A Catalan-led European research project will involve caregivers of people with Alzheimer's in creating ICT tools to make their lives easier14.05.2020About 50 million people worldwide are currently suffering from dementia, and 10 million new cases are identified every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which considers it an increasingly common chronic disease. In this context, a European research project has just been launched which aims to develop ICT tools designed to facilitate everyday care for people with Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia.
The project is called 'Co-Created ICT Solutions for Alzheimer's Informal Caregiving' (Co-Care), and is being led by researchers at the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC), through the Methodology, methods, models and outcomes of health and social sciences (M3O) and Digital Care research groups, with the participation of two other Catalan partners: the Pasqual Maragall Foundation for Alzheimer's research and Confluència Solucions de Convergència Digital i Mobilitat. Seven other partners from Portugal, the United Kingdom and Belgium are also involved.
Technology at the service of people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers
Academic stakeholders - primarily universities offering bachelor's degree courses in the fields of health, social and technology but also the business world - are taking part in the project to design and apply new technological products and services to make life easier for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers. However, it will directly involve the end users - both the caregivers and those in their care. "Dementia is one of the main causes of disability and dependence among elderly people, and it has a physical, psychological, social and economic impact not only on Alzheimer's patients, but also on their caregivers and families and on society in general," says Anna Ramon, the coordinator of the project and a researcher in the M3O research group.
Precisely for this reason, adds Ramon, "the involvement of caregivers in designing the tools will be one of the hallmarks of the project, and their participation from the outset "will ensure that the products are the most suitable for their needs, and therefore ensure greater usability and efficiency." According to the researcher, the ultimate goal is to "improve the quality of life of people with Alzheimer's disease and of their caregivers, which is why the tools developed will primarily be used to improve the quality of care that informal caregivers provide for people suffering from the disease, to create a social network for them to support each other, and to help them stay healthy."
A multidisciplinary project
The project, which officially began on 1 January, will last 3 years and is being carried out within the framework of the Knowledge Alliances call of the Erasmus+ programme, which organises transnational activities by higher education institutions and businesses.
Researchers from two UVic-UCC research groups and two different faculties - the Faculty of Science and Technology, and the Faculty of Health and Sciences and Welfare - are involved in Co-Care, "to provide a response in the two areas of the project: the health and social sphere, and the technological sphere," says Anna Ramon. In addition to Dr Ramon, the other participants from UVic-UCC will be Josan Merchan, Eduard Minobes and Montse Romero, who belong to the M3O research group, and Cristina Borralleras and Sergi Grau, a member of the Digital Care group. This experience also aims to improve the learning process for students on bachelor's degree courses in the fields of health and social sciences and technological disciplines, as one of its indirect aims is to improve training programmes on courses by means of applied experiences from an interdisciplinary and person-centred perspective.
The other two partners involved are the Pasqual Maragall Foundation and Confluència Solucions de Convergència Digital i Mobilitat, a company specialising in ICTs. The former will provide its knowledge of the disease and facilitate contact with caregivers, and the latter will provide its expertise in developing technological solutions in the healthcare field.
COVID-19 highlights the key role of this project
Despite the launch of Co-Care last January, the need for spaces, tools and resources such as those it offers has become more apparent than ever with the onset of the Covid-19 health emergency. Both people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers, as well as society as a whole, have had to cope with an unprecedented new situation that may have had a significant impact on these two groups.
"Breaking the routines that people with Alzheimer's had, such as receiving home care, visiting relatives, attending a day centre and keeping medical appointments can have a direct impact on their well-being, increasing the anxiety, apathy or confusion of the person who is affected, and making the situation much more difficult for the caregiver, who has also become much more isolated as a result of the lockdown," explains Glòria Mas, a therapist at the Pasqual Maragall Foundation.
According to the researchers, the conclusion that can be drawn from the current situation is that the resources that Co-care is developing will be very helpful in health emergencies such as the one we have experienced in recent months, or in similar situations. "The opportunity for them to have access to a community of people who are experiencing circumstances similar to their own is very valuable, because it means they can feel understood, they can gain strength from the experience of others, they can avoid isolation, share their concerns and well-being, find creative or alternative strategies and solutions, and enhance the bonds of support and help in the caregiver community. That's why in a situation like the present, they will enable caregivers to become connected to overcome the loneliness involved in not being able to go out and ask for support, help or advice when caring for people with Alzheimer's," concludes Mas. Meanwhile, the project's other results, such as training for students and professionals in the health, social and technological fields and the project Toolkit will also have a virtual format, also as a result of the current circumstances.
First meeting in Vic
All the Co-Care partners held a first working meeting at UVic-UCC last February, at which they spent three days discussing the main milestones in the project, and the methodology and the schedule to be adopted. In addition, "we assessed the challenges and opportunities that the project can provide in order to take full advantage of them," explains Anna Ramon. She says that the next steps "will be deploying the first thematic area, preparing the communication strategy and each institution's internal affairs, which will help to take the project forward successfully."
Prioritària: Prioritària a Campus:
UVic-UCC becomes a one hundred percent online university and transfers its entire academic activity to the Internet31.03.2020Two weeks after moving to online teaching as a result of the suspension of face-to-face academic activities due to the coronavirus outbreak, classes on all bachelor's degree courses at the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC) are continuing through a variety of digital resources and platforms, with the Virtual Campus at the core of relationships and contact between teachers and students. "We have many types of subjects, and profound and complex changes have taken place in some of them, and both teachers and students have been very accommodating in terms of adapting to the new situation," says Albert Juncà, Vice-Rector for Teaching Staff, whose assessment of the first fortnight is highly positive.
Juncà explains that "because it appeared likely that face-to-face classes would have to stop, the Rector's Office had already begun working to deal with the situation days before it happened," which is why on the same day that the suspension of face-to-face teaching was announced, "all the teaching staff had already received their initial instructions, which have continued to be sent on a constant basis through the deans' offices and heads of study." According to the Vice-Rector, crucial factors have been that "each course has considered the best adjustment for its particular case" and that the Information and Communication Technology Unit, Teaching Support Unit and the Office of the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs (VOA) have "worked hard to meet the training needs of teachers quickly and precisely."
Juncà says that "the teaching staff's response to the new situation has been exemplary, and they are working to maintain the scheduled academic planning as much as possible." The Vice-Rector recalls that the main change that it has been necessary to address has been of a methodological nature (the transition from face-to-face to virtual teaching) and that "our teachers' high level of pedagogical training" has played a significant role in helping to make it possible. The format of some of the more practical activities has had to be changed, and some have had to be postponed until a later date. The lecturers in many subjects which depend on a physical environment such as laboratories, "have had to sharpen their wits, their creativity and their teaching expertise," he says.
In order to make the transition to online teaching as seamless as possible, a series of materials, resources and directions for teachers have been compiled in a guide, which according to the Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs, Cristina Vaqué, "contains good practices for creating online alternatives to face-to-face teaching activities." Regular teaching support sessions are also being organised for teaching staff, where doubts, alternatives, success stories and solutions are discussed.
Clearly defined resources for specific subjects
Apart from the virtual campus, teaching staff and students can use tools including Microsoft Teams and the platform Zoom to continue with their academic activities. In addition, each bachelor's degree course and each lecturer has adapted their contents in the way that they have considered most appropriate. For example, in the case of the bachelor's degree in Multimedia, the coordinator Raymond Lagonigro explains that "we are using cloud programming tools that enable students to write in various programming languages without installing applications and libraries, or having to set up development environments." According to Lagonigro, this working system "means that the teacher can see what the students are writing, and help them when they have problems, doubts or become stuck. They use resources like Sandbox, Stackblitz, codePen and GitHub.
Some lecturers, such as Gonzalo Flores who teaches Physical Education Teaching on the bachelor's degree course in Physical Education and Sports Sciences, use the application Edpuzzle, which allows them to add questions and activities to a video, which students have to answer and pass in order to continue viewing and complete the class or activity. This resource, combined with live classes via Zoom, "is dynamic and fun for the students, it means that the dates of the session can be flexible, and guarantees that the teacher has complete oversight over whether students complete the teaching material or not," says Flores.
In the Faculty of Business and Communication Studies (FEC) a team of teachers has created "UViConfinats" in Microsoft Teams, which they have used to link up since the beginning of the confinement, according to the coordinator of the bachelor's degree in Business Administration and Management, Carme Viladecans, in order to "learn to use the tool together to improve the teaching experience." In her case, she explains that she has transferred the ten hours a week she teaches to Teams. "Students have a positive view of this channel of contact, which in some way brings us closer to normality," she says. At the same time, she has adapted exercises and activities to enhance students' autonomy when doing them at home.
Other lecturers, such as Emma Hitchen, who teaches various English subjects at the FEC, have enhanced resources that they were already using in the normal classroom environment, such as Kahoot for doing grammar quizzes, tasks on Moodle and Quizlet to revise vocabulary. She has also introduced reading, visualisation and discussion topics focusing on the coronavirus health emergency in the classroom, and she has transferred oral presentations by her students onto Zoom. At the Language School, where she also teaches, classes are running as normal via Zoom, through the digital book and with conversation groups using Breakout Rooms.
The students' response to the new context has also been positive, says Juncà, who points out that "many were already familiar with the virtual environment and its dynamics." The Vice-Rector explains that the attendance and participation in classes is high, and the response to the forums and activities available has been massive in most subjects. "We have found that the activity and connectivity of students in virtual classrooms has shot up," he adds. More than 7,000 messages and an average of 300 video calls a day have been recorded in the Microsoft Teams collaborative tool, which teachers and students use for tutorials, among other purposes. On the Virtual Campus, "traffic has increased significantly because although the same number of people access it, they remain connected for much longer than usual, because they're working in virtual classrooms instead of physical ones," says Joan Busquiel, director of the ICT Area.
In this context, the third-year students on the Medicine degree course, whose entire teaching activity has been transferred to Zoom since the first day of the confinement, have sent a letter of thanks to the teaching staff of the Nephrology and Urology subject, which they are currently studying. "They are hard at work every day fighting for their patients' health at a very difficult time, and despite everything they are ready for us every afternoon, with all the material prepared, extremely professional and motivated, and they convey that attitude to us day after day," say the students.
"Adapting teaching from one day to the next without knowing how long the situation will last is a problem for everyone and is an extra workload," acknowledges the Vice-Rector for Teaching Staff, who says that many teachers have to cope with this challenge while taking care of children or elderly relatives. However, says Juncà, the tangible feeling is that it is also gratifying to see "how we have been able to adapt most of the subjects to the virtual format in record time." According to the Vice-Rector, this unexpected leap into virtual teaching that the University has been forced to make "has helped us overcome some of our fears and clearly shown us how virtual teaching resources can be a very good complement to face-to-face teaching for the future."
Preventative measures for coronavirus SARS-CoV-212.03.2020UVic-UCC has prepared coronavirus guidelines with short and specific answers to questions you may have regarding the present state of the epidemic within the university community. You will also find the latest updated guidelines here from the universities' governing bodies and the Committee for Health and Security at UVic-UCC.
Statement by the UVic-UCC to the university community on the coronavirus03.03.2020Following the declaration of the new coronavirus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Balmes University Foundation, the rector's office of the University of Vic - University of Central Catalonia and the institution's Health and Safety Committee have issued a statement. The document lists the most important information about this outbreak, known as COVID-19, to inform the university community about this disease.
Among other subjects, the document explains what coronavirus is, how it is transmitted, what its incubation period is, and what its symptoms are. It also points out that despite the fact that there is currently no treatment for COVID-19, there are many treatments which can control its symptoms, and list of generic personal protection measures is provided. It also provides information of interest to those in the university community who have to travel to other countries, especially those most severely affected by the outbreak, and those who have returned from travel.
Detailed information on the coronavirus can be found in this section of the University website.
A new model of the worm C. elegans to progress in the study of a rare disease of the nervous system20.02.2020
Chromosome X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X ALD) is a rare genetic disease in which long-chain fatty acids accumulate in the blood and the nervous tissue, and where the myelin in the neurons is damaged. People who suffer from it (1 in 14,700 newborns) may have, among other things, brain and mobility problems, as well as hormonal disorders. The cause is a deficiency in the ABCD1 gene, which encodes the adrenoleukodystrophy protein (ALDP), which transports long-chain fatty acids to peroxisomes. These organelles play a very important role in lipid degradation and their subsequent cell use.
This work has identified and characterized the worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) as a model of the disease, this model is deficient for the human analog protein (homologous) ALDP. The research team, co-led by Dr. Aurora Pujol and Esther Dalfó, analyzed the consequences of this deficit on a cellular level and found that, as in human and in existing mouse models, exists an accumulation of long-chain fatty acids, changes in lipid metabolism, oxidative imbalances in the mitochondria and neuronal disorders. The model will allow accelerating the study of this disease, for which there is currently no treatment.
The work, published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, has involved ICREA researchers from the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), the Network Biomedical Research Center (CIBERER), the Neurosciences Institute of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (INc-UAB), the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC), the Kennedy Krieger Institute from Baltimore, the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit from Cambridge, and the Institute of Biomedicine from Seville (IBIS).
A valuable genetic tool
"This model of adrenoleukodystrophy in C. elegans is a very valuable genetic tool that will allow us to study the mechanisms involved in the disease and to find pharmacological targets faster than with other animal models, such as mice, which are much more complex and involve a costly and economically expensive process," says Esther Dalfó, who now is leading the C elegans models of diseases group between INC-UAB and the UVic-UCC.
The research team has obtained its first results, which, despite being preliminary, suggest that glial cells, which are in the brain together with neurons, would be the first responsible for the neurological alterations associated with the disease.
