In a double first last night, not one but two women scooped the joint title of Science Foundation Ireland Researcher of the Year at the annual SFI Summit.
The winners were Inspirefest 2015 speaker Professor Louise Kenny and Professor Geraldine Boylan, who together co-direct the Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research (INFANT).
Until now, the annual award has always gone to men, and 2015 was also the first year the accolade has been given to a duo.
Perinatal research, which focuses on the health of mother and baby during pregnancy, birth and shortly after, has traditionally been vastly under-resourced, despite being a global health issue, according to Kenny, who spoke last night at the conference in Kilkenny.
“Every year about 300,000 women die as a direct result of pregnancy or during childbirth, and in the same year about 2.6m babies will be stillborn and a further 2.8m will die in the first few weeks of life,” she said. “The vast majority of these young lives are lost… not because they are dying of exotic or new or unusual conditions, they are actually dying of conditions that were discovered and described by Hippocrates but they have largely been ignored by history.”
Public and private sector R&D funding in the area is “a fraction” of the spend on cardiovascular disease and cancer, she added. “Very simply put, a lack of investment means a lack of innovation.”
Kenny, who is Consultant Obstetrician and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UCC, paid credit to the SFI for ‘bucking the trend’ and supporting INFANT, which is based at Cork University Hospital and encompasses research from University College Cork, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and industry partners.
Current work at the centre includes developing a blood test to predict who will develop the condition pre-eclampsia in pregnancy, another test to see whether a newborn’s brain is at risk following oxygen deprivation at birth and also cot-side technology to detect if a baby is having a brain seizure.
“This isn’t an example of a small country doing excellent niche research, this is an example of a small country doing high-quality research with a global impact,” said Kenny.
Earlier this year, Kenny picked up a major award from the American Heart Association for her work in developing a technique of screening for pregnancy endpoints called SCOPE.
Thanking the INFANT team, Boylan described how they invest their time and talent and are often on call. “Babies are born anytime day or night, on holidays, weekends, birthdays,” she said. “It is very likely that at this very moment one of our team is in the maternity hospital, maybe talking to a parent, possibly getting some consent for research, possibly taking [a blood sample] from a baby who has been delivered and is in a critical condition.”
Boylan, who is Professor of Neonatal Physiology at UCC, paid special thanks to the parents of babies who take part in studies. “Their altruism and selflessness is inspiring and deeply humbling for us,” she said.
And on a personal note, Kenny highlighted the benefits of working together with Boylan to run INFANT. “Directing a research centre can be very challenging and can occasionally be very lonely,” she said. “I am blessed every day by being able to manage the INFANT centre with one of my closest friends and colleagues. I can say it is often challenging but never lonely.”
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