change their shape in response to heat; and hydrogels that are affected by a variety of stimuli including heat, electricity, acidity, magnetism and light.

Soft robots are being tested for a variety of purposes inside and outside the human body. For example, a 3D printed soft silicone pump could be used as an artificial heart. 3D printed soft ‘micro-biobots’, which can travel through blood vessels or the gut, are being researched for monitoring diseases. Outside the body, soft robots are being developed for prosthetics, for monitoring vital signs, and for organ-on-a-chip devices that can replace animals in drug testing. But many challenges remain to improve these technologies for clinical use. The materials sometimes shrink during the solidification process, for example. Also, 3D printing is still too slow for mass production. The commercial success of these technologies, the researchers conclude, will depend on developing rapid prototypes that can lead to mass production. Robots must also be inexpensive and satisfy market needs.

Professor Kyung Hyun Choi | E-mail: Department of Mechatronics Engineering Jeju National University

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A novel solar panel tracer is faster, less expensive and more accurate than conventional devices.



Electrical engineers in Malaysia have developed an improved tracer for measuring solar panel performance. The system can be used to detect problems and increase output. Solar photovoltaic (PV) devices are power systems designed to convert light into electricity. Although silicon PV systems are highly reliable, problems inevitably arise. When they do, engineers need fast and accurate ways to detect them. Tracers are tools used to measure ongoing solar PV performance, detect changes over time, and diagnose problems. Tracers measure the electrical current and voltage of a PV system, and the output is usually represented as a current-voltage curve. Researchers from the University of Malaya have invented a new tracer that is faster, cheaper and more accurate than conventional, commercially available devices, and can measure the characteristics of solar panels in real time. The team tested their tracer against a conventional tracer using a simulator. They showed that the new device produced more measurement points, 257 compared to the conventional tracer’s 10,

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providing better insights into PV performance. It also generated the results more quickly, taking just 540 milliseconds to complete a set of measurements whilst the conventional tracer took more than eight seconds. The new tracer uses fewer resistors and switches than conventional tracers to achieve the same smooth current-voltage curve. Solar panels are made of individual units called cells that in turn are clustered into modules. Conventional PV tracers can only measure one module at a time. A major advantage of the new tracer is that it can measure multiple modules simultaneously; a prototype of the new tracer measured 30 modules in just 17 seconds. “Our tracer could be used to alert users to faults or degraded performance in advance, allowing them to provide early maintenance and ensure optimal power output,� says Nasrudin Rahim, an energy professor at the University of Malaya. The researchers recently filed a patent for their tracer in Malaysia and hope to bring the system to market. The tracer will benefit both domestic users, who can check that their solar panels are working efficiently, and scientists, who can use the information to develop new and improved solar cell technology.

Professor Nasrudin Abd Rahim | E-mail: UM Power Energy Dedicated Advanced Centre (UMPEDAC) University of Malaya

Credit: Pansiri Pikunkaew | 123rf

Did you know?

In 2017, Asia accounted for nearly two-thirds of the worldwide increase in renewable energy generating capacity.


INVESTIGATING THE SAFETY OF MYANMAR’S BRIDGES Japanese researchers have investigated a collapsed bridge in Myanmar and surveyed the safety of seven similar bridges across the country.

built in the 1970s or earlier are now showing damage,” says engineer Kohei Nagai from The University of Tokyo. “Japan would like to transfer its knowledge and technologies to developing countries that


On April 1st 2018, two The Myaung Mya Bridge collapsed in April 2018. people were killed when the Myaung Mya Bridge, a 180-meter suspension bridge in Myanmar, collapsed due to severe corrosion of its main cable. Following the incident, the Myanmar government requested assistance with surveying its infrastructure and Credit: UTokyo-IIS devising maintenance plans Monitoring The Twantay Bridge. to prevent future accidents. A team of researchers from the Institute of Industrial Science at The University of Tokyo who had already been working in the country for several years on roads, together with colleagues from Myanmar’s Yangon Technological University, Credit: UTokyo-IIS were called in to help. They investigated the Myaung 3D reconstruction of Twantay Bridge. Mya Bridge collapse site, and surveyed the safety of seven other bridges of similar age and cable-type structure. They found that the primary cause of the Myaung Mya Bridge collapse was water accumulation and Credit: UTokyo-IIS corrosion at the anchorages that secure the main cables at each end, might face similar problems in the future.” The researchers used a combination leading to cables rupturing. “Infrastructure management is a major of the latest technologies, including 3D terrestrial laser scanners and computer issue in Japan because many structures

