Background
FloatingRocks-Canaries

The most recent eruption on the Canary Islands – at El Hierro in 2011 – produced spectacularly enigmatic white “floating rocks” that originated from the layers of oceanic sedimentary rock underneath the island. Despite being violently transported through the volcano, some of these rocks contain microscopic fossils of delicate single-celled marine organisms, making the survival of these fossils all the more extraordinary. A new study published in Scientific Reports, an open access journal of the Nature Publishing Group, by a team of scientists which includes Prof Valentin Troll and Dr Fiona Meade (formally of Trinity College Dublin), uses these fossil time-travellers to date the sedimentary layers beneath El Hierro and, in turn, shed new light on the long-standing puzzle about the origin of the Canary Islands.

The origin and life cycle of oceanic volcanoes, such as the Canary Islands, has long been a source of debate among natural scientists. There are two competing models for the origin of the Canaries – one in which ocean floor fractures control the location of volcanic activity, and another in which an anomalously hot plume of molten rock from the Earth’s mantle feeds island growth from below. A cornerstone of the debate concerns the validity of an age-progression along the island chain. A fixed mantle plume under the roughly eastwards moving African tectonic plate would cause the islands and the pre-volcanic ocean sediments underlying them to become progressively younger towards the westernmost island of El Hierro. The fracture model, in turn, would give rise to randomly distributed island ages.

Fossils and volcanoes are not usually compatible with each other, which is what makes these samples so special. The newly published study in Scientific Reports by a research group led by Prof. Valentin Troll from Uppsala University, Sweden, offers a unique perspective on the plume versus fracture model debate for the origin of the Canary Islands. The fossils are de facto witnesses of the pre-island environment. Researchers can now place constraints on the ages of the sedimentary strata present before island-building and, indeed, on the initiation of island-building itself. In combination with known sediment ages from the east of the archipelago, it is now clear that the oceanic sediments become younger towards the west of the island chain, thus verifying an age-progression among the islands. These findings are in strong agreement with the mantle plume model for the origin of the Canary Islands and thus contribute to our wider understanding of ocean island volcano genesis.

For more information please contact Prof. Valentin R. Troll, Chair in Petrology at Uppsala University, valentin.troll@geo.uu.se

Zaczek, K., Troll, V. R., Cachao, M., Ferreira, J., Deegan, F.M., Carracedo, J.C., Soler, V., Meade, F.C., Burchardt, S. 2015. Nannofossils in 2011 El Hierro eruptive products reinstate plume model for Canary Islands. Scientific Reports 5:7945. DOI 10.1038/srep07945.

This project was initiated by Prof. Valentin Troll (Uppsala University, Sweden), Dr. Mario Cachao (University of Lisbon, Portugal), and Prof. Juan Carlos Carracedo (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain) and forms part of the doctoral thesis of Kirsten Zaczek at Uppsala University. The research was supported by an international team of co-workers from institutions in Spain and Portugal and by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA), the Center for Natural Disaster Sciences (CNDS) at Uppsala University and through the Swedish Science Foundation (VR).

Mike Hinchey Lero

Lero – the Irish Software Research Centre (Lero) has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) for the implementation of a research programme worth €400,000. The 18 month programme, which will be led by Lero Director Prof. Mike Hinchey, will commence this month.

Lero will collaborate with chip manufacturer Cobham Gaisler AB of Gothenburg, Sweden on the software behind specialist microchips to be used in European space missions. The Cobham Gaisler  LEON radiation hardened microchip, which was developed in association with the European Space Agency, is designed to operate in harsh environments such as space.

Lero researchers based at the University of Limerick will work on a new back end for the Open Source LLVM compiler library to enable it to be used for the LEON chip family. This is designed to expand the toolset available to developers working on the flight software for future European space missions in order to boost reliability.

This is the third and largest contract awarded in recent years by the European Space Agency to Lero, which is backed by Science Foundation Ireland.

“We are honoured to be selected for this important work,” commented Prof Mike Hinchey, Director, Lero. “Software designed for space missions needs to be leading edge and highly reliable in view of the cost, distance and unforgiving environment involved.”

Before heading up Lero, Prof. Hinchey was Director of the Software Engineering Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. He remains a consultant to NASA.

Lero (www.lero.ie) is a global leader in software engineering research. It combines the best in Irish software talent by bringing together researchers from Dublin City University, Dundalk Institute of Technology, NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, University College Dublin and University of Limerick. It is funded by Science Foundation Ireland as well as by contracts from Irish and international technology corporations.

Neurons
In a ground breaking paper just published in the international journal Neuron, an international consortium involving scientists and clinicians from Trinity College Dublin, led by their long term collaborator Dr John Landers of the University of Massachusetts has reported a new Motor Neuron Disease -associated gene (TUBA4A). The team have shown that they can identify new and important causes of Motor Neuron Disease (MND) through the detailed analysis of rare coding variations in DNA from people with MND.

Genes are a code within DNA used to make all the proteins in a human’s body. Some diseases are caused by faulty coding within our genes, leading to the manufacture of defective proteins. Finding these coding faults can help scientists to understand diseases like MND. The disease, which causes a gradual degradation and death of motor neurons, affects about 300 people in Ireland, with some 110 new cases reported each year.

Dr Landers’ group examined the DNA from 363 people with MND, each of whom also had another family member with the condition. They performed an analysis of every gene in the genome of these patients which generated trillions of individual DNA base cells. Piecing these together, they searched for patterns of rare damaging mutations that appeared more frequently in patients with MND than in people without the disease.

They found that more people than expected with MND had an unusual change in the code for a protein in nerve cells that transport vital building blocks from one part of the nerve cell to another. Damage to this transport system leads to dysfunction of the nerve, and understanding this may help scientists to find new treatments for MND.

This important discovery from Dr Lander’s laboratory, which required advanced DNA analysis by Irish scientist Dr Kevin Kenna, and used samples from the MND Research Group in Trinity College and other centres, has added another piece to the jigsaw of the understanding of the causes of MND.

Speaking about this discovery, Orla Hardiman, Professor of Neurology in Trinity College Dublin, Consultant Neurologist at Beaumont Hospital and one of the paper’s authors said: “We are very excited by Dr Landers’ finding for mutations in the gene TUBA4A in some forms of MND. We are particularly proud of the contribution of Dr Kenna, a young post-doctoral scientist who has recently completed his PhD in MND Genetics with our group in Trinity College Dublin.  This form of international collaboration across leading centres will help us to bring new treatments closer to the clinic.”

“We will continue to collect and analyse DNA from Irish patients with Motor Neuron Disease in collaboration with our colleagues in genetics, Dr Russell McLaughlin and Professor Dan Bradley at Trinity, as there are many discoveries still to be made in collaboration with our international colleagues,” she added.

A video describing this discovery and featuring Dr Kevin Kenna is available here: http://youtu.be/d1rCjNSNiI0

The paper is available from Neuron: http://www.cell.com/neuron/home

Media Contact

Yolanda Kennedy, Press Officer for the Faculty of Health Sciences |yokenned@tcd.ie | 01 896 3551

Space Enbio

Investment in 40 new projects to help transition high potential young talent to fully independent research leaders

Minister for Research and Innovation, Mr Seán Sherlock, T.D. has announced €23 million in new funding to help support 40 of Ireland’s most promising young research talent to become fully independent researchers. The funding which is being awarded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will help ensure that Ireland’s most talented young researchers can be encouraged to remain in Ireland, while also helping to attract excellent young researchers from other countries to base themselves here.

Minister for Research and Innovation, Mr Seán Sherlock TD said:“Funding for researchers at the outset of their careers is an important element of the Government’s strategy for job creation in research and innovation under our Action Plan for Jobs. SFI’s funding schemes for early career researchers help ensure that excellent research with the potential for real economic and societal impact is properly supported in Ireland. Investment like this is important for Ireland’s developing international reputation for excellent research with impact. The 40 research projects being awarded by SFI today demonstrate the enormous talent and potential that exists among Ireland’s young researchers.”

The €23 million in funding delivered by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, through SFI’s Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) and Career Development Award (CDA) Programmes will support researchers and post-graduate students working on projects in areas such as sustainable and renewable energy, cancer research, neurological disorders, immunology, microbiology, biotherapeutics and Wireless Networks.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of SFI and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said:“Both of the programmes under which funding is being announced today will help promising young researchers to create and develop impactful careers here in Ireland and in turn enable the pursuit of scientific research that has potential economic and societal impact. These programmes are also an important factor in ensuring that Ireland can succeed in persuading top young scientific talent from abroad to base their research efforts here in Ireland.”

SFI’s Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) provides support for excellent postdoctoral researchers who wish to take steps towards a fully independent research career, while the Career Development Award (CDA) aims to support early and mid-career researchers who already hold a salaried, independent research post and who are looking to expand their research activities. Both programmes aim to support the development of young researchers with the potential to become excellent, fully independent research leaders in their chosen fields.

The 40 research projects awarded funding today will be funded by SFI through 12 research bodies, as follows: Trinity College Dublin (5), National University of Ireland Galway (5), Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (4), Dublin City University (4), University College Cork (4), University of Limerick (4), National University of Ireland Maynooth (3), University College Dublin (3), National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (3), Teagasc (2), Tyndall National Institute (2) and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1).

A further 12 projects were also deemed scientifically excellent by the International Review Panel and are on a reserve list to be funded by SFI, if budgets permit later in the year.

Examples of projects supported:

Orla O’Sullivan (Teagasc Food Research Centre, Cork) SIRG

Orla’s research focuses on microbial diversity in the gut. Microbial diversity is highest in a healthy gut and Orla’s research will investigate if it is possible to improve that diversity and in turn improve the overall health of individuals. The research will also examine whether alterations in diet and/or lifestyle can influence microbial diversity and function.  Orla’s ultimate goal is to inform the potential development of nutritional supplements that can help improve human health.

Stephen Dooley (University of Limerick) SIRG

Stephen’s research will focus on understanding ways that cleaner and more versatile energy sources can be developed from indigenous biomass resources, including plant matter.  His goal is to find ways that help ensure that Ireland imports less fossil energy by creating environmentally benign energy technologies, particularly for transportation. He hopes that his research can help achieve this by informing a deeper and predictive understanding of how indigenous biomass, in particular, can be harnessed.

Patrick Hayden (Dublin City University) SIRG

Patrick’s research will investigate techniques that could improve the quality of laser-powered high-precision measurement. High-precision measurements on the composition and uniformity of drugs are useful to the pharmaceutical industry to help perform quality control as drugs are developed and produced. One method to perform these measurements is by measuring light emitted from the surface of the drug when a laser pulse is focused on it. The process is known as laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) at short wavelengths and Patrick’s research aims to increase the efficiency of this process. The research could also have applications in other areas including archaeology and forensic science.

Aoife Morrin (Dublin City University) CDA

Aoife’s research aims to explore the potential for the analysis of skin in non-invasive or minimally invasive diagnostic approaches as an alternative to more invasive blood sampling. Skin is the largest human organ and contains rich analytical information related to a wide variety of medical conditions. Pressures on healthcare systems have resulted in a greater focus on enhanced efficacy of treatments and cost reduction. As such, there is a lot of research into new diagnostics that can address these challenges. Aoife intends her research to demonstrate innovative approaches to the analysis of skin that can be used for the early detection of various conditions including eczema flare-ups, liver failure, and skin cancer.