"This new animal model has helped us to confirm that oxidative stress caused by mitochondria (the energy-producing organelles of cells) is the major cause of neuronal damage in adrenoleukodystrophy, and this mechanism of damage is conserved from the worm to the patient. The data point to new therapeutic pathways, such as mitochondrial antioxidants in peroxisome disease", says Aurora Pujol ICREA professor at IDIBELL.
C. elegans, neurons and genes like humans
The earthworm C. elegans is widely used in biomedical research because, despite being simple and small (measuring only 1 mm), it has most of the most complex animal structures and share most of the metabolic pathways with us. Besides, 40% of its genome is homologous to our genes and has a representation of all the neural populations in the human brain.
The genetic manipulation of this organism to create transgenic models to the study of the disease, such as X ALD, is faster than with other animal models such as rats or mice. Overall, taking into account characteristics like body transparency, numerous reproductions -up to 300 descendants- and the low cost, make the C. elegans an ideal tool for lab use.
Coppa A, Guha S, Fourcade S, Janani Parameswaran, Ruiz M, Moser AB, Schlüter A, Murphy MP, Lizcano JM, Miranda-Vizuete A, Dalfó E, Pujol A. The peroxisomal fatty acid transporter ABCD1/PMP-4 is required in the C. elegans hypodermis for axonal maintenance: A worm model for adrenoleukodystrophy. Free Radic Biol Med. 2020 Feb 1. pii: S0891-5849(19)32464-5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2020.01.177 [Epub ahead of print]
The FERTIMANURE launch meeting brings together the 21 international partners in the livestock manure research project in Vic13.02.2020Representatives of the 21 partners in the FERTIMANURE project met in Vic on 9 and 10 January, at the meeting to launch this European research project led by the BETA Technological Center (Biodiversity, Ecology and Technology and Environmental and Food Management) at the University of Vic - Central University of Catalonia (UVic-UCC). The project, with a budget of 8 million Euros, is funded by the Horizon 2020 call for social challenges, one of the most competitive in this European Union programme. In addition to the BETA Technological Center, the participants in the project include the Government of Catalonia's Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food (MALFFF), the Cooperativa Plana de Vic and the LEITAT Technology Centre.
For four years, until the end of 2024, FERTIMANURE will be developing innovative technologies to turn livestock manure into high value-added biological fertilisers (or biofertilisers), which are tailor-made for specific crops and competitive in today's market. The project will be working in two main areas: developing these technologies and processes, and creating business plans that enable them to be marketed and reach their final market, i.e. livestock farmers.
Last week's meeting, which took place at the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce offices in Vic, was an opportunity for all the partners to get to know each other, to present the various working areas within the project, and to lay the foundations together for the work that all of them will be undertaking, and the steps to be taken in the project's first months in particular.
Special emphasis was placed on how to be truly effective in rural development, in order to reduce pressure on the environment while at the same time improving the quality of life in these areas. The partners were also urged to work to make the project influence the definition of new European regulatory frameworks, such as the new Circular Economy Action Plan that the European Commission is working on.
"A perfect example of a circular economy"
The opening ceremony was chaired by the Catalan Minister of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Food, Teresa Jordà, who described FERTIMANURE as a "perfect example of a circular economy" which is closely connected with the land management model and the livestock manure that her Ministry is committed to. It is a model, she said, in which "manure is no longer treated as waste, and is considered a biological product that closes the agricultural and livestock production circle." Jordà said that this step represents a "paradigm shift and a new mental framework" and must "improve water and soil quality" but also "decriminalise a sector, pig farming, which has often had a bad reputation."
The event was also chaired by the rector of UVic-UCC, Josep-Eladi Baños, who emphasised the University's role as a key agent in meeting various needs in Catalonia outside the metropolitan area of Barcelona. In this respect, Baños described FERTIMANURE as a very clear example of how research gives "a response to a real problem that the country and its farmers in particular are suffering from." The rector also highlighted the importance of the Catalan government's involvement in the project, and described the BETA Technological Center as "the cornerstone of research at UVic-UCC, which helps improve the competitiveness and technological development of many companies based on sustainability criteria."
Turning a real problem into an opportunity
The director of the centre, Sergio Ponsá, said that FERTIMANURE "is the BETA's most important project," because "it is related to our mission to provide answers for our local society." Ponsá reminded the partners in the project that their goal is to "turn a real problem into a great opportunity" and to "achieve a major global impact". The Councillor for Economic Promotion, Employment and Trade of Vic City Council, Bet Piella, described the project as "a challenge that will provide new opportunities for our agricultural and livestock farmers and industry," and will help to create "a healthier city and region."
Livestock farms in Europe generate about 1,400 Mt of manure every year. More than 90% of this is returned to crops in the form of fertilisers. However, the use of this livestock manure as agricultural fertilisers is often inefficient or not sufficiently controlled, which leads to a problem of concentration of slurry, which is detrimental to crop yields and pollutes both soil and water.
The twenty European partners, and one from Argentina, cover the entire value chain, from livestock farmers to fertiliser production companies, by way of leading European universities and research centres, government agencies, clusters and associations.
Physical activity modifies how our DNA works, according to a study co-authored by Roberto Elosua 13.02.2020Physical activity is linked to changes in the structure of DNA without changing the sequence of letters in genes, their primary structure, according to a study by the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM) with the participation of Roberto Elosua, coordinator of the IMIM research group and a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine of UVic-UCC. The benefits are maximised if the physical activity is moderate to vigorous, in other words walking at a fast pace or doing some sport for at least 30 minutes every day. Changes in DNA act on one of the key elements in the metabolism of triglycerides, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease at high concentrations. They also influence how our genes are read and their level of expression.
The groups working on the study Physical Activity and Genome-wide DNA Methylation: The REGICOR Study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, were the Epidemiology and Cardiovascular Genetics Group at the IMIM, the Biomedical Research Networking Center on Cardiovascular Diseases (CIBERCV), the Biomedical Research Center Network of Epidemiology and Public Health (CIBERESP), the Centro de Investigación Biomèdica en Red Cáncer (CIBERONC), the Josep Carreras Research Institute and the Faculty of Medicine at UViC-UCC. Roberto Elosua, coordinator of the IMIM research group and an author of the study, says that "we know that lifestyle has an impact on how the information in our genes is expressed, and we wondered whether physical activity would be related to any changes in one of these biological mechanisms: DNA methylation."
The importance of DNA methylation
DNA methylation is a chemical change in the DNA molecule which does not alter the sequence of letters that determines the level of the genes' expression, i.e. their ability or otherwise to generate proteins. The level of DNA methylation has been linked to various diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
"In our analyses, we observed that people who engage in more moderate-vigorous physical activity have lower levels of methylation at two places in their DNA," says researcher Alba Fernández Sanlés, one of the lead authors of the study. In fact, this type of activity is recommended to the general population as a measure for good health, and it is where the greatest benefit is obtained, according to the study. Methylation is a mechanism that regulates the ability of genes to express themselves, or in other words, whether they produce proteins or not.
Alba Fernández Sanlés says that "one of the genes that we found with changes in its methylation marks is related to triglyceride metabolism. We know that physical activity reduces its levels, so our data suggest that methylation of this DNA site could be a mediating mechanism for how physical activity affects them." The researchers analysed data from two western populations, one from Catalonia RECIGOR group (the Girona COR Register) and the other from the United States (the Framingham Offspring Study).
They were able to work with the data for physical activity of a total of 2,544 people between the ages of 35 and 74, using questionnaires validated by the international scientific community. Their DNA methylation was studied using blood samples from the volunteers, and more than 400,000 DNA markers for each of these individuals were analysed.
The researchers believe that lifestyle affects our DNA methylation, and that these changes may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. "Previous studies have also shown that smoking alters DNA methylation levels," says Dr Elosua, who highlights "the importance of promoting a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity in preventing cardiovascular diseases." The project was funded with grants from the Government of Catalonia and the Carlos III Health Institute.
Photo: Alba Fernández Sanlés and Roberto Elosua
The European DestiMED+ project begins in Malaga with the participation of the BETA Technological Center13.02.2020The researchers Joan Colón and Mercè Boy-Roura of the BETA Technological Center at UVic-UCC attended the launch meeting of the DestiMED+ European project in Malaga on Wednesday and Thursday. This research initiative is funded by the Interreg MED program and focuses on sustainable tourism in the Mediterranean, especially in protected areas. At this initial meeting, the fourteen institutions involved, of which nine are regional governments, shared some ideas to promote ecotourism and to establish an innovative methodology for assessing the socio-economic impact of this type of tourism.
The BETA Technological Center will contribute to this project by analysing the sustainability of the proposals made, in a process that will take simultaneously into account their environmental, economic and social impact. The work of the UVic-UCC research centre will be to monitor, evaluate and promote the development of more sustainable tourism in the Mediterranean.
The DestiMED+ project has created a consortium of regional government dedicated to the conservation of the region, with members from Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Belgium, France and Albania. Catalonia is represented by the Ministry of Territory and Sustainability of the Government of Catalonia. The BETA Technological Center is the only research centre that is part of this team, which includes important international organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund.