‘Finding effective male infertility treatments is an essential research priority’

28 Jun 2022

Dr Eoghan Cunnane. Image: Alan Place

Dr Eoghan Cunnane explains how a student research opportunity led him down his career path, where he is currently focused on male infertility.

After receiving his PhD from the University of Limerick in 2015, Dr Eoghan Cunnane was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship to transition from tissue characterisation to tissue engineering and modelling at the University of Pittsburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

He was then awarded a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Fellowship to characterise cancerous tissue at Imperial College London. He also co-founded start-up company Class Medical, which was spun out of the University of Limerick to commercialise a patented device to improve urinary catheter safety.

Cunnane recently received a Starting Grant from the European Research Council aimed at developing representative, reliable and reproducible in-vitro models of the human testes, with a view to developing treatments for male infertility. His lab is based at the Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick.

‘We all need to become scientists if we want to live in a world where decisions are made based on the most appropriate information’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

The research I’m coordinating involves understanding how of the cells and tissues of the testicles interact, and how to accurately represent these interactions outside of the body in a preclinical model.

The preclinical model will then be used to help develop treatments for male infertility prior to clinical trials.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Preserving the ability of willing couples to conceive and combatting the incidence of infertility – which currently affects 15pc to 20pc of couples, with male factor infertility responsible in 50pc of cases – is an essential goal in maintaining the wellbeing of our society and economy.

However, we are currently falling short of this goal as human sperm concentration has dropped by over 50pc since records began in the 1970s. If this trend continues, sperm concentrations may drop below the fertility threshold by the end of this century.

The identification of effective male infertility treatments is therefore an essential research priority and requires an appropriate preclinical model of the sperm-producing testes to evaluate treatment choice, dosage and duration.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Both my parents work at universities so I spent a lot of my young life in academic environments and research would have been valued in my home.

When I was finishing my third year of the biomedical engineering bachelor’s degree at University of Limerick, I received a summer bursary to work in the lab of Prof Michael Walsh. The experience of utilising the knowledge and skills that I had developed during my first three years of study to investigate something that’s never been investigated before was key in my decision to pursue a career in research.

This highlights the importance of funding student research programmes and getting students involved in research as early as possible.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the biggest challenges I faced at the start of my research career was being intimidated by the scientific literature. The most important lesson that I learned is to not be intimidated by what’s been done before you. Be inspired by it.

If something that you regard as amazing can be done in another lab by another researcher than you can do something amazing too. Let it inspire you to be more informed, to understand your field better, to learn different techniques and to talk to more people.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

The public are now required to engage with and interpret a large amount of scientific data as it is presented through the lens of maintaining public health during a pandemic.

I believe teaching science in schools should involve informing students about how to critically interpret the quality of scientific data. The different sources of scientific data should be listed, the peer-review process for scientific publications should be laid bare, the concepts of reliability and reproducibility should be explained, and the ability to critically analyse scientific data and come to your own conclusions should be encouraged.

We all need to become scientists if we want to live in a world where decisions are made based on the most appropriate information.

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