7 reasons why Irish research is good for your health

2 May 2019

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What does life sciences research in Ireland have in store for your future health? Quite a lot, actually.

Irish research has supported major breakthroughs in health, with more to come from emerging research and technologies.

1. Faster access to medical devices

Cúram is the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre dedicated to designing the next generation of ‘smart’ medical devices. Now, it’s also working to make these innovative solutions more accessible as part of a new EU research project.

Based in NUI Galway, Cúram is one of 13 European partners in the TBMED (testbed for high-risk medical devices) project, which will run for more than four years. The testbed will help companies to accelerate the development of medical devices, reduce their time to market and offer additional business management services. TBMED will use three very different case studies to build the testbed: GlycoBone, keratoprosthesis and new magnetic nanoparticle devices to improve cancer treatments based on hyperthermia.

2. Looking after your gut feeling

The microbiome, the ecosystem of trillions of microbes inside us, is a fascinating new field for health science research into which the SFI research centre APC Microbiome Ireland is delving deep. Conducting research into this novel area, the Cork research centre revealed in 2017 a crucial link between the microbiome and mental health, which could lead to innovative new treatments for anxiety disorders.

More recently, it was announced that APC will lead a €3.4m research programme to find optimal probiotics for pregnant women and their babies. The Microbe Mom project is a four-way collaboration between APC Microbiome, Alimentary Health, University College Dublin and NIBRT.

3. Better breast cancer diagnosis

Last year, researchers at NUI Galway made a major breakthrough in breast cancer research. This team identified why there was a high relapse rate after chemotherapy for the most aggressive form of breast cancer, TNBC. The researchers then used this vital information for the development of a drug that could improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy and reduce this relapse rate.

Dr Susan Logue, an SFI award-holder who was lead author on the study, said: “While further research is needed, this work is a great example of how curiosity-driven basic research can lead to translational outcomes with real potential to impact on patient treatment.”

Further enabling better breast cancer diagnosis, a team in Cork comprising Dr Eric Moore of Tyndall National Institute, Martin O’Sullivan of University College Cork (UCC) and patient advocate Liosa O’Sullivan is competing for an SFI Future Innovator Prize. Their project is developing a technology for clinicians to improve the breast cancer diagnostic pathway through real-time point-of-care detection of breast disease.

4. New treatments for ovarian cancer

SFI’s Technology Innovation Development Award (TIDA) programme announced funding for 38 different research projects this year. Among them, the largest single recipient was Dr Eimear Dolan of NUI Galway.

Dolan secured funding of almost €130,000 for her ImmunoCell project. This aims to create an implantable cell reservoir device for the replenishable delivery of natural killer cells for ovarian cancer treatment.

The TIDA programme provides both the capital and the training in entrepreneurship to researchers who are looking to commercialise their work. As a participant, Dolan receives support for evidence-based entrepreneurship, innovation and design thinking in order to further develop her project.

5. More affordable lab imaging technology

Winner of the UCC Life Sciences Invention of the Year 2018, the BioBind custom imaging solution uses a novel smart biosensor, which has numerous applications such as cancer diagnostics and life sciences research.

With BioBind, Dr Mark Tangney and his team, Dr Ian Curtin and Stephen Buckley, have devised a more affordable and user-friendly imaging technology for labs of all sizes and budgets. This, they believe, can accelerate the pace of research, increase lab output, and provide for faster identification of cells and tissues. They have now spun out BioBind as a company with plans to commercialise this technology.

6. Rapid sepsis screening

Sepsis affects 30m people worldwide every year, with an estimated 6m dying from the condition. This life-threatening immune response to infection can claim lives within hours of setting in. Though time is critical, current systems for identifying and analysing the pathogens responsible can take from five hours to two days. That is why Dr Kellie Adamson and a team at Dublin City University set about developing technology for rapid detection.

Their award-winning screening tool, SepTec, can definitively identify specific sepsis pathogens directly from an unpurified blood sample within 15 minutes. SepTec is currently undergoing a proof-of-concept trial and is also a challenger for the SFI Future Innovator Prize.

7. A new method for drug delivery

ChemoGel founder and inventor Dr Helena Kelly has developed a new way to deliver drugs to pancreatic cancer tumours, which are notoriously dense and difficult to penetrate with necessary treatment.

Developed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) with support from both RCSI and Enterprise Ireland, ChemoGel is a unique thermoresponsive hydrogel drug delivery platform. Liquid at room temperature, this gel can be loaded with chemotherapy drugs and delivered to pancreatic tumours using standard endoscopy procedures. After injection, ChemoGel transitions to a gel state, thus becoming a ‘drug depot’ within the tumour, delivering a high drug concentration locally over a sustained period of time.

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.