UCD PhD researcher wins chemistry prize for his work on vaccines

8 Jul 2021

Image: © Monet/Stock.adobe.com

Dr Conor Crawford was awarded the Kathleen Lonsdale RIA Chemistry Prize for his PhD research developing vaccines against a major human pathogen.

This year’s Kathleen Lonsdale Royal Irish Academy (RIA) Chemistry Prize has been awarded to Dr Conor Crawford.

The €2,000 prize, which is sponsored by Henkel and named after Irish x-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, is awarded for outstanding doctoral research in the chemical sciences carried out on the island of Ireland. Last year’s winner was Dr Yikai Xu, a PhD graduate of Queen’s University Belfast.

“I am just delighted,” Crawford said, reacting to his win.

“I had been aware of the prize for a few years, and I felt it was a really good thing to aim for. I had seen some of the previous winners and was really impressed with their research, and with where their careers have taken them. So, for me to be considered in the same bracket as them is just amazing.”

Crawford completed his PhD research at University College Dublin (UCD). It focused on developing vaccines against a major human pathogen, known as cryptococcus neoformans.

Exposure to this fungus can have devastating consequences for people with compromised immune systems, such as transplant patients or people living with advanced HIV. It can cause cryptococcal meningitis and is responsible for the deaths of as many as 600,000 people per year.

Current therapies are often unsuccessful in totally clearing the infection and a resistance to conventional therapies is developing.

Crawford’s PhD research was a collaborative project between Prof Stefan Oscarson’s lab at the UCD School of Chemistry and Prof Arturo Casadevall’s lab at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

His research was also featured in the RTÉ programme 10 Things to Know about Vaccines in 2019.

The aim of the project was to better understand the fungus’s biology, with a particular focus on its ‘glycan coat’, which is a critical factor in the pathogen’s virulence.

In an essay describing his research, Crawford wrote: “Through synthetic organic chemistry, chemical biology, microbiology and immunology, we have created vaccine candidates, diagnostics and tools that allowed us to gain a better understanding of c. neoformans, its capsule and antibodies directed towards its glycan coat. We ultimately hope to use this knowledge to develop new therapies to advance human health.”

Crawford is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, working on the automated synthesis of sugar molecules that are found in the marine biosphere.

Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic