COVID-19 Megaproject

Graphene Flagship deploys Stripy Stellacci to fight the Coronavirus

How can EU Flagships help with coronavirus pandemic? Human Brain Project offers IT power and cigarettes, while Graphene Flagship established a COVID-19 Task Force. With Francesco "Stripy" Stellacci as virology expert!

Graphene is a magic substance which earned its developers a Nobel Prize in 2010. It is also a 1 Billion Euro Flagship of the EU Commission. Since even Graphene Flagship is not exactly delivering as intended (where are the industry investments? Successfully commercialised products?), it now uses the opportunity of COVID-19 to justify its gigantic financing.

Graphene has namely set up a COVID-19 Task Force. And its chief virologist is the Swiss nanotechnology professor Francesco Stellacci, who is neither a virologist nor, as his past record shows, an exemplary scientist we should place our hopes, or in fact trust, upon.

Basically, Graphene Flagship seems to take everyone for a ride while jumping on the COVID-19 band waggon. But who can blame them, because this is exactly what nanotechnology, especially biomedical nanotechnology is about.

One of the first to grab the opportunity was the nanotechnology quack Thomas Webster from the Northeastern University in USA, who is also a prolific publisher of fraudulent data, both as author and as journal editor-in-chief (read here). Webster proposed to deploy nanoparticles to cure patients of coronavirus infections. And many others followed suit. Including Stellacci, supported by a piping hot ~$5 million grant for clinical trials with nanoparticles against COVID-19.

By now, there is a deluge of papers of how nanotechnology can save the world from the coronavirus. The bulk, like the Graphene plans, are mostly harmless, and envision nanostructure-coated virus-repelling surfaces, which is not likely really doable or practicable, but at least not dangerous.

Nanoparticles, especially of the metal or other hard variety, are namely toxic to humans and other animals when deployed internally, which doesn’t prevent scientists from constantly poisoning mice, rats, rabbits etc on an ego-trip pretence of some unhinged medical application, usually drug delivery. Most such studies are published in insignificant journals nobody really reads (or actually peer reviews, because quite often such studies are full of fraud).

But the journal ACS Nano is issued by the American Chemical Society and has an impact factor of 13.9, which means everything published there is scientifically much more better than most of your work, dear reader. Hence, a “perspective” which managed to combine nanotechnology with COVID-19 and… gut microbiome. No buzzword was left out in this peer-reviewed masterpiece:

Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, Stephanie A. Ward, Kamyar Kalantar-Zadeh, Emad M. El-Omar Considering the Effects of Microbiome and Diet on SARS-CoV-2 Infection: Nanotechnology Roles ACS Nano (2020) doi: 10.1021/acsnano.0c03402

Ingestible sensors can be designed for the detection of inflammatory proteins associated with COVID-19. (21) […] Nanotechnology can efficiently be implemented in designing intelligent drugs or functional foods, with the possibility of localized delivery in the gut, (22) and also in designing intelligent functional foods.(23) These drugs and foods should target problematic bacterial strains in the gastrointestinal tract and enhance its health by improving gut barriers against pathogens and inflammatory reagents and by providing the base for creating disruptive remedies based on microbiome engineering. (19)

As you see, it cites other peer reviewed literature. Biomedical nanotechnology was even before COVID-19 like a cocaine orgy: money is no issue, anything goes and nothing is too embarrassing. Now, the last pretence at decency is dropped because of The Plague.

Little wonder that that the one-billion-euro heavy Graphene, one of the three Titanic Flagships of the European Commission, had to join the party. Especially because very soon the 10 year funding period ends and the EU Commission will be taking final stock at what Graphene and its sister Flagship, the Human Brain Project (HBP) have achieved since 2014.

Human Drain Project

HBP is a total mess, they previously winged the mid-term evaluation by convincing the evaluating committee to skip proper evaluation and just issue an approval. Its brain-simulating founder Henry Markram is basically completely out of the HBP loop, being a laughing stock of most neuroscientists (possibly, but not certainly with the exception of those who publish in his Frontiers). The infighting continued even after the anti-Markram coup, presently its everyone against FZ Jülich in Germany, with which HBP scientific director, Katrin Amunts, is affiliated with. But then again I am biased, because Amunts (who previously gave me an interview) personally unleashed lawyers upon me. It led nowhere at all, this is why her former collaborator is still cited on my site and is still free to wonder about those human brains from Moscow popping up in Düsseldorf paper.

HBP is of course also fighting on the COVID-19 front. Voluntarily or not, they now let others use their Fenix supercomputers for coronavirus research, as part of the EXSCALATE4CoronaVirus project. But this is a kind of passive contribution, which basically consists of HBP people stopping playing brain simulation, and letting others to use their electronic toys.

The HBP scientists who designed the ingenious scientific strategy of offering the Fenix supercomuter to others, are Amunts and Thomas Lippert. But what else did HBP contribute so far, to make themselves look good to the EU Commission and the public, besides granting access to Fenix? Well, the 29 May press release lists nothing else in this regard, except this breakthrough:

“Using their expertise on the nicotine effect on the functions of neurons, HBP researchers have been able to investigate the question of the potential mitigating role of nicotine on the risk of infection after a study reported a surprisingly low number of smokers among COVID-19 patients.”

My regular readers will now scream in anger or collapse laughing. Because that “study” is actually a bizarre and highly dangerous opinion piece, published as preprint by the 84-year-old HBP member and nicotine receptor researcher Jean-Pierre Changeux of Institut Pasteur in Paris. The Qeios preprint basically recommends cigarettes and other tobacco products as COVID-19 prevention (read more here), against WHO recommendations and basic common sense. This unpeerreviewed drivel from tobacco-industry-sponsored Changeux is unlikely to make it into a serious journal, because The Lancet and NEJM have been badly burned now. Even Didier Raoult‘s private journal stable is off limits because Changeux’s coauthor Zahir Amoura is a chloroquine expert who failed to show support. Hence, I suggest here Frontiers (due to established HBP connection and propensity to publish bunk). Until then, every HBP scientists should go out for a smoke while coronavirus researchers use their supercomputers.

HBP scientist Jean-Pierre Changeux

COVID-19 Task Farce

The youngest of the three Flagships, named Quantum (because it intends to burn money with quantum speed while claiming to revolutionise computing) has offered nothing so far for the coronavirus efforts. They even avoid mentioning The Plague, for bad luck probably. A Quantum conference scheduled for November 2020, has been reluctantly postponed by one year, without once mentioning coronavirus or COVID-19.

There will be no more Flagships, in fact EU Commission abandoned the running call at the shortlisting stage, probably because that joke got too silly.

But now, Graphene’s “COVID-19 taskforce“, from the 5 June 2020 press release, titled:

Graphene Flagship launches COVID-19 task force

The backup of the press release is here. Which in turn referred to this announcement from 2 June 2020:


COVID-19 Working Group

Graphene Flagship experts unite to tackle the effects of present and future pandemics with technologies based on graphene and related materials

Background

The current COVID-19 pandemic brought to light an urgent need to devise new technologies to protect the human body from its immediate environment. Graphene and related materials are promising candidates for the design of a novel generation of surfaces to help deal with the daily challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as similar future diseases.

The Graphene Flagship Management Panel recognised that it is vital for the Graphene Flagship, as one of the largest European science and technology projects, to make use of all its collective and accumulated knowledge of graphene and related materials to fight the current pandemic – and those that may come in the future. To this end, it has assembled a targeted and multidisciplinary Working Group, comprising companies and researchers from across the consortium. The group’s ultimate objective is to fully exploit the potential of graphene and related materials in order to contribute to the global front against this unprecedented societal challenge.

Mission Statement

The Graphene Flagship Coronavirus Working Group aims to establish new connections between researchers, propose relevant topics for future funding calls, and initiate discussions with funders and stakeholders, with the ultimate ambition of making the best use of graphene and related materials (GRMs) in fields such as virology, biosensing and many others. 

Assembled in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the group comprises researchers from across the Graphene Flagship.

Members

Leader

  • Alberto Bianco, Deputy Leader of Work Package “Health and Environment”

Deputy

  • Paolo Samorì, Deputy Leader of Work Package “Functional Foams and Coatings”

Members

  • Andrea Ferrari, Graphene Flagship Science and Technology Officer
  • Mar García-Hernández, Leader of Work Package “Enabling Materials”
  • Amaia Zurutuza, Scientific Director of Graphene Flagship Partner Company Graphenea and Deputy Leader of Work Package “Wafer-Scale System Integration”
  • Cinzia Spinato, Graphene Flagship Business Developer at Graphene Flagship Partner ICN2
  • Anna Helman, Science Officer at Graphene Flagship Partner European Science Foundation 

Experts on the Chemistry of Viruses and Biochemical Sensing

  • Francesco Stellacci, Graphene Flagship Partner EPFL
  • Arben Merkoçi, Graphene Flagship Partner ICN2

