How this Trinity scientist is unlocking nature’s pharmacy

4 May 2022

Dr Helen Sheridan and Prof Linda Doyle at the Trinity Innovation Awards 2021. Image: Paul Sharp

Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Helen Sheridan discusses her work harnessing the medicinal power of Ireland’s boglands and explains the importance of citizen science.

In February, leading researchers and innovators from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) were recognised for contributions to their fields at the Trinity Innovation Awards 2021.

One winner in the Societal Impact category was Dr Helen Sheridan, an associate professor at Trinity and founder of NatPro, the Trinity Centre for Natural Products Research, based at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Speaking to after the awards, Sheridan said the accolade related to the work she does in the boglands of Ireland.

“My remit here is to look at the boglands, to look at the biodiversity, to look at the environment, and then to consider what may be hidden within what I would consider an ecosystem of great value in this country.”

‘The boglands of Ireland constitute an enormous national resource’

Sheridan said she was born to be a scientist, conducting her first experiments as a young child in the back garden. “I collected caterpillars, old animal skeletons and stones. I had a copybook that I used as my first lab book!”

She was the first of her extended family to go to university, undertaking a bachelor’s degree in science at University College Dublin. She was quickly drawn to chemical sciences, microbiology and zoology, and later completed a PhD in natural product chemistry.

“I studied biological systems, mainly the chemistry of fungi at that time. So, from the early stages I saw biology through a chemical lens. I looked at nature for bioactive molecules, medicines and agrochemicals,” she said.

“This was in the early 1980s, before biodiversity and the bioeconomy were scientific priorities. At that time in Ireland, all researchers had to be agile and change their vocabulary and their research direction to follow the funding.”

Nature’s pharmacy

Sheridan went on to focus on natural products from terrestrial and marine plants and organisms, and her research has included working on aspects of penicillin biosynthesis.

“This was in 1983 and 1984 when I learned the importance of enzymes in transforming substances to new natural products. These are the sources of knowledge I still draw on, as we look at the challenges of the bioeconomy and use old science to address new problems and challenges and innovate applying these technologies to natural ‘waste streams’ and make new valuable substances, thus closing the circle economically.”

Sheridan’s work has continued to make waves throughout her career. She has recently led a project entitled ‘Unlocking Nature’s Pharmacy from Bogland Species’, which received €6m in funding in November 2020.

‘All science needs to be examined through an objective lens’

The project aims to identify potential therapeutic and commercial uses of native Irish bog plants, bog waters and the microbiome of unique bogland species.

“The boglands of Ireland constitute an enormous national resource. The necessity for the cessation of industrial harvesting of boglands has provided a unique opportunity to look at new uses for boglands and to develop a deeper understanding of the cultural use and chemical potential of the biodiverse species found in these unique ecosystems,” she said.

“Plant species, native to these environments, may provide environmental and economic solutions based on these resources to benefit the communities who have traditionally worked on the boglands.”

While Ireland’s boglands could be a treasure trove for drug discovery, Sheridan said a common misconception about her work is that all things that are natural must also be safe.

“This applies to most ‘natural products’, including foods, supplements and natural ingredients, and it is not true. All science needs to be examined through an objective lens. Things that you can eat can kill you. Things that can kill you can also cure you. It is all down to the dose.”

Citizen science

A major element of the work that Sheridan does involves citizen scientists. This includes the launch of a new transition year module on the boglands and biodiversity, supporting engagement in national science competitions, and having people from all over the country collecting samples and generating data for her research programme.

“Most recently we have worked with farming groups in the Comeragh Mountains, linking them with healing plants growing on their land and connecting these to their cultural use by their ancestors. We are using this citizen engagement to build knowledge that will in turn explain why some practices, such as burning bracken, need to change,” she explained.

“Society is full of very knowledgeable people. Many have not had the privilege of a tertiary education. Many have experience from different areas of life and have interesting opinions and experience that can fuel scientific and social debates. I think the engagement of people in citizen science, where possible and appropriate, should be a requirement for scientists.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic