Childhood illness, planetary protection, and sustainable finance
In this edition: A better test for diagnosing childhood illness, improving planetary protection and financing sustainability.
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News: Diagnosing childhood illnesses – We learn about a new blood test that can determine what’s causing fevers in children in only an hour, by analysing the distinctive pattern of genes being ‘switched on or off’ by the body in response to specific illnesses.
Improving planetary protection – How do we make sure we don’t contaminate other worlds with our space missions, or contaminate Earth with samples returned from elsewhere in the Solar System? We speak to Professor Mark Sephton about a new project to make better risk assessments and improve planetary protection.
Sustainable finance – We tap into the Green Minds podcast to hear from Bloomberg’s Nadia Humphreys about how ‘taxonomies’ can lay out how business can be greener. Listen to the full interview on IB Podcasts.
(23 August 2023)
Gareth Mitchell: Hello, everyone. I'm Gareth Mitchell. In our news section this month, a promising new blood test to diagnose a range of illnesses in children. Also, why just exploring other planets isn't enough. We need to protect them too.
Mark Sephton: Even if we think maybe there's no biology to bring back to Earth, you've got to make sure as much as possible that you're not damaging Earth's precious environments or the precious scientific environments of other planets or moons.
Gareth Mitchell: And in our pick of the pods, we're talking sustainable finance. So lots to get into today. Let's start though with Hayley, who's going to give us a quick update. This is, Hayley, about a blood test that's causing a bit of excitement, isn't it?
Hayley Dunning: Yes, it's a really exciting new blood test that can diagnose infectious or inflammatory diseases, particularly in children, including things like group B streptococcus and respiratory things like colds and flus, but also things like tuberculosis. And it's designed specifically for children to identify what children who, say, arrive at hospitals or at the GPs with a fever, what they have, because it could be many things, and knowing what it is will help treat them faster.
Gareth Mitchell: How much of a difference would it make?
Hayley Dunning: Well, it's really important to know, obviously, sooner, so you can treat exactly what's going on. But that's important for other things as well, such as a lot of times when people are admitted to hospital, they're given broad spectrum antibiotics to start with in case that that's what's causing it. But if it's not a bacteria that can be treated that way, then that can actually contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is a massive problem, as we all know.
It's also going to help be faster. So many of the tests for these kinds of diseases have to go off to a lab and be analyzed or cultured, and that can take anywhere from a day to three days, whereas this test could do it in 60 minutes.
Now, how it does it is really interesting because you're thinking how can you make that level of change that quickly. But instead of what we normally do when we're looking at tests, which is looking for the pathogen that causes it, this uses the blood of the person to see what genes are expressed. So what's going on in response to the pathogen in the body. That is actually tailored to what the pathogen is, so you can more easily tell before you go and culture the bug.
Gareth Mitchell: Who's behind all this then, Hayley?
Hayley Dunning: So it's actually a huge international team that is led by researchers at Imperial, led by Professor Michael Levin. It's called the DIAMONDS Consortium. It was set up in 2020, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 program, to develop rapid diagnostic tests for febrile illnesses - these are the ones that give you fevers. And it's based on decades of work to try and understand a new, better way that we can diagnose them.
Gareth Mitchell: Is this available already or will it be soon?
Hayley Dunning: So they validated it in hospitals alongside the normal tests that would be done, but obviously, to be used as a point of care, it needs to go through much more stringent tests. So now they are setting up trials in Europe, Africa, and Asia with thousands and thousands of patients in hospitals to check that it matches or improves upon the current gold standard. But they're really hoping that they'll be able to then rapidly scale that up for use in hospitals in the future.
Gareth Mitchell: Thanks very much, Hayley.
Well, now, protect the planet, a familiar refrain and rightly so, but in this case, the planet is Mars, or indeed anywhere else that we intend to send space probes. After all, it'd be rather self-defeating if our quest to investigate traces of possible life on other planets is contaminated by traces of Earth life that we've inadvertently shipped with our spacecraft. And whether it's a life on other planets or not, it is rather poor form for us to take our pollution with us to other worlds. So a new era in planetary protection is dawning as a UK consortium reassess the mathematical models and science underpinning guidelines on protecting other planets.
Co-leading the research, along with colleagues at the Open University, is Professor Mark Sephton of Imperial's Department of Earth Science and Engineering. He's been speaking to Sachin Sreejith.
Mark Sephton: Well, planetary protection is a really important subject. It involves protecting the Earth from alien organisms. What we don't want to do is we don't want to bring anything back to the Earth which is essentially hazardous and that can damage Earth's biosphere and humanity. But it's also about protecting the rest of the solar system. It's about not taking any terrestial contamination to other planets that we'd like to study. Using Mars for an example, Mars is a relatively unexplored planet. There's 4.6 billion years of geological, potentially biological history, and we don't want to mess up that record by taking any Earth terrestrial contamination there and introducing what we call false positives, where you get a signal, but it's not a real signal, it's a signal that you've generated yourself.
Sachin Sreejith: Wow, so a lot at stake, given we could potentially sound a false alarm that aliens exist.
Mark Sephton: Yeah.
Sachin Sreejith: What are the current knowledge gaps for this topic, and what is your collaboration with the Open University aiming to find out?
Mark Sephton: Well, currently, planetary protection takes a lot of effort. We look at the amounts of microorganisms that are present on spacecraft to make sure that we're not taking biology to other planets. We'd like to do things a little differently and more efficiently. We'd like to use statistical models to help us to understand the risks involved. And really, these types of statistics are used in clinical environments when it comes to medicine or environmental assessments, understanding populations and infections. So we'd like to take that best practice and take it across to space missions.
Using statistics allows you to take information and then to extrapolate and make assessments outside of just the measurements that you're making. This allows us to accommodate not only data that we've acquired, but any unknowns as well.
Many of the challenges that we would face by robotic or by human exploration sometimes are not currently well constrained. We're setting ourselves up for both our known challenges and our unknown challenges, and the potential savings in time and money are huge. We can get where we need to be perhaps without long, labour-intensive and expensive testing campaigns.
Sachin Sreejith: So how good are our current planetary protection measures?
Mark Sephton: I think the current planetary protection procedures are very good. What we're looking to do is to get where we need to be quicker. The probability of contamination, either contaminating Earth or contaminating other worlds with materials from Earth, is always present, and it would be quite arrogant to think that it's an impossibility. We need to be as careful as possible. Even if we think maybe there's no biology to bring back to Earth, you've got to do your testing. You've got to be cautious and professional, and you need to make sure as much as possible that you're not damaging Earth's precious environments or the precious scientific environments of other planets or moons.
Sachin Sreejith: Is there a chance that planets like Mars have already been contaminated by us due to events such as previous crash landings?
Mark Sephton: So Mars has had a number of instruments that have gone to the surface. I'd like to think in previous missions we've been careful and we haven't contaminated the environments of Mars too much. And the surface of Mars, the environments where we've currently been operating, are quite harsh environments. They're radiation rich, lots of UV, lots of dust. So in these surface environments, the potential for biological proliferation from microorganisms that we would send there, I would say, is very low. So hopefully we haven't disturbed too much of Mars' pristine 4.6 billion-year-old scientific record.
Sachin Sreejith: On Mars, areas that are most likely to host life may also require missions with significant planetary protection measures, which make them too expensive or technically challenging. How are scientists dealing with this issue?
Mark Sephton: So yeah, we target our planetary protection to the environment and the activity that's taking place. The most habitable environments on Mars are the environments that you would like to study because potentially they could host evidence of past life or who knows, present life. So they're the places that you really wouldn't want to take terrestrial microorganisms in case they can survive there. So these types of missions require quite exacting planetary protection. It does involve extra work, and that sort of comes at a cost.
And to some extent, that's part of the work that we're doing at the moment. Statistics allow you to assess the risk, but also identify the areas in your procedures that risk is more sensitive too, so we can target the resources where they can be most effective. So hopefully, we'll, as a result of this work, reduce the cost of planetary protection. I think this work will be a big step forward.
Sachin Sreejith: You also study meteorites. Do these require planetary protection measures as well?
Mark Sephton: Meteorites are interesting objects. They're fragments of bodies in the solar system that have been thrown towards Earth and land on our planetary surface and then are collected and studied by scientists. We call them the poor man's space probe because they come to us for free.
The carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, they contain lots of organic compounds, sugar-related compounds, carboxylic acids, amino acids, nucleobases, and all of these are components implicated in the origin of life because they're the chemical classes of life. So these would be wonderful ingredients for the recipe of life. So the idea that meteorites rained down on the early Earth and provided the raw materials for life is an active and a reasonably sensible suggestion.
You can get some meteorites from Mars. So you get impacts on the surface of Mars, and fragments of Mars are propelled towards the Earth, but we don't currently think that they represent a biological hazard, but they are a fascinating source of information about Martian history. And again, we don't have to go to Mars to bring them back, so they're free to the scientific community and they fall on the surface every now and then, and we get very excited when they do.
Sachin Sreejith: So what's the scope of this topic?
Mark Sephton: As we move into an era of sample return, with samples of asteroids, samples of the moon having already been brought back to Earth, and now we're thinking about samples being returned from planets that may have had biological activity in the past, planetary protection is an increasingly exciting and important subject. So for people thinking of future scientific areas to get involved in, I think planetary protection has a good future. And it's nice to think that we're the scientific equivalent of the Men in Black, the old film that helped to protect the Earth from alien life. So we're doing something a little bit more conventional and a little bit less dramatic, but we're doing something similar. So a good subject area for people to get involved in in the future.
Gareth Mitchell: That's Mark Sephton talking to Sachin Sreejith.
Well, each month on the podcast, we treat you to a pick of the many pods now available from Imperial via our podcast directory. This month, an excerpt from the Green Minds podcast, which discusses issues related to climate change and sustainability. In this clip, we hear about sustainable finance. And here, presenter Claudia Hlavackova introduces her guest, Nadia Humphreys of Bloomberg.
Claudia Hlavack...: Nadia manages Bloomberg's Global Regulatory and Climate Solutions team. She also serves as another observer and previously co-rapporteur of the European Commission's Platform for Sustainable Finance, is a member of the Green Technical Advisory Group for Emergency Treasury UK, and the Green Finance Industry Taskforce convened by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and also sits on the Consultative Working Group of the Coordination Network of Sustainability for ESMA. She's a keen advocate for women in fintech, and sat on Bloomberg's EMEA Diversity Council. Prior to Bloomberg, Nadia worked at both JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs in a number of senior positions. So Nadia brings not only a great understanding of ESG regulations in both the EU and the UK, but also practical experience of building sustainable finance solutions and taxonomies globally. So welcome to Green Minds podcast, Nadia.
Nadia Humphreys: Thank you, Claudia, for inviting me.
Claudia Hlavack...: So as I read in your bio, you have an impressive career in finance. I'm very grateful for you to be here and to share a bit about this as well with us. But you also do a lot of technical advisory groups and policy tasks. So can you please share a bit more about your career journey developed and what brought you to work in sustainable finance?
Nadia Humphreys: Yeah, absolutely. So for me, my role in sustainable finance really took off actually quite late in my career. So I was a delegate on Europe's Technical Expert Group. I actually joined that group, whilst it founded in 2018, in 2019. So it was already a year in place. That group was tasked with building out this new tool, and that tool was called the Taxonomy. And the aim was really that it would act like a dictionary to define environmental sustainability. What that means is how would a cement manufacturer make green cement, how would a car manufacturer make green cars.
Now, my background was not in sustainability when I took that role. My background was actually in financial regulation. So what that meant was that I sat in something called the usability group. So we offered the commission advice on if you want an outcome that is the flow of private capital into these good industries, what regulatory or policy measures do we need to put in place that basically stimulate the financial sector to push capital into the right space. So that was the advice that I was giving.
Claudia Hlavack...: You have been working on the EU Taxonomy, but also now currently at the UK Taxonomy. Is there any kind of timeline in terms of when this UK Taxonomy is about to be published and how in-depth the document is, let's say, compared to EU? And maybe also from your experience, because EU is often quoted as, and you also mentioned this, as a leader. So how has the whole process been for you coming from the EU Taxonomy to the UK Taxonomy, and what's the stage of development?
Nadia Humphreys: Yeah, really good questions. And actually, I heard very recently from the Green Finance Institute that they have now counted 47 taxonomies in various shapes of development across the world. But your question is a good one on the UK. I also support the Singapore Taxonomy, and maybe to answer the Singapore Taxonomy, and similarly to what we see in China, their Taxonomy relates only to debt instruments. So not to the whole company.
The EU has a disclosure obligation in it. What that means is a company needs to assess its own operations and report turnover or capital expenditure or operating expenses that are aligned to these taxonomy activities. So if I'm a manufacturer of plastic and I am using appropriate recycling methods, the amount of recycled plastic I sell then forms part of my turnover KPI. So long as I meet all these technical screening criteria. So that's what the EU have done.
Now, the UK, on short, that Taxonomy regulation, but what they did is they stripped out all the reporting requirements. So the reporting requirement on the non-financial companies to report their Taxonomy KPIs. There's also a reporting obligation on banks or credit institutions and investment managers to report for what they invest in, how much of it's Taxonomy-aligned. And then there's another reporting obligation that is if I'm a fund manager and I claim my fund is sustainable in some way, then I need to tell you the percentage of it that is Taxonomy-aligned too. So all of those obligations don't sit on the UK's legal framework for the Taxonomy.
So in the role of GTAG, so the Green Technical Advisory Group, what we have been doing is we're writing papers that recommend does the UK employ the same reporting requirements as the EU. And what we find, for example, is if we look at the UK economy, how 70 to 80% of the large listed companies in the UK would sit in scope for EU reporting obligations under the new corporate sustainability reporting. So when we provide advice, we have to think if they have to do the EU thing and we tell them to do a slightly different UK thing, is that just adding an additional burden, having two different jurisdictions to find green in a different way and have different types of reporting styles. That's not really great, the outcome we both want.
So when we provide our advice in GTAG... And we should actually release a paper very, very soon, and that paper will explain what we think are the recommendations to the UK government into how they're going to report. Now, in the big green finance deal that they announced earlier this year, they said, "We are going to adopt the Taxonomy as a mandatory reporting requirement, but we're going to have two years of it being voluntary before the mandatory reporting kicks in." So that's what the UK are doing.
Gareth Mitchell: Nadia Humphreys speaking to Claudia Hlavackova, and that was on the Green Minds podcast. And you just heard a bit of a taster there, but Claudia and Nadia go on to discuss the challenges and opportunities in green regulation and how to get into a sustainable finance career. You can find that podcast and others via our Imperial College podcast directory through the Be Inspired pages on the Imperial website. There are titles on health and medicine, science and technology, climate and the environment, business and careers, and quite a bit more.
So that'll do for this particular podcast for this edition. We'll be back with more next time. But for now, from me, Gareth Mitchell, and all of us here on the podcast team, thanks for listening. Bye-bye.