simulations, to assess the state of the deformation of the bridges and locate any internal structural damage. They combined these tools with basic visual monitoring to observe cracks in large concrete support blocks, and used inclinometers to precisely measure the angle of support structures. They did not find any severe damage in the other seven bridges. However, they did find some maintenance issues that need to be addressed, such as water accumulation at the main cable anchorages and damage to bearings. For example, the researchers surveyed Twantay Bridge, located in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and found that the main anchorage has moved by about 15cm due to soft ground conditions. Despite this, their structural analysis revealed that the main and hanger cables in the bridge have not been affected, so the bridge is currently safe. If the anchorage moves by 45cm or more, however, the main towers could give way. The Ministry of Construction in Myanmar will use the results of this investigation to develop a plan to maintain and improve existing bridges and prevent future accidents. The findings may also inform future maintenance schemes for other Asian countries, many of which are undergoing a period of rapid construction.

Credit: mihtiander | 123rf

Associate Professor Kohei Nagai | E-mail: Institute of Industrial Science The University of Tokyo

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TEC HNOLOGY Engineered human skin can look more natural when made using 3D bioprinting.

Researchers in Singapore have developed a method that achieves more uniform pigmentation of engineered 3D-printed human skin, according to a study published in the journal Biofabrication. Bioprinting deposits real human cells on top of a substrate in a controlled manner, and has been used in tissue engineering for about a decade. However, existing ‘human skin equivalents’ lack complex features such as skin pigmentation, sweat glands or hair follicles. A research team from A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP) at Nanyang Technological University aimed to improve skin pigmentation uniformity in engineered 3D skin. They used a two-step process that first involved printing porous fibroblast-laden, collagen-based matrices that closely resemble the skin’s dermal extracellular matrices. This created a microenvironment that facilitates interactions among cells, and between them and other biological materials introduced during the printing process. They then used a ‘drop on demand’ technique that enabled precise spatial distribution of three types of human skin cells—including keratinocytes, melanocytes and fibroblasts—within the 3D bioprinted skin. Culturing the 3D bioprinted

Credit: (Composite) vasilyrosca & Sofia Vlasiuk | 123rf

Wei Long Ng. “The two-step bioprinting strategy enables the standardised distribution of printed cells in a highly controlled way.” The printing technique also allowed the researchers to more easily and precisely manipulate pore sizes within the collagen substrate, making its porous structure

more closely resemble real skin layers, with large pores at the bottom and smaller ones towards the top. The team’s method has the potential to produce engineered 3D bioprinted human skin for toxicology testing and fundamental cell biology research.

Simon Davies | E-mail: Senior Public Relations Officer Institute of Physics

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skin under optimal conditions induced the melanin-producing cells, melanocytes, to uniformly pigment it. “3D bioprinting is an excellent platform for the precise deposition of biomaterials and living cells to fabricate biomimetic skin in large volumes and with great repeatability,” says SC3DP research fellow



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Developing materials similar to graphene remains a challenge, but chemists are making progress, moving closer to smaller, faster electronics and photonics.

Graphene is a carbon material derived from graphite, the same material found in pencils, but it is arranged in a oneatom-thin honeycomb lattice. Graphene’s two-dimensional arrangement gives it extraordinary properties, including extreme strength and high electron conductivity. However, the tight lattice lacks a bandgap—the space between electron energy levels or bands—which is essential for controlling the flow of electrons in electronic devices. Scientists have been hunting for alternative materials that have a bandgap and a graphene-like structure. So far, they have made progress with mixtures of materials, but have not yet found a pure nanomaterial, which is considered ideal for ultra-thin, high-performance electronics, according to a review pub-

lished in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials. Much focus has been on graphene quantum dots, which are small segments of graphene, 10 nm to 100 nm carbon hexagons across and less than 30 atomic sheets thick. To make the dots behave more like 2D graphene, research teams have added other molecules to change the structure and function of the material. For example, one team attached molecular groups containing nitrogen to graphene quantum dots. They found that different molecular combinations altered the electronic structure of the quantum dot in unique ways. This shifted the colour of light produced by the material when exposed to electricity, which is useful for light emitting diodes (LEDs) and photodetectors, which convert light into electrical current. Several teams have built and tested photodetectors using graphene quantum dots with success. The material has also been shown to improve the per



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Dr Hideyuki Nakano | E-mail: Toyota Central R&D Labs Japan

Mikiko Tanifuji | E-mail: Science and Technology of Advanced Materials National Institute for Materials Science


formance of dye-sensitized solar cells. Researchers are also investigating silicon and germanium analogues of graphene, called silicene and germanene, and their respective hydrogenated forms, silicane and germanane. They are testing how different preparation methods and structures, such as multiple layers and added molecules, affect performance for potential electronic or photonic devices. While silicene and germanene have not yet been prepared without added molecules, the modified materials strongly resemble the predicted 2D materials. Understanding the properties of the modified materials is a “good starting point” for developing future nanomaterials, according to the paper’s authors. Ultimately, the reviewers, led by Hideyuki Nakano of Toyota Central R&D Labs in Japan, are optimistic that electronic devices and energy storage materials could be developed using these materials in the near future.


Credit: maridav | 123rf

Compact chips could power electronics using natural vibrations.


Researchers in Japan are developing a chip that harvests energy from freely available natural motions, such as the vibrations of buildings, gentle air movements, or human walking, and converts it into electricity. This electricity can fully power small electronic devices, such as environmental sensors; it can also charge batteries in wearable gadgets. At the heart of the chip is a miniature polymer puck, which features a double layer of ions locked into position by a chemical reaction. The puck, sandwiched between two electrodes, generates a small current whenever tiny vibrations cyclically force the unit’s layers into frictional contact with each other, a process called triboelectric charging. The ‘ionic liquid polymer’ device is described in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials.

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Credit: ktsdesign | 123rf

Chikako Sano | E-mail: Institute of Industrial Science The University of Tokyo

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ENVIRONMENT A honeycomb-shaped brace in plants keeps them fit by precisely coordinating the discarding of organs, such as flowers and leaves.

Plants shed leaves, flowers, fruits or diseased parts in various developmental stages, but the underlying mechanisms of how this happens was unclear. Now, research has identified two cell types that execute the precise separation of flowers in the model plant Arabidopsis. The findings provide a basic mechanism for the plant cell separation process, and have implications for crop improvement strategies. Unlike animals, plants have rigid cell walls that strongly bond to each other. While this provides a solid outer structure, it is also a physical constraint for plants undergoing physiological changes, such as cell expansion, wound healing and responses to their surrounding environment. For example, wound healing in animals involves cell migration, but in plants, cell walls need to be rebuilt. Past studies identified some of the key players involved in cell wall loosening and

degradation to help initiate floral separation in Arabidopsis. However, how the actual shedding occurs with great precision was unknown. In a Cell study, plant biologist June Kwak of South Korea’s Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) and his colleagues identified two different cell types in the ‘abscission zone’ that conduct the final stage of cell wall separation in a finely tuned manner: residuum cells (RECs) in the main plant body and secession cells (SECs) in the separating part. They discovered that SECs form a honeycomb-shaped structure of lignin, a phenolic polymer in cell walls that makes plants rigid. Lignin helps limit the work of enzymes that degrade the cell wall to the shedding area, and simultaneously clutches the separating cells like a molecular brace until the moment of shedding, ultimately falling off with the separated organ. The shedding process triggered by the lignin leads to RECs transforming into epidermal cells, forming a protective coating on the main body where the flower has

just been shed. This prevents bacterial infections on the new surface. The transformation from non-epidermal cells into epidermal cells was previously thought to occur only in embryogenesis at the beginning of a plant’s life cycle. Organ separation might provide a new window for studying epidermal cell specification, which had been hindered by their unstable state in early developmental stages. In particular, this could help researchers examine how RECs transform into epidermal cells, what affects such transformations, and how neighbouring cells communicate with each other. The researchers hope that the information obtained in this study on floral separation may help in the understanding of other cell separation events in different developmental phases of plants. Furthermore, the finding could help improve crop productivity if researchers are able to control the timing of shedding flowers, fruits, and leaves. Future research should also look at the difference between sealing accidental wounds versus organ shedding.


Arabidopsis (rockcress) is a genus in the family Brassicaceae. They are small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard, native to Eurasia and Africa, and mostly considered as a roadside weed. ASIA RE SEA RC H N EWS 201 9

Reconstructed image of a honeycomb structure of lignin in sepals, the leaf-like part of the plant that protects the flower bud. Credit: June M. Kwak and colleagues


Further information

Professor June M. Kwak | E-mail: Department of New Biology Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology

ENVIRONMENT Controlling plant pore openings could help boost drought tolerance in live plants and extend the freshness of bouquets of cut flowers, thanks to an unusual research approach.

