Background
Martyn-Pemble

Researchers at Tyndall National Institute, Cork, are partnering with scientists from the United States and Northern Ireland to unlock the energy potential in water. The project aims to use semiconductor materials and sunlight to isolate energy-laden hydrogen in water by replicating processes found in nature.

The €1million initiative, entitled ‘Research into Emerging Nanostructured Electrodes for the Splitting of Water’ (RENEW), is led by Professor Martyn Pemble and Dr Paul Hurley at Tyndall, Professor Paul McIntyre at Stanford University and Professor Andrew Mills at Queen’s University Belfast.

Borrowing from electronics, the researchers will first seek to create the optimum ‘artificial leaf’ using layers of semiconducting materials such as silicon. These would be water-resistant and used to ultimately create clean fuel by splitting the molecules of water into hydrogen and oxygen under natural conditions without any additional energy.

Stokes Professor of Materials Chemistry at Tyndall, Prof Pemble – one of four principal investigators for the project – explained: “The main focus for the project is a tiny, stacked arrangement of materials that is used for some transistors in the electronic industry. Previous work has shown that these structures can act as basic ‘artificial leaves’ for splitting water and the aim now is to make them more efficient.”

Professor Pemble added: “Professor McIntyre has shown that if you put the right metal on the surface of a silicon stack and provide light, then you can get it to oxidise water to give oxygen. Then, on another electrode connected to it – perhaps a platinum wire – the electrons that we have gained can be used to reduce water, and this produces hydrogen. So it only requires the sunlight to fall on this attack of layers where the water oxidation takes place. Then, according to Prof Andrew Mills, who is an acknowledged expert on photocatalysis, ‘the rest of the process is driven by the electrochemistry’.”

While previous similar processes for harvesting hydrogen for fuel have required the use of additional energy, or have been heavily reliant on the presence of ultra-violet light, RENEW will focus on using natural light and will experiment with a range of semi-conducting materials. Key to the process will be creating an impenetrable top layer that can withstand water’s corrosive effects, by a process known as atomic layer deposition.

Reflecting on the RENEW partnership, Professor Pemble noted, “We have been thinking about doing this for a long time – it is quite obvious that these layered structures can have other applications outside of electronics – and now we have got the opportunity to bring it forward. The ultimate goal is to combine our expertise to get to a point where you just drop the electrodes into water and when the sun comes out they would start to bubble away generating an unlimited, free and completely clean source of hydrogen, as well as oxygen.”

The RENEW project is expected to run for the next three years and is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation in the US, Science Foundation Ireland and the Department for Employment and Learning for Northern Ireland under the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership Program.

Enda Kenny DC Visit

13th March 2014, Washington D.C.:

The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny T.D. presented Dr. Garret A. FitzGerald with the inaugural SFI St. Patrick’s Day Science Medal at an Science Foundation Ireland hosted event in Washington D.C. The SFI St. Patrick’s Day Science Medal is intended to recognise the achievements of a distinguished Irish scientist or engineer, living and working in the USA, in particular their contribution back to Ireland.

Welcoming the award, the Taoiseach said: “I very much welcome this opportunity to present the inaugural Science Foundation Ireland St. Patrick’s Day medal to Dr. Garret FitzGerald. This award recognises the contribution of individuals who are outstanding in their fields of expertise, and have made a notable contribution to Ireland’s heritage of knowledge and research. Dr. FitzGerald’s achievements in his field are hugely outstanding and it is important that we in Ireland join those in the international scientific community who have already recognised his significant contribution to science.”

Dr. FitzGerald’s research is focused in the area of biomedical cardiovascular pharmacology and in particular the effects of pain medicines on cardiac systems. He was instrumental in the discoveries relating to the use of low-dose aspirin in preventing cardiac disease and to date has been awarded both the Irish Times/RDS Boyle Medal and the 2013 Grand Prix Scientifique – considered the world’s most prestigious honor for cardiovascular research. Dr. FitzGerald is the McNeil Professor in Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he also chairs the Department of Pharmacology and directs the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics.

Dr. Garret A. FitzGerald, MD, FRS, said: “The US remains the most innovative and supportive environment in which to pursue scientific research and the ties that bind us have delivered wonderful opportunities to the Irish people to harvest that resource to the benefit of scientific development at home. This has been realised through training of Irish scientists in the US and through Irish – American scientific collaboration both in academia and industry – often supported by Science Foundation Ireland, itself modelled on the US National Science Foundation. It is a great honor for me to receive the St. Patrick’s Day Medal which reflects the scientific dimension of the long and happy relationship between our countries.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Irish Government added: “SFI’s aim in creating the St. Patrick’s Day Science Medal is to recognise individuals who are not only outstanding in their fields of expertise but who have also demonstrably assisted researchers in Ireland in either academia or industry—via mentorship, supervision, collaboration, industrial development, entrepreneurship. Dr. FitzGerald’s commitment to the education of Irish people while living in the USA is admirable – offering a competitive summer program for Irish secondary school students, as well as training countless scientific investigators from Ireland.”

The SFI St. Patrick’s Day Science Medal was commissioned by SFI in consultation with the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. Jeweller Martina Hamilton, based in County Sligo, was selected to create the medal. An award winning designer with over 20 years experience as both a sculptor and silversmith, Martina’s design features a sterling silver orb with internal pattination mounted on a walnut base. Inspired by exploration and experimentation, the use of both positive and negative space in the piece represents scientific analysis and investigation. The orb itself reflects the recurring shapes found across many fields of science, from astronomy to microbiology.

Neurons

Geneticists from Trinity College Dublin interested in ‘reverse engineering’ the nervous system have made an important discovery with wider implications for repairing missing or broken links. They found that the same molecular switches that induce originally non-descript cells to specialise into the billions of unique nerve cell types are also responsible for making these nerve cells respond differently to the environment.

The geneticists are beginning to understand how these molecular switches, called ‘transcription factors’, turn on specific cellular labels to form complex bundles of nerves. These bundles function to ensure we respond and react appropriately to the incredible amount of information our brains encounter. Understanding how to precisely program nerve cells could help to target missing or broken links following serious injury or the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. 

Commenting on the importance and wider implications of this discovery, Assistant Professor in Genetics at Trinity, Juan Pablo Labrador said: “We know very little of how individual nerve cells are programmed to assemble into specific nerves in living organisms to make specific circuits, so our work is like reverse engineering the nervous system.”

“To restore damaged or missing connections in the nervous system – for example, after spinal cord injuries or degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – we need to know how nerve cells are programmed to make those connections in the first place. For that we require a complex ‘builder’s manual’ that tells us how to program the neurons to make the connections. What we are doing in my lab is trying to write this manual.”

The nervous system can be thought of as an incredibly complex network of wires, which are all arranged into different, related bundles to coordinate complex tasks. The wires are the cellular extensions from the individual nerve cells that assemble into bundles to form specific nerves. The geneticists have begun to understand how varied combinations of transcription factors work to generate different nerve cells and direct their wiring to form specific nerves.

By studying the behaviour of individual nerve cells that make connections with muscles, the geneticists discovered specific ‘footprints’ of labels that induced these nerve cells to assemble into specific bundles that link to their target muscles. Individual transcription factors are only able to turn on specific labels to some extent. It is only the action of all of them together that programmes the nerve cells to turn on all the labels required.

The research was just published in the high-profile journal Neuron. The team led by Assistant Professor Juan Pablo Labrador, found that the actions of the transcription factor influencing nerve cell differentiation in flies (‘Eve’) controls nerve cell surface labels.

The team also showed that if these labels, targeted by Eve, are expressed erroneously, the nerve cells will not form the correct nerves. Additionally, the team discovered that different combinations of transcription factors including Eve work as codes for different groups of labels that guide individual nerve development.

A link to the journal article is available here.

Neural Stem Cells
Stem cells can be manufactured for human use for the first time in Ireland, following Irish Medicines Board licensing of a new facility in Galway.

NUI Galway’s Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland aims to culture adult stem cells to tackle conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and associated conditions.

The centre, which is one of less than half a dozen in Europe authorised for stem cell manufacture, has been developed by researchers at NUIG’s regenerative medicine institute.

Stem cells serve as the body’s repair mechanism. They can be isolated from tissues such as bone marrow and fat, and cultured in laboratory settings.

More controversially, embryonic stem cells have been highly valued for their ability to turn into any type of cell in the body, but scientists can now use reprogrammed adult skin cells to create a stem cell that is very similar to embryonic versions.

The centre will be opened today by Minister of State for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock, at a time when the Health Research Board and Science Foundation Ireland have approved funding there for clinical trials on using mesenchymal stem cells – cells that can differentiate into a variety of types – for treatment of critical limb ischemia, a condition associated with diabetes that can result in amputation.

The new centre’s director Prof Tim O’Brien explained that the stem cells must be grown in the laboratory to generate sufficient quantities, following their isolation from the bone marrow of adult donors, and the facility will help Ireland to develop therapies for a broad range of clinical problems which do not have effective treatments today.

“It will also allow us to translate discoveries from the basic stem cell research programme led by Prof Frank Barry at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded REMEDI to the clinic, and to be competitive for grant funding under the Horizon 2020 programme of the EU,” he said.

Stem cell research in Ireland is in what scientists have described as a “legislative lacuna”, but this relates to use of embryonic stem cells and does not in any way inhibit the use of adult stem cells, Prof O’Brien explained.

“We can only engage in clinical trials with clinical authorisation from the IMB and approval from the hospital ethics committee, and we are currently seeking such approval for clinical trials,”he said.

“The license to manufacture is an essential pre requisite to seek permission to undertake clinical trials. The license certificate must be included with the clinical trial authorisation application.”

NUIG president Dr Jim Browne said the centre develops Galway’s role as a “med tech hub of global standing”, while Irish Medical Devices Association board member John O’Dea has pointed to the lucrative revenue to be earned from regenerative medicine products, valued at about €1.3 billion in 2013 and with a 40 per cent sales growth last year.

Some 70 per cent of pharmaceutical companies are working on regenerative medicine therapies – an area described as a crossover between biology and engineering – and NUIG estimates that there are over 1,900 cell therapy clinical trials under way globally.

(Report taken from the Irish Times)

Radiological_evaluation_through_HRCT

Scientists in Trinity College Dublin have identified a new process that causes scarring in the lungs of patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). The research was led by Professor Padraic Fallon, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin and was an international collaboration with scientists from University College Dublin, MRC-LMB Cambridge, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Erlangen. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Pulmonary fibrosis arises as a result of excessive scarring (fibrosis) of the lung tissue and is associated with shortness of breath.  IPF is a progressive chronic condition for which there are very few effective therapies available and consequentially there is a poor prognosis.  Despite extensive investigation, the causes underlying IPF remain unknown although it has been linked with exposure to cigarette smoke and other environmental factors such as occupational exposure to gases, chemicals and dust.  It is hypothesized that chronic and repeated injury to lung cells, in particular alveolar epithelial cells, results in the release of pro-fibrotic factors such as transforming growth factor β (TGF β). These factors induce fibroblasts to release collagen that leads to scaring of the lungs tissue and thereby compromising the function of the lungs.

In this new study the authors have used animal models of lung fibrosis to show an increase in expression of a cytokine, interleukin-25 (IL-25), in the lungs with the development of pulmonary fibrosis being dependent on the presence of IL-25. In addition, a new role for a novel immune cell type, the type 2 innate lymphoid cell (ILC2) previously discovered by Professor Fallon and colleagues, in the initiation of fibrosis was described. It was also shown that the ILC2, induced by IL-25, cells themselves can induce collagen deposition in the lung via the release of pro-fibrotic factors such as IL-13.

To address the relevance of these findings to human disease a cohort of patients with pulmonary fibrosis were recruited from clinical collaborators Professor Seamas Donnelly (St Vincent’s Hospital and University College Dublin), Dr Nikhil Hirani (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Ruairi Fahy (St James’s Hospital).  Lung biopsies samples were recovered from patients at initial diagnosis and on follow-up visits to assess progression. High levels of IL-25 in the lungs of patients at initial IPF diagnosed were associated with disease progression.  Furthermore, a population of ILC2 was also present in the lungs of IPF patients but not control patients.

These discoveries open up a new perspective on how scarring develops in the lungs of people, as well as in other sites of the body, and further identifies potential avenues to develop therapies.

Professor Padraic Fallon, Science Foundation Ireland Stokes Professor of Translation Immunology who led the study commented: “We have highlighted in laboratory models and in patients how the immune system can malfunction to stimulate specific cytokines and novel cell types that can lead to tissue damage which, in the context of this study, can induce lung fibrosis. We are now addressing how we can reverse such tissue scarring and identify why there are differences in severity of pulmonary inflammation and fibrosis between patients with lung diseases, such as IPF and asthma.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General, Science Foundation Ireland which funded the research jointly with the National Children’s Research Centre, and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland commented: “Pulmonary fibrosis is a devastating condition, with few treatment options. Professor Fallon’s research results provide a new understanding of the disease process and suggest new targets for future potential therapies – an example of excellent scientific research with potential future health and economic impacts.”

These studies may have broader implications to human disease. Professor Fallon and Wellcome Trust funded scientist Dr Sean Saunders in collaboration with Professor Graham Ogg (University of Oxford, UK) and Dr Andrew McKenzie (LMB Cambridge, UK) also just published this month in the leading medical peer-review journal The Journal of Experimental Medicine studies that implicate ILC2 and IL-25 in the development of atopic dermatitis (eczema) in patients.  The first author of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper Dr Emily Hams from Trinity College Dublin has also recently implicated a function for these cellular responses in regulation of obesity. These new studies raise the potential for therapies targeting the initial responses that evoke aberrant inflammation that leads to a range of major human inflammatory diseases.

The research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the National Children’s Research Centre.

BDI

Arizona State University (ASU) and Dublin City University (DCU), Dublin, Ireland – are joining forces to create the new International School of Biomedical Diagnostics, which will offer the first degree program of its kind. The initiative is at the cutting edge of establishing diagnostics as an independent discipline.

Diagnostics are at the center of healthcare innovation today. They are involved in over 60 percent of clinical decision-making and the industry employs more than 3.5 million people worldwide. Diagnostics are critical to personalized medicine – the process of targeting drugs to those for whom they will be most effective.

The new school will draw from several assets of each institution. At DCU, the school will build upon the award-winning M.Sc. in Biomedical Diagnostics program based at the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute, and upon expertise from its faculties of Science and Health, Engineering and Computing, and DCU Business School.

“This school has been designed and implemented as a result of ASU’s partnerships with Dublin City University and Ventana Medical Systems,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “This is a tremendous example of how higher education is being transformed on a global basis through new technology-enabled collaborations. The school will have a huge impact on personalized medicine, as well as lowering health care costs and focusing on earlier disease detection and on wellness rather than illness.”

“This is an important and exciting development of global significance. The field of diagnostics is changing rapidly, and education programs must keep pace with developments,” said DCU President Brian MacCraith. “By combining the expertise and geographical context of ASU and DCU, and by collaborating with industry partners such as Ventana, we will be in a strong position to provide programs that are always at the cutting edge.”

For more, click here

young scientist 2014

A Dublin student who found answers to previously unsolved mathematical problems has won the 50th BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition at the RDS. Paul Clarke undertook months of research into complex mathematical theory to become the young scientist of the year.

Paul Clarke of St Paul’s College in Raheny, Dublin wanted to do something new, solve mathematical problems linked to a concept known as cyclic graph theory. “I am looking at a number of unsolved problems in graph theory,” the 17-year-old fifth year explained. Graph theory provides a mathematical way to look at structured data, structured in the way data points are captured in a graph.

While graph theory is difficult it is extremely useful in a number of ways, Paul explained. It helps computers build complex models of experimental drugs or proteins, and can be used to solve puzzles like the “travelling salesman” that optimises the route that should be taken to visit a number of points in the least possible distance.

“It was demanding and needed dedication and motivation,” he acknowledged. For example he might pursue a possible answer but discover a month on that it would not work, particularly because the problems were “unsolved and hard”.

Paul received the BT Young Scientist of 2014 perpetual trophy, a cheque for €5,000 and the chance to represent Ireland at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

To find out about the other winners and more on the Exhibition, check out www.btyoungscientist.ie

BTYSTE 50th

In 1963 two physics researchers from the University College Dublin, Rev. Dr. Tom Burke and Dr. Tony Scott, came across the concept of ‘Science Fairs’ while conducting research in New Mexico, America. The pair decided that this type of hands-on science was something that students in Ireland could benefit from. And so the Young Scientist Exhibition was born.

Now in it’s 50th year, registration for the 2014 exhibition kicked off this afternoon and the winners will be announced in the RDS on Friday 10th January. Projects this year include a study into how our changing laundry habits could be causing E.coli infection, the development of “Moo Boots” to help heal bacterial infections that cause foot rot in cattle, and an investigation into how the principles of Lego building blocks might be able to help people trapped in crisis zones after an earthquake!

In series one of The Science Squad, we tracked down 3 former participants to find out what kind of impact the event has had on their careers, and met one former winner who’s now working on the greatest physics experiment the world has ever known! Check it out by clicking here

And for more on the BTYSTE check out www.btyoungscientist.ie

cmrf-logo

New research from the National Children’s Research Center, funded by the Children’s Medical Research Foundation (CMRF), has identified a link between child obesity and decreased effectiveness in the innate immune system among obese children.

The research, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, showed that one of the most important immune cells in the innate immune system – the invariant natural killer T cell – was much reduced in number and much less effective at doing its basic job in obese children.

According to Dr Declan Cody, senior paediatrician said, “This cell – the invariant natural killer T cell – has been described as a sensor and manager of inflammation, and when deficient or defective has been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer, so to see it already disappearing in children who are obese, is really worrying for their future risk”.

The study included 49 children from 6 to 16 years of age and showed that the children are switching on two types of genes that have been shown to be involved in type 2 diabetes and heart disease in adults. “These are very disturbing but fascinating findings” added Professor Carlos Blanco, head of the National Childrens Research Center, which funded the research.

Professor Blanco added: “The findings ultimately may allow us to predict those children most at risk of developing adult disease and therefore to target our interventions. In addition this work shows that the process of developing type 2 diabetes is well and truly underway at a genetic level in children as young as 6 years of age who are allowed to become obese”.

Professor Donal O’Shea, lead author on the study and Chairs the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland policy group on obesity.  He has presented the findings to the European Union Ministers for Health and The Coca Cola Company and said “These findings must be used to inform individuals, public policy and industry behaviour when it comes to our patterns of physical activity and food and drink consumption which are the main drivers of weight in children”.

rcsigarryduffy

A consortium led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the new Science Foundation Ireland centre Amber has received €8.7m funding for research into heart disease.

Called Amcare (Advanced Materials for Cardiac Regeneraton), the group involves ten partners from five European countries and the funding is part of the EU’s Framework Programme 7.

The Amcare programme, which will create ten new positions, will carry out research to develop natural materials and new surgical devices to enhance the delivery of the body’s own stem cells to the heart to promote healing after a heart attack and prevent premature death.

The therapies being developed will replace heart cells that die due to the reduced blood flow that occurs during a heart attack, with new healthy cells derived from stem cells that come from the patient’s own bone marrow.

Amcare is co-ordinated by Dr Garry Duffy, Department of Anatomy and Tissue Engineering Research Group, RCSI and Amber investigator.

He said: “Regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies have the potential to revolutionise the treatment of patients who have suffered a heart attack, and through Amcare we will develop new technologies to enhance stem cell therapies for these patients by increasing targeting and ease of delivery using advanced biomaterials.