Scientist Prof Valerie O’Donnell wins €3m in EU funding to fuel blood-cell research

27 Sep 2013

Prof Valerie O'Donnell from Co Wicklow, Ireland

Irish scientist Prof Valerie O’Donnell has been awarded €3m in EU funding via the European Research Council (ERC) to progress her research into lipids (fats) and blood cells. O’Donnell will leverage the funding to figure out the total number of lipids in two types of blood cells so as to understand how such fats help human beings fight infection and prevent bleeding.

Out of around 2,400 applications to the ERC from researchers, O’Donnell is one of 284 scientists who are to receive a total of €660m in this latest funding round from the ERC for frontier science or blue-sky research.

O’Donnell, who hails from Co Wicklow, is acting dean of research in the School of Medicine at Cardiff University. She studied human nutrition and dietetics at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and at Trinity College Dublin.

Her winning project in this latest ERC funding round comes under the title ‘LIPIDARRAY – Development and application of global lipidomic arrays to inflammatory vascular disease’.

Lipids are molecules our bodies use to regulate normal processes, including blood clotting, fighting infection and development.  

In diseases such as heart disease, cancer and dementia, lipids are not regulated as normal and this can contribute to disease progression through processes that are still often poorly understood.  

Making the announcement of the overall 284 projects, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said this ERC fund goes to researchers who are “at the top of their game”.

Emphasising how Europe needs this talent, she said that the researchers’ creativity and hard work creates knowledge that is valuable in itself, but that often also has a positive impact on society and economy.

“That is why the ERC budget will receive a major funding boost under Horizon 2020.”

Tough competition for this funding

O’Donnell said it was her birthday and she was on the airport bus between Greystones and Dublin when she heard the ERC funding news.

She said it was “most definitely the best birthday” she has had in years.

“This grant will be transformational for my group.”

For some years now, O’Donnell and her research group have been specialising in the discovery of new lipids made by immune cells.  

“This new grant will open up new avenues of research through allowing us to develop our approaches in new and exciting ways, and is multidisciplinary, involving chemists, bioinformaticians, computer scientists, psychologists and immunologists.”

The lipids conundrum

While many lipids are known, our cells likely have thousands more that remain to be discovered, according to O’Donnell.

She said we really do not know just how many unique lipids our cells contain and how these change during development and disease.  

Along with her team, O’Donnell is now hoping to find new families of lipids that have never been seen before.  

“We will then study plasma samples from humans and mice who are genetically predisposed to developing cardiovascular disease and dementia, with the aim of discovering new lipids that are involved in the disease process themselves.”

This research will happen in collaboration with O’Donnell’s colleagues in the schools of computing, chemistry, psychology and medicine at Cardiff University,University College London, King’s College London and University of Colorado, Denver.  

“And I also want to give credit to two post-doc fellows in my group for generating most of the preliminary data for the grant,” added O’Donnell.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic