Clear descriptions of research on emphysema and using fruit flies to understand disease scooped top prizes at the UCD Engage competition. Claire O’Connell reports.
A promising approach to tackling lung damage in emphysema. Clues from fruit flies about an inherited human disease. New ways to think about treating cancer and heart disease, and even steps to help avert the apocalypse of antibiotic resistance. This was all part of the finals at University College Dublin’s (UCD) Engage competition last week.
Hosted by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, the event saw six PhD students from UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science (SBBS) and the UCD School of Medicine compete for the Engage 2017 trophy, by explaining their research to a non-expert audience.
On the day, it was Stephanie Whelan who won that trophy for speaking about her research on the chronic lung condition emphysema.
“Currently, there are no available cures for emphysema,” explained Whelan, who works in the lab of Dr Katherine Howell at the School of Medicine. “So current treatment is about managing symptoms.”
New approach in emphysema
For her PhD, Whelan is looking at how a compound related to EPO (erythropoietin) could help to tackle the underlying tissue damage in the long-term, progressive lung condition.
EPO has a notorious reputation thanks to its use in sports doping, but it also has protective functions, she said.
“It can stop cells dying and it can help them to regenerate – and if we could do that in emphysema, it would be a good idea.”
However, you can’t just rock up and give EPO to patients. “Its normal function is to increase red blood cells – it thickens the blood,” noted Whelan. “So if people who already have a normal red blood cell count take it, they could be at risk of strokes.”
Enter a synthetic peptide engineered by New York-based Araim Pharmaceuticals to deliver the cell-protecting benefits of EPO without those complications.
So far, her results on lung tissue seem encouraging, and she is now looking at the mechanism of how the compound interacts with lung cells.
Finalists and judges, from left: Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, Seamus Kelly, Brian Mooney, Adam Russell-Hallinan, Philippa Fowler, Dearbhla Lenehan, Siobhán Turner, Stephanie Whelan, Ismael Obaidi, Caroline Gill and Karl Quinn. Image: Craig Slattery/UCD
The UCD Engage judging panel – Caroline Gill and Dr Karl Quinn from NovaUCD, Dr Seamus Kelly from UCD School of Public Health, and guidance counsellor and education columnist Brian Mooney identified Whelan as the winner. So what are her tips for clear and engaging science communication?
“Use powerful images, don’t overcomplicate and be personable,” she said. “It is really interesting to listen to someone who is friendly and bubbly, and who takes you on journey.”
The runner-up prize at UCD Engage went to Philippa Fowler, who was surprised to discover how useful fruit flies are to humans. “You might see them in your kitchen, these pesky flies,” she said. “But they can offer us a simplified system to look at diseases.”
For her PhD, Fowler is using fruit flies bred in a lab to study a condition called hereditary spastic paraplegia, which progressively affects the function of the legs and causes weakness.
“Not much is known about it,” said Fowler, who has turned to the tiny insects to figure out more. “I made flies that mimic the disease; they have the same mutation and symptoms as humans, and I am using this simplified system to look at what is going on at a cellular level. They are stepping stones to a better understanding.”
Working in Dr Niamh O’Sullivan’s lab at SBBS, she has been able to see differences in the fly motor neurones that convey messages to the leg muscles to move.
In particular, she has seen that motor neurones in the flies with the disease-specific mutation have fewer mitochondria, which are important for energy use. “We don’t know what that means yet but we are looking into it,” she said of the discovery.
Get into the mind frame
Fowler, who admits she has previously struggled with public speaking, challenged herself to enter UCD Engage in part to spread the word about the research.
“It’s difficult to do as scientists, but I think it is important to learn how to get into mind frame of speaking in ‘layman’s’ terms,” she said. “And that means having a good think about how you are coming across, and practising to ensure that you are not slipping the scientific terms back in there.”
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