Alex von Kriegsheim (University College Dublin) SIRG

Alex’s research aims to develop new treatments to help prevent against bowel cancer in patients with colitis and Crohn’s disease. Both conditions lead to chronic inflammation of the gut, which can in turn increase the risk of bowel cancer. Alex hopes that his research can identify the ways in which this inflammation causes the growth of cancer cells and how the process can be halted through the release of important enzymes known as hydroxylases, which are blocked in chronically inflamed tissues.

Click Here for the list of Funded Projects

MikeCoey

A team of researchers from the AMBER centre at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) are behind the discovery of a new magnetic material they claim will revolutionise the ICT sector.

The material is made from an alloy of three metals, manganese, ruthenium and gallium (MRG), and is reportedly as strong as the strongest magnets available in the world today. However, it has the characteristic of not appearing magnetic at all to the untrained eye.

Known technically as ‘zero-moment half metal’, the material could potentially spawn a completely new line of materials research and open up numerous possibilities for electronics and information technology.

Led by Prof Michael Coey, the AMBER team said MRG has incredible potential and could lead to the possibility of limitless data storage, resulting in huge, superfast memory in personal computer devices. It could also eliminate the potential of external magnetic forces to ‘wipe’ computer data.

For 25 years, researchers worldwide have grappled with how to create a magnet such as MRG by trying to arrange numerous combinations of atoms in a way which was difficult without flouting the basic principles of physics.

Potential ‘big data revolution’

The AMBER research team claims to have solved this problem by using established industry-standard processes for making the electronic circuits on silicon chips, making it relatively easy for MRG to be adopted by computer and electronics companies.

Commenting on the discovery and its potential to lead a ‘big data revolution’, Coey said, “Magnetic materials are what make reading and storing data – either on personal devices or on large-scale servers in data centres – possible. Magnets are at the heart of every electronic device we use, from computers and laptops to tablets, smartphones and digital cameras.

“Given its unique insensitivity to magnetic fields, and the tenacity of its internal magnetic properties, MRG could now revolutionise how data is stored, which could have major implications for the future development of electronics, information technology and a host of other applications.”

PROF LUKE O'NEILL

Eleven researchers based in Irish universities have been ranked among the world’s top 3,000 by the multinational media body Thompson Reuters. Inclusion means the person’s research is listed in the top 1 per cent for the number of times their work has been cited by other scientists.

The list includes scientists and engineers in NUI GalwayTrinity College Dublin,University College DublinUniversity of LimerickUniversity College CorkBeaumont Hospital, Dublin and the University of Ulster.

All were gauged to be “highly cited researchers” who had had an “exceptional impact”, Thompson Reuters said.

Their work “has consistently been judged by peers to be of particular significance and utility”, the company said when releasing the list on the website highlycited.com.

Those selected will also be published in book form, the Thompson Reuters 2014 World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.

Cutting edge

Inclusion in this publication means the researcher is among those “who are on the cutting edge of their fields. They are performing and publishing work that their peers recognise as vital to the advancement of their science”.

NUI Galway had three academics on the list: Henry Curran (engineering), Colin O’Dowd (geosciences) and Donal O’Regan (mathematics).

TCD had two: Luke O’Neill (immunology and also pharmacology and toxicology) and Jonathan Coleman (materials science).

UCD also had two: Colm O’Donnell (agricultural sciences) and Desmond Higgins (computer science).

UL had Michael Zaworotko (chemistry), UCC had John Cryan (pharmacology and toxicology), Beaumont Hospital had Mary Cannon (psychiatry and psychology) and University of Ulster had Brendan McCormack (social sciences).

The use of citation listings as a measure of research quality has sometimes been drawn into question but it remains a widely used metric despite this. Its strength lies in the fact that it reflects later access of the research by scientists working in the same area. If your paper is truly cutting edge then others will want to cite the original work within their research papers.

‘Huge testament’

Prof O’Neill yesterday expressed his delight at having been named on the list. “Being included in the top 1 per cent of anything is great,” he said. He described it as a “huge testament” to the work of his research team over the past decade.

Prof Coleman also praised the students and post doctoral researchers who work with him in the lab, and thanked funding bodies including TCD and Science Foundation Ireland. “Without them this would have been impossible,” he said.

Volcano

The Carlingford Igneous Centre, NE Ireland, erupted 60 million years ago, but a new study published in Nature Communications reveals it has much to teach us about currently active volcanoes.

Since the geological expedition of R.W. Bunsen to Iceland in the mid 19th century, scientists have been puzzled by the frequent co-occurrence of basalt and rhyolite at many volcanoes. Bunsen, who also invented of the Bunsen burner, was the first to describe this phenomenon of “bimodal volcanism”, but these fundamentally different lava types have by now been found together at sites across the planet. Crucially, the mixing of basalt and rhyolite in a volcano’s magma chamber is a major cause of violently explosive eruptions, but in the 160 years since Bunsen’s observations, no consensus has been reached on how bimodal volcanism actually originates. A new article in “Nature Communications” now re-ignites the debate and offers a fresh perspective on bimodal volcanism at continental volcanoes. Using detailed chemical analyses of rocks from the Carlingford Igneous Centre, the roots of a large, extinct volcano in northeast Ireland, an international team of scientists suggests that the key control on bimodal volcanism could, in fact, be the crustal rocks that lie below the erupting volcano.

Sixty million years ago, the North Atlantic Ocean was only beginning to form and America and Europe were slowly breaking apart. This process was exacerbated by an increased flow of molten rock from the Earth’s mantle, known as a mantle plume, which caused extensive volcanism throughout northeast Ireland, Greenland and western Scotland. Fissure-fed basaltic lava, as seen at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, was the most common type of activity, but a number of large volcanoes also formed. A key feature of these volcanoes was that they were short-lived and bimodal, producing significant amounts of light-coloured rhyolite and granite, as well as dark basalt. One such volcano was the Carlingford Igneous Centre, Co. Louth, Ireland. As the hot basaltic magma (>1200 °C) beneath Carlingford made its way from the mantle to the surface, it passed through the Earth’s continental crust, which is 30 km thick in this part of Ireland. “Luckily rocks from the crust and rocks from the mantle have characteristic chemical compositions, like geological DNA”, explains Dr Fiona Meade, the principal author of the article, “By using cutting-edge isotope analyses on the volcanic rocks from Carlingford, we can detect that the crust began to melt and that these melts were incorporated into the ascending magmas, transforming the basalt into rhyolite and granite”.

Significantly, the team’s work has shown that the continental crust was most strongly involved during the early stages of activity at Carlingford. It appears that while a first flush of crustal melt was easy to extract, melting became increasingly difficult and granite formation quickly stalled. This is because not all minerals in crustal rocks melt at the same temperature, and while some components are readily incorporated into the magma, others are left behind and will never melt. “This research suggests that crustal melts are vital for the formation of rhyolite/granite magmas in continental volcanic systems, and that once the crust can no longer produce such melts, the volcanoes rapidly return to producing basalt – forming a bimodal rock suite” added Prof Valentin Troll, the team leader and chair of petrology at Uppsala University (Sweden). “Evidence of basalt-rhyolite magma mixing is preserved at Carlingford, indicating that violent eruptions are likely to have been triggered early in the lifetime of the volcano, and while Carlingford has not posed any danger for 60 million years, it gives us a major insight into the processes that drive currently active volcanoes”, he concludes.

This project was initiated at Trinity College Dublin by Prof Valentin Troll and Dr Fiona Meade, who are now based at Uppsala University (Sweden), and was supported by an international team of co-workers from institutions in the UK, Italy and the Netherlands. The research was funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) and the TEKNAT faculty at Uppsala University.

For more information please contact Prof Valentin Troll (valentin.troll@geo.uu.se) or Dr Fiona Meade (meade.fiona@gmail.com).

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.

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.

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.