Background
FameLab

Pádraic Flood, a University College Dublin (UCD) science graduate, beat off nearly 2,000 scientists from 22 countries, to be crowned the 2014 FameLab International Champion, at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival, held last week.

Pádraic, who graduated from UCD in 2008 with a BSc (Hons), is currently completing a PhD in plant genetics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.  Earlier this year he won the FameLab Benelux competition and represented the trio of countries at the FameLab International finals in Cheltenham.

Pádraic’s winning talk discussed improving photosynthesis to prevent food scarcity. He first took the audience into the leaf and told them about the mechanics of photosynthesis, leading to where light meets water, saying “it is at this point that light becomes life”. He then told the audience about food shortages in the future and how we might combat this through improving photosynthesis.

After winning the competition Pádraic said, “FameLab is fantastic, it opens a direct dialogue between scientists and the public, and I’m so glad to have been a part of it this year.”

For more click here

Perseid Meteor

Sky-watchers are in store for a once-in-a-lifetime meteor storm when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet. Astronomers are predicting that up to 1,000 shooting stars an hour could rain down on Earth hour as our planet passes through debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR this week.

The head of Astronomy Ireland, David Moore, has urged the public to get outside tomorrow night, Friday 23rd May, to try to catch a glimpse of the celestial fireworks that will fly from dusk till dawn.

“Imagine a thousand shooting stars per hour. It could be one every five to 10 seconds. It could be really spectacular,” he said. “Shooting stars are very rare and most people accidentally see one once every few years. If they go out for five to 10 minutes on that particular night they could see more than an astronomer sees in a lifetime. It is a very big event cosmically.”

For more click here or visit astronomy.ie

pintofscience

New scientific discoveries are happening all the time, fascinating developments which will change the future of the human race. But how often are you given the chance to really understand how these discoveries are made and what they mean?

The Pint of Science festival 2014 will see some of Ireland’s best scientific researchers hit pubs in Dublin and Cork to discuss their latest findings. This is your chance to get face-to-face with the people involved in carrying out current research! You can listen to them talk, join in games and quizzes, or just enjoy a chat over a pint. Find out what’s really going on in our bodies, our minds, in technology and much more!

Check out www.pintofscience.ie for more details!

johnny_coleman

Irish scientists have outlined how they managed to make the “wonder material” graphene, incredibly using dishwashing liquid and a kitchen blender!! Graphene is thin, strong, flexible and electrically conductive, and has the potential to transform electronics as well as other technologies.

The Irish-UK team (led by Prof Jonathan Coleman from Trinity College Dublin whose research we profiled in Series One of The Science Squad) poured graphite powder into a blender, then added water and dishwashing liquid, mixing at high speed. The results are published in the journal Nature Materials and their work has been reported by BBC News.

Because of its potential uses in industry, a number of researchers have been searching for ways to make defect-free graphene in large amounts. The material comprises a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure. Graphite – mixed with clay to produce the lead in pencils – is effectively made up of many layers of graphene stacked on top of one another.

Prof Coleman  and colleagues tested out a variety of laboratory mixers as well as kitchen blenders as potential tools for manufacturing the wonder material. They showed that the shearing force generated by a rapidly rotating tool in solution was sufficiently intense to separate the layers of graphene that make up graphite flakes without damaging their two-dimensional structure.

However, it’s not advisable to try this at home. The precise amount of dishwashing fluid that’s required is dependent on a number of different factors and the black solution containing graphene would need to be separated afterwards. But the researchers said their work “provides a significant step” towards deploying graphene in a variety of commercial applications.

The scientists have been working with UK-based firm Thomas Swan to scale up the process, with the aim of building a pilot plant that could produce a kilo of graphene per day by the end of the year. In addition to its potential uses in electronics, graphene might have applications in water treatment, oil spill clean-up and even in the production of thinner condoms.

mayo-clinic

“Our aim is to commercialise up to 20 U.S medical technologies and to create 10 spin-out companies in Ireland from collaboration with one of theworld’s leading medical institutions”  Enterprise Ireland

A collaboration between Enterprise Ireland and Mayo Clinic, USA will see the commercialisation of up to 20 novel medical technologies in Ireland over the next 5 years with the aim of creating several high value medical technology spin-out companies.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D. witnessed the signing of the agreement by Jeff Bolton, Vice President Mayo Clinic and Dr. Keith O’Neill, Director Lifesciences Commercialisation, Enterprise Ireland in Dublin today (10th April 2014).

Welcoming the collaboration the Taoiseach said “this agreement between Mayo Clinic U.S and Enterprise Ireland is highly significant from an economic perspective and builds on an Irish connection with Mayo Clinic extending back to the 19th century when the founders of the Mayo Clinic, brothers Will and Charlie Mayo, attended the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland”.

“Ireland is delighted to support the work of Mayo Clinic to develop medical technologies that will benefit patients worldwide and this project fits well with the medical technology strategy supported by the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs. There is great potential for job creation in 10 ‘spin-out’ companies Enterprise Ireland aims to create from this collaboration”.

The Irish Government will provide up to US$16M (€11.7M) through Enterprise Ireland’s Commercialisation Fund for the co-development and licensing of novel medical technologies developed at Mayo Clinic U.S. into Ireland where they will be commercialised. This will involve further development and validation of the technologies by research teams in Irish Higher Education Institutes, and introductions to investors to bring the technologies to market. Enterprise Ireland’s aim is to create 10 spin-out companies in addition to licensing/commercialisation relationships in Ireland for each medical technology.

The first project is under way in NUI Galway, internationally recognised for its expertise in Biomedical Science and Engineering. The device patented by the Mayo Clinic is for the treatment of acute pancreatitis. A team led by Dr Mark Bruzzi of NUI Galway aims to design and develop a prototype device for human clinical use, build on animal studies conducted thus far and advance the therapeutic technology towards a ‘first in man’ clinical investigation.
On the commercial side, NUI Galway will validate the market and reimbursement model for the device and support the exploitation of the commercial potential of the technology in Ireland.
Investors Aisling Capital, New York and ACT Venture Capital are currently advising the team at NUI, Galway on the establishment of a spin-out company around this technology.

Speaking at the announcement Jeff Bolton, VP Mayo Clinic said “Mayo is committed to improving medicine throughout the world for the benefit of patients everywhere. This collaboration with Enterprise Ireland provides a unique way of furthering the research and development of novel technologies that have high potential to make a difference in patient care, alleviating the burdens of human disease. We expect that this collaboration will pay dividends in the United States as the commercialized technologies will be sold in the US for the benefit of patients. We also expect that many of these companies will create a US presence in and around one or more of Mayo’s practice sites.

Welcoming today’s announcement, Richard Bruton T.D., Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said “One of the key aims of the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs is to put in place measures aimed at making it easier to commercialise and ultimately create jobs from ideas developed through publicly-funded research. Today’s announcement was made possible through State-funded research. This welcome agreement between the Mayo Clinic and Enterprise Ireland will further enhance Ireland’s reputation as a venue for commercialising advanced medical technologies with the aim of encouraging more high-value companies to establish in Ireland and creating high value jobs for this economy”.

Signing the agreement between Enterprise Ireland and Mayo Clinic, Dr. Keith O’Neill, Enterprise Ireland said, “this deal is a win-win as it will seed as many as 10 spin-out companies in Ireland whilst bringing advanced medical technologies to patients and providing a revenue stream back to Mayo Clinic to enhance its mission. We look forward to working with Mayo Clinic to create new companies around these world-class technologies some of which may, in time, establish a presence in Minnesota U.S, close to Mayo Clinic, benefiting the local economy there as well as in Ireland.”

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.