A team led by Nagoya University’s Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (ITbM) identified compounds that can control the opening and closing of plant

ITbM plant biologist Toshinori Kinoshita, who led the study. “We also thought that using compounds to regulate stomatal movements would be useful for developing agrochemicals.” Using Benghal dayflower as a model plant, the team established experimental conditions to screen over 20,000 compounds. After a year of randomly screening the chemical library, they found nine

THE COMPOUNDS THAT KEEP PLANTS FRESH pores, called stomata. The findings, published in the journal Plant & Cell Physiology, are expected to help suppress the withering of both live plants and cut flowers. Stomata are small pores present in the surface of plants, including leaves, flower petals and other organs, and are responsible for gas exchange with the atmosphere. Stomata consist of a pair of guard cells that open in response to sunlight during the day to take up carbon dioxide, and close at night or under drought stress to prevent water loss. Although many aspects of stomatal movements are understood, the full mechanism of their opening is yet to be clarified. In an effort to understand this process more precisely and how it might be controlled, the team took an unconventional approach. Instead of investigating genetic-based methods, they decided to explore molecules that might affect stomatal opening, taking advantage of ITbM’s massive library of both commercial and synthetic compounds. “We were keen to use a chemistry-based approach to overcome drawbacks of classical genetic techniques,” says

compounds that suppressed light-induced stomatal opening by more than 50%, and two compounds that induced stomatal opening even in the dark. The researchers sprayed one of the compounds on rose and oat leaves and found that withering was suppressed for six hours. “This was the best moment in our research: to find that the molecules that we had discovered had an effect on suppressing the withering of leaves,” says Kinoshita. Further analysis of two of the compounds revealed that they interrupt the opening process by inhibiting the signals between a light-responsive receptor and an enzyme called the plasma membrane proton pump. The compounds could provide a good starting point for developing solutions to boost drought tolerance in live plants, the researchers say. They could also prove useful as a spray to keep cut flowers fresh for longer. The group is looking for partners to further investigate the mechanisms behind stomatal movements and to develop compounds that could be applied to crops or flowers.

Stomata are small pores in plant surfaces that open during the day and close at night or under drought stress.

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Credit: radub85 | 123rf

Professor Toshinori Kinoshita | E-mail: Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules (WPI-ITbM) Nagoya University

Further information

201 9

A larger variety of leaves could be used in the Japanese traditional flower arrangement, ikebana, if they lasted longer, since current practice avoids types that easily wither.


Credit: Toshinori Kinoshita/ITbM



Scientists are investigating the potential of non-toxic materials to replace lead in perovskite solar cells.

Developing efficient solar cells without lead as a major component remains a

ed replacing lead in PSCs with other elements, including tin, germanium, bismuth, antimony, copper and manganese. Hong Lin, an applied chemist at Tsinghua University in China, and colleagues reviewed the progress on lead-free PSCs to ask a

Did you know?

In just seven years, the efficiency of perovskite solar cells has increased five-fold.



“formidable scientific challenge,” according to a review in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials. Solar cells made from perovskites, a collection of compounds with a particular crystal structure, have been developing rapidly as a cheaper alternative to silicon solar cells. However, perovskite-based solar cells (PSCs) are still far from industrial application as a clean renewable energy source. A major drawback is they usually contain lead as the primary material absorbing sunlight for conversion into electricity. Lead pollution can result in long-term environmental damage due to its high toxicity and long degradation time. Lead also poses a serious threat to human health, being harmful to the nervous and reproductive systems. Silicon solar panels can contain trace amounts of lead in the glass that encases the cells’ active components, but it is insoluble. In contrast, perovskite compounds readily dissolve in water, meaning rain or humidity could release lead into the environment. The risk is greatest during the manufacture and disposal of solar cells. Also, if solar panels are damaged while they are still in use, say on a home or school roof, rain could wash lead off the building and into the surrounding yard or playground. Recently, researchers have investigat-

key question: Is it possible to fully replace lead in PSCs with less toxic elements without compromising efficiency and stability? Lead-based PSCs have reached a 22.7% efficiency rate for converting sunlight to electricity in lab tests, bringing them close to the 25% efficiency of research-grade silicon solar cells. Commercial silicon solar cells usually range between 15% and 22%. At present, the best lead-free PSCs have approximately 6% efficiency, which is too low for industrial applications; but efficiency can be as high as 17% when lead is partially replaced. Tin-based PSCs show the most promising power conversion efficiency. Tin has many properties that make it suitable as a lead replacement. For example, it possesses a similar outer electron shell structure to lead but has a smaller ionic radius, meaning that it can form similar bonds without disturbing the crystal lattice structure. Various tinbased PSCs have been tested, combining tin with elements such as caesium to form molecules with unique properties. Much work remains to increase PSC efficiency and stability, and to improve methods of mass production. But, given that the field is young and progress has been rapid, Lin and her colleagues are optimistic that “lead can, and must, be completely replaced by non-toxic elements.”

Rooftop perovskite solar panels. Replacing lead with less toxic materials in perovskite solar cells without compromising performance remains a challenge for researchers.

