The future of healthcare as seen by Irish researchers

27 Sep 2018

Image: sfam_photo/Shutterstock

For the future of healthcare and medicine, one needs to look no further than the recent Career Development Award winners from Science Foundation Ireland.

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Earlier this year, the Government announced €13.7m in funding for 22 early-career researchers performing cutting-edge research in energy, materials, environment, technology and health. Funded through the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Career Development Award (CDA) programme, investments into these research projects ranged from €409,200 to €585,620, spread across nine institutions in Ireland.

Among these awardees were six researchers tackling issues in healthcare, driving towards solutions that could have significant impact globally. This is the future vision of healthcare that they, and some more of their peers, are working towards.

An end to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Antimicrobial resistance is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats to human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even drafted a global action plan on this issue. That’s why Prof Brijesh Tiwari at Teagasc is tackling the issue of bacterial biofilms – films of bacteria that adhere to each other on a surface – which are infectious by nature but demonstrate increased tolerance to antibiotics and disinfectant chemicals.

Tiwari’s Ultrafilm project aims to deliver a novel technological solution for the eradication of biofilms via the application of low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasmas in combination with airborne acoustic technology.

A previous year’s CDA awardee, Dr Rachel McLoughlin, is also working on the global challenge of antibiotic resistance. The assistant professor in immunology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) focuses her research on MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant form of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. There have been a number of attempts to develop a vaccine against MRSA, but so far all have failed in the clinical trial process. McLoughlin’s research, however, has identified the importance of individual white blood cells in protection against MRSA infection, and these findings have directly informed the vaccine development process.

“I hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be a vaccine available to prevent MRSA infection and that my research will have directly contributed to that,” she told

Gene-targeted drugs for MND

Also at TCD, Dr Russell McLaughlin received a 2018 CDA investment for his work on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known in Ireland as motor neurone disease (MND). To develop effective treatments for this incurable, rapidly fatal neurodegenerative disease, McLaughlin believes we need to better understand its underlying genetic causes.

To date, the most significant causative gene identified is C9orf72, in which an unconventional mutation known as a repeat expansion (RE) causes neurodegeneration. In Ireland, there are more than 2,000 registered MND patients and 10pc of them share this C9orf72 gene.

There is strong evidence to suggest that more undiscovered REs are, potentially, the most important class of mutation in MND, and McLaughlin’s study will exploit recent advances in genomics to find these new REs and better understand neurodegeneration.

SFI is also funding research into MND by Prof Orla Hardiman of TCD, who brought Ireland into the international Project MinE, which is searching across Europe for a genetic cause of MND.

Hardiman’s goal is to develop gene-targeted drugs based on this research, which will target the right people with the right dose at the right time. “We’re getting there. There is going to be a drug for the gene form of motor neurone disease (C9orf72) and there are a few drugs in the pipeline for that form of motor neurone disease, so that may well be a potential treatment some time in the next couple of years,” she told The Irish Times earlier this year.

Surgery 4.0 – with magnets

Surgery 4.0 is the future of surgery, according to Tyndall National Institute’s Dr Pádraig Cantillon-Murphy, and he’s working on intelligent magnets to help.

Just like ‘industry 4.0’, surgery 4.0 involves greater collaboration between humans and technology to, in this case, extend the possibilities of what can be done on a surgical table. Cantillon-Murphy believes magnets present tremendous potential for surgery 4.0 due to their ability to move and anchor devices during surgery. There can also be therapeutic applications when coupled magnets are used to reconnect organs after surgery.

However, there are concerns in terms of safety and the control of magnetic devices used in the body, but Cantillon-Murphy is working to develop safer and more reliable surgical technology using intelligent magnetic systems.

Treatment timed to your body clock

Dr Annie Curtis has been awarded a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship for her work on internal clocks and the immune system. A research lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), Curtis also runs a lab investigating how the running of our ‘body clock’ can affect our health, particularly in terms of chronic diseases.

Her CDA-funded project, MacroCLOCK, will determine if the molecular clock within a key inflammatory immune cell called the macrophage affects inflammatory response. In doing so, she hopes the MacroCLOCK will come to inform medical practitioners on who to treat, how to treat them and even what time to treat patients with chronic inflammatory conditions.

More effective treatment for epilepsy

According to the WHO, about 50m people worldwide have epilepsy, making it one of the most common neurological diseases. Unfortunately, about 30pc of those with epilepsy do not respond to treatment. For the responsive 70pc, current treatment is effective in suppressing seizures, not limiting disease progression. It’s also a challenge to correctly diagnose and predict the emergence of epilepsy.

Enter research from Dr Tobias Engel at RCSI which has identified a receptor in the brain believed to be involved in generating seizures and the progression of epilepsy. Engel’s CDA-funded project will further advance epilepsy treatment based on this P2X7 receptor and identify specific biomarkers to diagnose seizures, predict epilepsy and inform treatment choices for patients.

Going knee-deep on a common injury

Also based at RCSI, Dr Oran Kennedy is trying to better understand the science behind knee injury and disease.

A common knee injury among young active people is a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which can be fixed quite successfully in most cases by a surgical procedure. However, about 60pc of these patients go on to develop post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA) within 10 years.

Kennedy believes that, by looking more closely at other injured tissues in the joint (particularly the bone), it would be possible to target specific areas with simple drugs and prevent PTOA. “My research is important because it addresses an injury and disease that we see all the time, but do not understand and cannot treat,” he recently explained to

Updated, 4.03pm, 27 September 2018: This article was updated to clarify that the SFI CDA project investments ranged from €409,200 to €585,620, not €443,653 to €504,729 as previously stated.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.