Thursday, 30 June 2011

Consensus virtual screening can reduce costs and time in drug discovery

In the early stages of finding new drugs hundred thousands of molecules are tested for activity. This so-called high-throughput screening is performed using costly robotic equipment. Often it leads to wrong results, which could be false positives or false negatives. Computer-based virtual screening can reduce the high-costs and time required. However, it provides the same or even worse accuracy compared to lab-based screening.

Dr Andreas Kukol, a senior lecturer in Biochemistry at the University has developed methods that combine the results from different virtual screening algorithms in a consensus approach. The results show that some consensus methods can achieve a higher accuracy in predicting active drugs than individual methods on its own.  Dr Kukol said that more efficient computational tools can revolutionise the drug discovery process and shorten the 15 years currently required to develop a new drug.

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Researchers warn about the online availability of the powerfulhallucinogenic drug ‘B-Fly’


Our recently-published research shows that the online availability of a growing number of ‘designer drugs’ such as Bromo-Dragonfly (or simply ‘B-Fly’), a powerful, long-lasting (up to three days) hallucinogenic substance, constitutes a public health challenge.

In a paper entitled Designer Drugs on the Internet: a Phenomenon Out-of-Control? The Emergence of Hallucinogenic Drug Bromo-Dragonfly in Current Clinical Pharmacology published in May,  we describe how increased popularity of the drug has been associated with recent acute intoxications and deaths in a number of countries.

In a comprehensive review of both the peer-reviewed and the anecdotal online data on B-Fly, we explain how the web activity associated with the drug gradually increased since 2005. ‘B-fly’ can allegedly induce profound hallucinations, sound alterations and its high level of toxicity caused a series of hospitalizations and fatalities, especially among young people.

Designer drugs, such as B-Fly, manipulate brain functions in ways we know too little about, and might well have widespread and long terms effects on users. Most of these products are not been approved for human consumption, and they are available online at low prices and thus just a ‘click’ away from our homes. As a response, it is very important to pilot novel prevention and educational models as we are doing at the ReDNet project with the use of interactive technologies and the direct involvement of young people and professionals working with them in our Research Centres across Europe.

Dr Ornella Corazza at the University’s School of Pharmacy is lead author on the paper.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

New atmospheric remote sensing station

A new atmospheric remote sensing station is being set up at the University of Hertfordshire's Bayfordbury Observatory. It will include several optical polarimeters and other instruments for observing clouds and aerosols.

A Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) instrument has been installed - it is like the more familiar RADAR but using laser light instead of radio waves. It detects light from a laser beam reflected from small particles in the atmosphere and provides a profile of atmospheric composition up to an altitude of 20km. One motivation is to make observations of volcanic ash from future eruptions.

The LIDAR is in fact the second of five instruments planned. The station will be gradually enhanced with new instruments over the next twelve months. When the final instruments are installed, the station will be a unique facility not just in the UK but anywhere in the world.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sheconomics: Why more women on boards boosts company performance

‘Diversity prediction theorem’ is now one of the most cutting-edge of all business improvement strategies around. In simple terms, it means adding more women to the mix, a simple strategy that can significantly improve a company’s profitability.

Women currently make up just 12.5% of the board members of FTSE 100 companies. Yet research by McKinsey found a strong link between gender diversity and above-average returns on equity. Data from Gavurin Intelligence revealed that 30% of women on the board tripled a company’s profitability. A study from Pepperdine University showed that companies with at least three women on their boards outperformed competitors by at least 40%. The researchers also found that Fortune 500 companies with three or more women in senior management positions scored higher on measures of organisational excellence.

Three, it seems, is the magic number. In Norway one in every three board members is female, following legislative changes made in 2003. Subsequently Norway enjoyed 3% economic growth in 2009 and a budget surplus, while many of its EU neighbours were experiencing economic recession. The data may only be correlational but Norway is now the only country that can be said to have thrived during the economic downturn.

In the UK all FTSE 100 companies have to aim for at least 25% female representation by 2015. If this isn’t achieved quotas will be introduced. I recently gave a talk to company secretaries from twelve of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies. All were in favour of diversity but none wanted quotas. Government recommendations and accountability would alone bring about change, they felt. I wish I could share their optimism. According to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, at the current rate of change it will take more than 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies.

As a psychologist I am interested in the dynamics behind groups that make financial decisions. Homogeneous groups are very similar in their values, beliefs, styles of communication, race and gender. Heterogeneous groups, characterised by wide diversity in these factors, make better decisions and are less at risk of group-think. By adding women to the board, heterogeneity is virtually guaranteed. Balancing male and female attributes and creating a more diverse mix may be the solution to many challenges facing organisations today.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

First images from VLT Survey Telescope open the way for UK-led surveysof the southern sky

The VLT Survey Telescope (VST), the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory, has made its first release of impressive images of the southern sky. The VST is a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre telescope, with the huge 268-megapixel camera OmegaCAM at its heart, which is designed to map the sky both quickly and with very fine image quality. It is a visible-light telescope that perfectly complements ESO’s VISTA infrared survey telescope. New images of the Omega Nebula and the globular cluster Omega Centauri demonstrate the VST’s power.

Professor Janet Drew at the University of Hertfordshire is one of the lead astronomers on this study.

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KASPAR Robot celebrated as Big Idea for the Future Research selectedfor leading report

The University of Hertfordshire’s groundbreaking work on a child-like robot it developed to help children with autism, has been chosen as one of the most important research projects taking place in universities today, with the publication today (16 June) of the Big Ideas for the Future report.

The Hertfordshire team led by Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn at the University of Hertfordshire are using interactive humanoid robots as therapeutic ‘toys’ to help children with autism. They developed KASPAR (short for Kinesics and Synchronisation in Personal Assistant Robotics), a child-like robot.

KASPAR can be controlled and tailored to an individual child’s development needs. While obviously non-human, it has simple human features, minimal expressions and predictable movements. The robot acts as a mediator, encouraging children to communicate with people, at first indirectly and then directly. The research has the potential to transform the social and educational development of children living with autism in the future.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Secrets of Coffee Superbrands

I was looking forward to seeing myself on BBC3's Secrets of the Superbrands last night, just to see what I said.  When I filmed the interview last autumn, most of the questions were about the supposed demise of Starbucks, following a very public period of retrenchment.

In the last few weeks, however, we have had a slew of lionising stories about Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ eminence grise accompanying the launch of his new book on how he revived the company.   Things often turn around quickly in the coffee world – after years when stories about the crash in prices paid to coffee farmers surmised that their only hope lay in fair trade,  now the huge spike in prices is generating coverage suggesting growers will not deliver on their contracts with the fair trade  organisation as they chase better returns elsewhere.

As a coffee historian and commentator I try to bring some sense of perspective to these stories, focussing more on the long term processes of change that underlie them  - such as  Italian-style coffee’s  transition from a premium to a mainstream taste, and the rising demand for coffee in producer countries. What did I say last night?  Click here to find out.