201 9 Credit: Tsinghua University and LeadVanced PV Co., Ltd


Further information

Professor Hong Lin | E-mail: School of Materials Science & Engineering Tsinghua University

Mikiko Tanifuji | E-mail: Science and Technology of Advanced Materials National Institute for Materials Science


NEW SPECIES OF MALARIA PARASITE FOUND IN LONG-TAILED MACAQUES Molecular analysis reveals that long-tailed macaques from Malaysian Borneo host a previously unidentified species of Plasmodium malaria parasite.

Credit: nakedking | 123rf

Credit: Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

Plasmodium micrograph ASIA RESEA RC H N EWS

Researchers in Malaysia, with assistance from colleagues in USA and Singapore, have discovered that long-tailed macaques from Malaysian Borneo harbour a new species of Plasmodium parasite, a group of approximately 250 species of blood parasites, some of which can cause malaria in humans. Plasmodium parasites are spread by vectors, such as Anopheles mosquitoes, and can infect a wide range of hosts, including mammals, birds and reptiles. Long-tailed macaques, in particular, are reservoirs for Plasmodium parasites and can be infected by six different Plasmodium species. Recently, scientists have suggested that long-tailed macaques of Malaysian Borneo may host a new species of Plasmodium. To put this theory to the test, researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, and the American Museum of Natural History carried out a genetic study. Their work was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology. The researchers took blood samples from 43 long-tailed macaques captured from different locations in Sarawak, Malaysia. They studied the blood samples

under the microscope, then analysed mitochondrial DNA sequences and genes coding for a parasitic enzyme that breaks down proteins. Genetic analysis revealed that, as well as several named species of malaria parasites, the long-tailed macaques of Malaysian Borneo also host a novel species of Plasmodium parasite, which the researchers called Plasmodium inui-like. Using statistical tests and sequence data, they predicted that the new species shares a common ancestor with a known parasite species called Plasmodium inui and that the two species diverged approximately 1.5 million years ago. One possible explanation for the emergence of this new parasite species is that the long-tailed macaques of Borneo have been geographically isolated from the macaques of Peninsular Malaysia and mainland Asia for thousands of years, preventing parasite interbreeding and gene flow. The researchers also showed that these macaques are new hosts for the known parasite species P. simiovale, which has previously only been described in toque macaques in Sri Lanka. This work suggests that the relationships between primates and their Plasmodium parasites may be shaped by ecological factors, such as spatial isolation or the colonisation of new environments.

Did you know?

Dr Thamayanthi Nada Raja | E-mail: Malaria Research Centre Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

201 9

There are approximately 250 species of Plasmodium, which can infect many animals, including reptiles, birds and various mammals.

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ENVIRONMENT Ocean colour could serve as a reliable proxy for salinity, opening the door for more frequent and detailed measurements.

Measuring salinity at the ocean’s surface is important for tracking global ocean circulation as well as local ecosystem health. A research team from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu has proposed a new method to measure sea surface salinity using ocean colour as a proxy. Reported in the Pertanika Journal of Science & Technology, this method could improve ecosystem monitoring, particularly for coastal areas. Salinity is the concentration of salt ions in a volume of water. While the total salt content of the ocean remains fairly stable, salinity can vary as the ocean’s volume changes when fresh rain, river water and melted ice enter the ocean, and when seawater freezes or evaporates. Some areas get saltier and others fresher as these processes, known as the hydrological cycle, occur. Besides affecting marine organisms, salinity is also a key player in ocean cir-

culation. Saltier, denser water sinks beneath lighter, fresher water, helping to drive the massive conveyer belt carrying seawater around the world. A spacebased satellite currently measures sea surface salinity all over the globe using a metric called ‘microwave emissivity’. The Aquarius satellite, operated by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), takes one measurement for every 150 square kilometres of ice-free ocean, passing over the same spot once a week. Marine scientist Md Suffian Idris and colleagues wondered if they could use images taken from another pair of NASA satellites that cover the globe daily, and on a much more detailed scale: one picture for every one square kilometre. To do this, they needed to confirm that they could use ocean colour captured in the optical images to determine salinity. Ocean colour is partly determined by how much organic matter is dissolved in the water, which gives it a green, yellow or brown tint, rather than the usual blue.

By testing seawater samples taken along the east coast of Malaysia during different seasons, the researchers found that as the amount of coloured dissolved organic matter increased, salinity decreased, and vice versa. Based on this inverse relationship, they were able to develop a mathematical algorithm that could be used with the satellite images to measure salinity. They use the colour data captured in the images, specifically in the deep blue part of the spectrum, to determine the amount of organic matter, and then compute salinity. The researchers note, however, that the performance of the algorithm may vary from region to region, depending on the degree of mixing between freshwater and seawater. The relationship between dissolved organic matter and salinity could be altered so much, especially in areas with heavy river flows and high levels of organic material, that it no longer fits the algorithm. They recommend further testing to improve the algorithm.


Chief Executive Editor | Email: Pertanika Journals

Dr Md Suffian Idris | E-mail: School of Marine and Environmental Sciences Universiti Malaysia Terengganu

Further information

201 9

Monthly averaged sea surface salinity (2002-2017) for August (left panel) and January (right panel) in the southern South China Sea. Blue and red represent lower and higher salinity respectively. Reductions in salinity along the coasts are observed from August to January. Measurements are derived from images taken by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensors on board NASA’s Terra and Aqua Satellites.

Did you know?

The average sodium ion traverses the ocean many times before being removed by various chemical processes. These 'conservative ions' don't react with other molecules and so remain in the ocean for ten to 100 million years.


Credit: Tamara Kulikova | 123rf Credit: Dr. Md Suffian Idris



SIX NEW SCALY SNAIL SPECIES DISCOVERED IN MALAYSIAN BORNEO The new species belong to a special subgroup of snails with scaly shells.

Zoologists have identified six new species of minute land snails from the genus Georissa that are entirely new to science. Georissa snails are commonly found on limestone rocks where they forage mosses, algae and lichens. They are non-pulmonate snails, lacking a respiratory sac for breathing. Until now, little was known about Georissa snails compared to other non-pulmonate snails in the region. Mohd Zacaery Khalik, a zoologist at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, and colleagues from the Netherlands studied a subgroup within Georissa, which they dubbed the scaly group because of the conspicuous scale-like sculptures on their shells. It is unclear why only some species in the genus have these unique scales. “We have partially revealed the previously unrecognized diversity of the genus Georissa of Malaysian Borneo,” says

Khalik. “But we still have much to learn about the relationships between the different Georissa species.” They used a combination of molecular and morphological data and presented detailed descriptions of each species, chiefly to aid ‘species delimitation’, the process of deciding how individuals and populations fit into natural groups. They extracted and sequenced mitochondrial DNA from 127 snails and used this information to reveal the taxonomic relationship between species in the group. The genetic information, in combination with several morphological characteristics, such as shell shape and size and the sculptural patterns on the shell whorls, allowed them to distinguish the snail species. Since the shells measure just a couple of millimetres in length, the researchers used scanning electron microscopy and 3D modelling conducted through X-ray scanning to show the detailed microscopic sculptural patterns on the outer and inner parts of the shell.

ASIA RE SEA RC H N EWS 201 9 Credit: Kalik MZ. et. al., ZooKeys, 2018


Further information

Mohd Zacaery Khalik | E-mail: Faculty of Resource Science and Technology Universiti Malaysia Sarawak


2D photographs, scanning electron microscopic images, and 3D models of Georissa anyiensis, one of the six new snail species.

Credit: Kalik MZ. et. al., ZooKeys, 2018

The study, published in ZooKeys, revealed that there are at least 13 species of the scaly group present in Malaysian Borneo. Six of these species had not been previously identified and are new to science: G. anyiensis, G. muluensis, G. bauensis, G. silaburensis, G. kinabatanganensis, and G. sepulutensis. The six new species are all named after the locations where they were first discovered. This study is a first step towards unravelling the evolutionary history of Georissa snails. The researchers next plan to describe all Bornean Georissa and then propose a conclusive taxonomic classification of the genus. “Georissa has conventionally been categorized into four species groups,” Khalik says. “Once we complete comprehensive species descriptions, we anticipate that classification can be streamlined, likely into two groups.” They also hope further investigations will reveal why and how some species got their scales.


WHO WAS ALI? Little is known about Ali, a teenager from Sarawak, Malaysia, who was chief assistant to the famous naturalist Alfred Wallace. Most of what is known comes from Wallace’s writings. Ali accompanied Wallace on expeditions throughout the Malay Archipelago from December 1855 to February 1862. Initially employed as a servant and cook, he became Wallace’s most trusted assistant. Ali’s skill and dedication to collecting bird specimens enabled several important scientific contributions, including the discovery of the Wallace’s Standardwing (Semioptera wallacii).

Ali Photo Credit: Courtesy of A.R. Wallace Memorial Fund


Intraspecies variation in shell shape and sculpture of Georissa.

201 9 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dr George Beccaloni | E-mail: Director Alfred Russel Wallace Correspondence Project

Further information




An analysis of the chemical signals sent out by rice plants under attack by the brown planthopper could help in the natural control of this insect pest.

ASIA RE SEA RC H N EWS 201 9 Credit: Sittipong Srikanya | 123rf


Further information

Researchers in Indonesia have deciphered the chemical cues used by rice to attract a parasitoid that helps fight off the plant’s predator. The researchers developed a system that imitates these cues, which could help investigations of similar interactions in other crops and the search for possible sources of nontoxic pest control. The brown planthopper is one of rice’s most destructive pests, transmitting harmful viruses and wounding the plants’ stems to lay its eggs for the next attack. Researchers from Universitas Negeri Malang and the Indonesian Sweetener and Fibre Crops Research Institute wanted to target the brown planthopper without using pesticides that harm the environment. They investigated the so-called ‘tritrophic interaction’ between rice, the brown planthopper and the parasitoids that

Dr Surjani Wonorahardjo | E-mail: Faculty of Mathematics and Science Universitas Negeri Malang

prey on the brown planthopper’s eggs. They identified chemical differences in samples extracted from infected and healthy rice. They then soaked pieces of porous material made from rice husk in chemicals extracted from either healthy or infected rice. In laboratory tests, the parasitoids were more attracted to the materials infused with chemicals from infected rice. The researchers also attached infused materials to posts and placed them outside in a rice field. Again, they found more parasitoids on the infected sample. The effect, however, wore off in five days. The results, published in the Pertanika Journal of Science & Technology, help clarify the chemistry involved in such a complicated, natural interaction, and could help guide future development of a nontoxic pesticide. The team notes that their analytical chemistry technique for exploring the relationships between plant, pest and the pest’s predator requires further refinement, but could eventually be applied to other agricultural crops.

Chief Executive Editor | Email: Pertanika Journals



No one permanently lives in or is native to Antarctica, but up to 5,000 researchers can be based there and about 30,000 tourists visit annually, requiring diesel for heating, transportation and power.

Credit: Volodymyr Goinyk | 123rf

Indigenous bacteria show promise for cleaning up pollution.

Credit: Dr Siti Aqlima Ahmad

ADL36 could withstand a higher concentration of diesel than strain ADL15. Both strains were shown to have optimal temperatures of 20°C. Since both species are native to Antarctica, they are also tolerant of cold and other extreme conditions, such as dry and alkaline soils that are low in nutrients during the summer seasons. Optimisation improved the ability of ADL15 to degrade diesel in a test environment from 22.39% to 38.32%, and of ADL36 from 83.75% to 99.89%. The results show that strain ADL36 is better at diesel biodegradation. But both strains were able to adapt to a wide range of temperatures, so could be deployed during summertime when temperatures are higher, soils are unfrozen, and water is more accessible. The Antarctic Treaty prohibits the use of non-Antarctic organisms in the region, creating high demand for indigenous organisms that can clean up polluted soil. The researchers next plan to conduct a microbial consortium study to investigate how the use of both bacterial strains could improve clean-up of hydrocarbon pollutants from polar soils. Credit: Николай Владими Цугулиев | 123rf


Researchers have identified two strains of diesel-degrading bacteria in pristine Antarctic soil and their optimal working conditions. This insight could potentially inform bioremediation efforts in the region. Pollution from petroleum hydrocarbons—such as diesel, which is widely used for heating, transportation and power generation—poses a major threat to wildlife in Antarctica. Using naturally occurring microorganisms to consume and break down environmental pollutants is a simple, economical and environmentally friendly solution for the isolated Antarctic region. A team of researchers from the Bioremediation, Biomonitoring and Ecotoxicology Laboratory at Universiti Putra Malaysia, working with colleagues from University of Malaya’s National Antarctic Research Centre, has isolated and identified two species of diesel-degrading

bacteria in Scott Coast and Ross Island, Antarctica. “Although several bacterial species isolated from hydrocarbon-contaminated sites in Antarctica have been shown to degrade hydrocarbons, this is one of the first reports to study strains from pristine soils,” says Syahir Habib, one of the authors of the paper, which was published in Microbial Cell Factories. The researchers collected soil samples and used bacterial ribosomal DNA sequences to identify two bacterial strains called ADL15 and ADL36. Then, they analysed the conditions required to maximise the bacteria’s ability to consume diesel. The researchers used a fast and efficient optimisation method called response surface methodology (RSM), which simultaneously measures multiple factors and their combined effects. They found that both strains showed similar optimal growth conditions, including a non-acidic, neutral soil and a salt concentration of 1.0%, but that strain

201 9

Siti Aqlima Ahmad, a researcher involved in the study, standing in front of diesel tank at Chilean Antarctic Institute on King George Island in Antarctica. Dr Nur Adeela Yasid | E-mail: Department of Biochemistry Universiti Putra Malaysia

Further information



Research can offer a strategic blueprint for bolstering food security throughout Asia, but regional cooperation is required.

Asia needs a unified mechanism to orchestrate and fund research to help combat hunger and malnutrition throughout the region, according to the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA). Asia is home to 4.5 billion people – 60% of the world’s population – with millions

and education programmes,” the authors write in the report Opportunities and Challenges for Research on Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture in Asia. The report was published as part of the Food and Nutrition Security and Agriculture project funded by the German government. AASSA is a non-profit organisation that aims to facilitate regional development through the advancement of science and technology in Asia and Australasia.

hungry or undernourished. While hunger is an issue for every nation, ten countries are at a particularly high risk of not being able to secure access to safe and healthy food for all citizens; what the United Nations defines as food security. Science and technology should be central to addressing food security challenges, argue AASSA members, who published an extensive report on the issue. However, the region lacks a framework that facilitates international research collaborations similar to the European Science Foundation or Biosciences in Africa. “There is an urgent need to form and fund interdisciplinary cooperative research

The report analysed the status of food security in the region, and provides recommendations in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. “Food and nutrition security is key to progress in very diverse regions of Asia and Australasia, which have great variations in GDP, population densities, science and technology advancement, education levels, agricultural practices, food habits and climate change impacts. The report attempts to take into account all these challenges,” says Krishan Lal, co-chair of IAP for Science at the InterAcademy Partnership, a global network of science



Further information

Professor Krishan Lal | E-mail: IAP for Science Co-Chair InterAcademy Partnership



Based on current undernutrition rates and projected population growth, the report identifies ten countries that are at high risk of food insecurity: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, the Philippines, Iraq, Tajikistan and Yemen. India had a particularly high hunger index: a hunger indicator taking levels of undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality into consideration. India accounts for three-quarters of the population in South Asia, making it the hungriest part of the world, followed by sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Global Hunger Index 2017. The authors stress that future strategies should focus not only on increasing crop yields but also on eradicating hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies such as a lack of energy, proteins or essential vitamins and minerals. Producing more food varieties will also prevent over-nutrition, caused by an unbalanced diet, and its related health problems. Further research should identify what drives hunger in these countries. The result should help determine areas of research, development and education that need to be prioritised for investment.


academies that oversees AASSA and its counterpart associations in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Among the group’s most urgent recommendations is that AASSA should work with its members — national academies of sciences from 30 countries — to establish a transnational funding body for the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Academy of Engineering and Technology could also participate as an observer to the regional cooperation process. Such a structure could perhaps be realised with the support of the Asian Development Bank. Furthermore, there is no transnational body dedicated to overseeing agricultural policy in the region. This has resulted in varied regulations in the agricultural sector across the continent; for example non-unified terminologies, definitions and regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Also, the level of involvement of scientists in decision-making processes varies by country. This makes it difficult to coordinate interactions among governments, non-profit organizations and scientists at a regional level. “The region already has numerous universities and training facilities that have strong backgrounds and reputations in agricultural science, food science and nutrition,” the authors write. “This considerable intellectual asset base should be fully leveraged.”

201 9

Continued next page Credit: belchonock | 123rf


ENVIRONMENT Continued from page 63


The authors recommend a systems analysis to understand the obstacles in food security in Asia. Unlike analyses based on national data, this approach allows researchers to group parts of different countries that share similar geographical and social factors and seek common solutions for that group. This helps them pinpoint unique challenges to a specific group that can be overlooked in aggregate data. For example, Golam Rasul and colleagues from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Nepal, used this approach to determine that a shift from traditional diets, such as millets and buckwheat, to modernised food, based on white rice and flour, led to a decline in agro-biodiversity and food price hikes in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region. This mountainous area stretches over 3,500 kilometres across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, Myanmar and Pakistan.


Credit: Chanwit Wanset | 123rf

201 9 Credit: Monchai Tudsamalee | 123rf



Asia hosts some of the largest food producers in the world. China, for example, feeds one-fifth of the global population using only 7% of the world’s arable land. Yet, rapid urban development and growing population place pressure on the country’s natural resources, and degrade more than half of its agricultural area. Although development has contributed to China’s economic growth, it has also increased demand for essential commodities such as food and water. In order to maintain a nation’s progress, sustainable agricultural production should be part of any food strategies, the authors point out. Climate change adds to development’s negative impacts on water and land availability. The authors urge that developing mitigation plans should be a regional priority. Specific recommendations for the region should incorporate existing international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Sustainable Development Goals. The authors conclude that much can be achieved if the countries work on food security “transcending the usual geographical and national boundaries”.



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