Unlocking the secrets of the universe: Rosetta lander named Philae

02/05/04

A promising new way of controlling the mites that can cause asthma and other allergies is now under development.

It could lead to dramatic progress in preventing these conditions and reduce the estimated £700 million a year spent in the UK on treating them.

The technique uses a computer model to assess how modifying a domestic environment can reduce numbers of house dust mites in beds, carpets and elsewhere.

Development of the model has been led by University College London (UCL), in collaboration with Cambridge University and other partners, and with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). A 2 year follow-up project, also funded by EPSRC, will now improve the model and test it in homes around the UK.

Although almost invisible to the naked eye, house dust mites play a major role in asthma and other allergic conditions. The original EPSRC funded project found that mite numbers are heavily influenced by environmental conditions in homes, and by the heating regime, ventilation and humidity in particular. It produced a prototype model – the most advanced of its kind – that can assess how different building features and patterns of occupant use affect these conditions, and therefore house dust mite numbers. Room conditions are important because dust mites have a unique mechanism for taking up water which involves dribbling a salt solution from under their armpits to their mouth. This mechanism enables mites to take up water from the room air. If the room conditions become dry this salt solution crystallises, the mechanism stops and hence the mites dehydrate and eventually die.

The new project represents the next step in developing the model for use in devising anti-mite strategies for a range of UK house types. It will include laboratory monitoring of mite population growth in a range of conditions, which will generate data essential to the effectiveness of the model.

To validate the model, the project will also include a field study involving 60 houses across the country. This will measure temperature and humidity in bedrooms and beds, and monitor mite populations found in the beds.

Harnessing building science and acarology (the study of mites and ticks), the initiative is being led by Professor Tadj Oreszczyn of UCL. He said, "we aim to identify how homes can be designed and used so that mite populations are reduced to below the threshold at which health problems occur".

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Notes for Editors:

The current research initiative, "Controlling House Dust Mites by Environmental Means: Validation of a Combined Hygrothermal Population Model", will receive EPSRC funding of over £197,000. It will involve scientists at UCL, the University of Cambridge and London South Bank University, as well as industrial partners Insect Research & Development Ltd and Acaris Healthcare Solutions plc. The industrial partners, will provide equipment, facilities and analysis for both the laboratory experiments and the field study, and also help to steer the project and disseminate the results into real applications.

The original research initiative, "A Hygrothermal Model of House Dust Mite Response to Environmental Conditions in Dwellings", received total EPSRC funding of nearly £201,000. It involved UCL, the University of Cambridge, London South Bank University and Insect Research & Development Ltd.

There are currently 8 million asthma sufferers in the UK, with nearly 20,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

Human health is affected not by house dust mites themselves but by the allergens they produce in their faeces, which are the perfect size to get stuck inside people's lungs. To predict the allergens' effect on human health, a submodel needs to be developed that simulates the rate at which they are produced for a given mite population. The experiments to provide the data required to develop the submodel will be carried out as part of a separate EPSRC-funded project.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and from mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements in everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk

For more information, contact:

Professor Tadj Oreszczyn ( pronounced "arrest-rin")
University College London
Tel: 020-7679-5906/ 5916
e-mail: t.oreszczyn@ucl.ac.uk

There is a picture of a dust mite. (Black and White - as it is taken with a scanning electron microscope by the researcher). Suggested caption: "dust mites have a unique mechanism for taking up water which involves dribbling a salt solution from under their armpits to their mouth."

The EPSRC Press office
tel Natasha Richardson on 01793-444404
email: Natasha.richardson@epsrc.ac.uk or

Jonathan Wakefield
01793-444075
email: jonathan.wakefield@epsrc.ac.uk

Philae is the island in the river Nile on which an obelisk was found that had a bilingual inscription including the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This provided the French historian Jean-François Champollion with the final clues that enabled him to decipher the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone and unlock the secrets of the civilisation of ancient Egypt.

Just as the Philae Obelisk and the Rosetta Stone provided the keys to an ancient civilisation, the Philae lander and the Rosetta orbiter aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System - comets.

Germany, France, Italy and Hungary are the main contributors to the lander, working together with Austria, Finland, Ireland and the UK. The main contributors held national competitions to select the most appropriate name. Philae was proposed by 15-year-old Serena Olga Vismara from Arluno near Milan, Italy. Her hobbies are reading and surfing the internet, where she got the idea of naming the lander Philae. Her prize will be a visit to Kourou to attend the Rosetta launch.

Study of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko will allow scientists to look back 4600 million years to an epoch when no planets existed and only a vast swarm of asteroids and comets surrounded the Sun. On arrival at the comet in 2014, Philae will be commanded to self-eject from the orbiter and unfold its three legs, ready for a gentle touchdown. Immediately after touchdown, a harpoon will be fired to anchor Philae to the ground and prevent it escaping from the comet's extremely weak gravity. The legs can rotate, lift or tilt to return Philae to an upright position.

Philae will determine the physical properties of the comet's surface and subsurface and their chemical, mineralogical and isotopic composition. This will complement the orbiter's studies of the overall characterisation of the comet's dynamic properties and surface morphology. Philae may provide the final clues enabling the Rosetta mission to unlock the secrets of how life began on Earth.

"Whilst Rosetta's lander now has a name of its own, it is still only a part of the overall Rosetta mission. Let us look forward to seeing the Philae lander, Osiris, Midas and all the other instruments on board Rosetta start off on their great journey this month," said Professor David Southwood, ESA Director of Science.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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