Areas of Interest

The Working Group will have a 360-degree approach, covering fundamental to applied solutions. The group will investigate:

  • The inhibition of the virus by graphene and related materials dispersed in solutions 
  • Whether graphene and related materials have the same capacity as antivirals as already demonstrated against bacteria
  • How to modify graphene and related materials with antiviral agents
  • How to design chemically tailored materials to either promote viruses’ adhesion and inhibit their biological activity once adsorbed, or repel viruses
  • How to design coated surfaces better able to withstand repeated cleaning cycles
  • How to formulate disinfectant solutions and detergents containing graphene and related materials to clean surfaces
  • How to design disposable masks, aprons and wearable tissues, with higher impermeability to viruses
  • How to develop personal protective equipment technologies able to act as a barrier between the environment and human body 
  • How to create smart tissue, embedding by design not only anti-viral characteristics, but also with other functions 
  • How to design new chemical, electrochemical and optical sensors with high specificity for early diagnostics, and for portable point-of-care devices
  • The wider challenges posed by global pandemics, such as how graphene and related materials can improve remote working: for example, by improving telecoms and datacoms, or through the development of more efficient batteries for a new green society.

Sure, why not. Graphene is so multifunctional, especially when combined with bird droppings (sic!), it stands to reason that graphene, preferably bird-shit-doped, can also solve the coronavirus pandemic. At least they don’t plan to use graphene internally, as other nanotechnologists are striving to do. This sentence is hilarious though:

“Whether graphene and related materials have the same capacity as antivirals as already demonstrated against bacteria”.

The educated argument being, viruses and bacteria are both very small, so… Really, I can’t be bothered to explain it here. No wonder if their “virology expert” is Francesco Stellacci.

Destroyer of viruses

First of all, that Italian “Expert on the Chemistry of Viruses” is not a virologist, but materials scientist by training and nanotechnology professor at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Stellacci never published anything on viruses until 2 years ago, when he issued Cagno et al Nature Materials 2018, where he and his coauthors claimed to have designed sulfonated gold nanoparticles with antiviral properties. Since it was published in a materials science journal, one could suspect that the peer reviewers had same virology or microbiology qualifications as Stellacci does. Nevertheless, the peer reviewers valiantly fought before surrendering, because the manuscript was accepted only a year after it was submitted.

Figure 2 of Cagno et al Nature Materials 2018. Viricidal nanoparticles destroy the virus “immediately”, the authors say in ~30 seconds. But how can masses of nanoparticles propel themselves so fast to attack the virus, in a matter of seconds?

The paper concluded with ideas for in-human use for therapy and prophylaxis:

“it should be stressed that the strategy proposed is intrinsically broad spectrum, allowing the potential prevention and treatment of multiple viral infections with a single drug, a great advantage mostly in virology, where rapid and at times unexpected infections occur. For example, West Nile, yellow fever, and dengue are growing threats. All these viruses belong to
the Flaviviridae family, and are HSPG-binding viruses. […] Similarly, the Filoviridae family contains several human pathogens causing haemorrhagic fevers, including Ebola virus, for which drugs are urgently needed. [..] Overall, what is presented here is a first step towards the development of treatments for many worldwide threatening viral infections. Further in-depth in vivo experimentations will be needed to determine whether prophylactic or therapeutic uses of this discovery will be appropriate
“.

The COVID-19 cure was already there, 2 years ago! A couple more papers followed, signed by Stellacci and celebrating the virus-destroying sulfonated gold nanoparticles, until in May 2020, the EPFL nanotechnologist and coauthors (mostly other nanotechnologists) issued this white paper, in ACS Nano:

C Weiss, M Carriere, L Fusco, I Capua, JA Regla-Nava, M Pasquali, JA. Scott, F Vitale, MA Unal, C Mattevi, D Bedognetti, A Merkoçi, E Tasciotti, A Yilmazer, Y Gogotsi, F Stellacci, LG Delogu Toward Nanotechnology-Enabled Approaches against the COVID-19 Pandemic ACS Nano (2020) doi: 10.1021/acsnano.0c03697

The abstract offers big promises:

“Nanotechnology tools to inactivate SARS-CoV-2 in patients could also be explored. In this case, nanomaterials could be used to deliver drugs to the pulmonary system to inhibit interaction between angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors and viral S protein. Moreover, the concept of “nanoimmunity by design” can help us to design materials for immune modulation, either stimulating or suppressing the immune response, which would find applications in the context of vaccine development for SARS-CoV-2 or in counteracting the cytokine storm, respectively.”

It is a collection of random buzzwords, without any connection to biological or chemical reality, which basically is biomedical nanotechnology in a nutshell. You may laugh, but this is serious. Stellacci’s nanoparticles will cure the humanity not just of the coronavirus, but OF ALL VIRUSES. Because Stellacci just received a grant from CHF 5 Million from the Werner Siemens Foundation for clinical trials on humans with his nanoparticles. Stellacci is positive:

We’ve already developed a treatment that works in vitro to block HIV, HRSV [human respiratory syncytial virus] and the dengue, Zika and herpes viruses. We’ve now added SARS-CoV-2 to our experiments. If our treatment turns out to be safe and effective, it can be used for all those diseases.

What if Stellacci is onto something after all? What if that 2 year-old Nature Materials paper does qualify him as a leading virologist of European calibre? What if his gold, wait, not gold, now it is graphene nanoparticles, will save us all from The Plague? In 30 seconds, no less?

Stellacci’s Stripy Past

Well. Stellacci is namely also the inventor of “striped” nanoparticles (incidentally also made of sulfonated gold) which Stellacci claimed can be used to deliver drugs to diseased cells in your body. In this regard, please read that old article of mine and the blog posts by Stellacci’s critic Raphael Levy, nanotechnology researcher at the University of Liverpool, UK. Levy was supported in his criticism by his Liverpool colleague Dave Fernig and in particular by Philip Moriarty at University of Nottingham.

In 2004, a paper from Stellacci’s EPFL lab in Nature Materials (Jackson et al. 2004) described “striped” nanoparticles, where alternating functional coatings (sulfonate and octanethiol) were microphotographed arranged on the gold nanoparticle core through a mysterious act of self-assembly in a geometrical pattern (hence, striped). Stellacci proclaimed:

We’ve created the first fully synthetic material that can pass through a cell membrane without rupturing it, and we’ve found that order on the nanometer scale is necessary to provide this property

Right after, in 2005, Stellacci’s graduate student Predrag Djuranovic, blew the whistle and raised concerns about the validity of that study. Djuranovic happened to prove that the stripes were nothing else but a artefact of scanning microscopy. I.e., the stripes did not exist in reality.

Figures from Djuranovic’s report 2005

Although not because of Stellacci, Djuranovic left EPFL, returned for PhD studies at MIT in USA, and eventually dropped out. Stellacci has been flooded with millions of euros from the Graphene Flagship alone. Which is exactly how academia works.

With the troublesome whistleblower out of the way, Stellacci continued his stripy quest. The 2004 paper was followed by another Nature Materials study in 2008 (Verma et al. 2008), where the striped peculiarity allegedly allowed the nanoparticles to enter the cytoplasm directly, which is amazing, because all “pedestrian” nanoparticles end up trapped inside cellular endosomes (i.e., the de-facto outside) and don’t really deliver anything anywhere. More papers followed, all stemming from the Stellacci lab, claiming to prove again and again that the critics are all wrong, that the striped nanoparticles do exist, and that they surely penetrate the cytosol because of the stripes.

The conflict became public in 2009 (see Levy’s blogpost), but the earliest media report is from 2012. By now nobody, not even Stellacci himself, is talking about striped nanoparticles, which were most obviously nothing but an obvious confocal microscopy artefact combined with some questionable research practices and with aggressive arrogance of Stellacci and his close collaborators.

As it turned out, Stellacci has been recycling images in 5 papers to prove that his striped nanoparticles work, as Levy accused him in this blogpost. The papers accused here are both 2004 and 2008 Nature Materials studies and Centrone et al PNAS 2008, Jackson et al JACS 2006, Hu et al Scann Probe Microsc 2009, Hu et al J Phys Chem 2008, and Uzun et al Chem Comm 2008.

Fernig summed up the journal responses here, back then no editor planned to take any action. Later on there were some corrections. This was the evidence Levy posted in 2013, quoted comments are his:

“The image has been manipulated substantially (contrast, cropping, possibly some filtering).”
“Figure 1a of paper 1 (also re-used in fig 8 [JACS 2006]) is re-used in fig 2 of [Scann Probe Micr 2009]. The image is cropped differently.”
“Figure 1a is a crop from the image shown in Figure 8, with a change of contrast. That same image is also re-used in another article (Case 3).”
“In Fig 5, the figure legend says ‘The particles imaged are the same ones of Figure 3’ (SIC). This is a misleading statement: it is not two images of the same particles but the same image presented with different contrasts.”

Levy noted that in case of Hu et al Scann Probe Micr 2009, “all of the experimental STM figures in paper 2 (i.e. Fig 2-5) contain data re-use (from two different articles).” Not just that:

“This re-used STM image of a single nanoparticle is the only published STM evidence for the ‘stripiness’ of this type of water-soluble stripy nanoparticles (2:1 MUS:OT) used in paper [Nature Materials 2008] as well as in recent publications (e.g. Biointerphases, 2012, 7, 1-4).”

Stellacci got away with some occasional corrigenda of his stripy nanoparticle saga, but otherwise kept doubling down and rejecting all criticisms of his critics. The last ever publication by Stellacci on that matter was his rebuttal to Levy’s and colleagues’ criticisms in PLOS One: Ong & Stellacci, PLOS ONE 2015 was Stellacci’s last word on stripy nanoparticles, more than 10 years after the affair began. Despite overwhelming evidence, Stellacci still maintains his stripy objects were real, working and biomedically promising. Now the EPFL professor turned to fighting viruses, all of them, but with a different kind of nano-gold.

I hope I now convinced you that Stellacci is exactly the right person to put in charge of a COVID-19 Task Force by the billion-euro heavy Graphene Flagship. Its press office promised to reply eventually. I will update below.


Update 23.06.2020

Yesterday, Graphene Flagship Communications Team provided this statement.

“Thanks for spotting a typo in the press release. Please note that the Graphene Flagship COVID-19 Taskforce official web page indicates that Prof. Francesco Stellacci is an expert in materials and virus interactions, and the press release has been amended accordingly.

The Graphene Flagship is also currently working on expanding our taskforce with further researchers with backgrounds in medicine and virology, who are members of the Graphene Flagship European Consortium. We will announce the new names as soon as they are approved.

The Graphene Flagship is also happy to discuss any issues concerning graphene and related materials. However, it is not the remit of the Graphene Flagship to discuss nanoparticles that do not contain graphene.”

I pointed out that Stellacci didn’t publish that much on graphene either. To be fair, he published virtually nothing on that area. Both the striped and the viricidal nanoparticle are made of gold, not graphene. For some reason, the Flagship press people refuse to comment about the former non-graphene nanoparticles, yet eagerly comment about the latter. Going so far into non-graphene territory as to call Stellacci and another colleague “experts in materials and virus interactions“. Before he and the Barcelona biosensors researcher Arben Merkoçi used to be “virology experts“, but that was apparently “a typo”. I asked Graphene Press team to clarify.

Incidentally, Merkoci is the successor editor-in-chief of the journal Biosensors & Bioelectronics to none other but journal’s founder Tony Turner. Whom my readers will recognise as mentor of the graphene-enthusiast Ashutosh Tiwari and partner of his scamferences. Same Turner who was found guilty of research misconduct, sacked as EiC of his journal and removed from his post at Linköping University in Sweden. Small world!


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4 comments on “Graphene Flagship deploys Stripy Stellacci to fight the Coronavirus

  1. “But the journal ACS Nano is issued by the American Chemical Society and has an impact factor of 13.9, which means everything published there is scientifically much more better than most of your work, dear reader.” More cited is of course not more better. Just because the nanoboffins cite themselves and each with the frenzy of rabid ferrets in the papers they publish every other day does not mean they have any impact outside of their nanobubble. This was noted long ago by Eugene Garfield for fields like cancer, immunology and neuroscience – where the average citations per paper was much higher than in other fields. Think of it more as scientific – or more likely pseudoscientific – froth.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, that’s very 21st century “science”. No concrete solution to a problem, but promises and self-proclamed success in articles useful for self-promotion. Mankind faces problem X? Good that I developed some technology Y. So I can shine like a hero and tell taxpayers I was active to solve problem X while others wasted their time reviewing raw data from their team, my students/PDRAs wasted resources to produce N articles with technology Y that remotely touches problem X. Like I use to write in abstracts, I am sure my approach “paves the way” to a solution to problem X. You never know, some people might actually read the papers and think on their own. Better inform them my work is the future of the field and educate them to recognize a “breakthrough”. I hear people saying mankind faces problem X, then one should select methods that proved they are best suited to tackle it. What’s their h-index again?

    Like

  3. Please have also a look on all those buzz arising arund metal organic frameworks for bio-whatever applications. You will have a lot to laugh for. Unfortunately many material scientists do not have enough competence and rigorous methods. Stellacci is mostly crap, a sort of reverse King Midas.

    Like

  4. Pingback: We arrived at Vitamin D as COVID-19 cure – For Better Science

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