‘Our test will save lives,’ says director of UCD’s Institute for Discovery

10 May 2023

Prof Patricia Maguire. Image: Fran Veale

Whether championing the safety of mothers and babies or campaigning for gender equality in the sciences, UCD’s Prof Patricia Maguire is a firm believer that ‘information is power’.

Every year 76,000 women and 500,000 babies die because of preeclampsia. Another 5m babies are born prematurely because of the condition.

“Preeclampsia is devastating. It affects the smallest and most vulnerable members of society, their whole families and communities,” says Prof Patricia Maguire, director of University College Dublin’s (UCD) Institute for Discovery.

Preeclampsia is a dangerous condition that affects one in 12 pregnancies. It’s typically characterised by the development of high blood pressure and protein in the urine.

Maguire notes that the condition “was even recorded by the ancient Egyptians” and yet there is no cure for it. “The only ‘cure’ is delivery of the baby,” she says.

Shockingly, there is still no test available for preeclampsia, a condition that often escalates rapidly. Maguire says there is “no test to help make the critical decision on when the right time is to deliver that baby; because remember, preterm … every hour, day or week a baby can safely spend in utero is precious for its development.”

This is where the value of Maguire’s ongoing research can be clearly seen. She works on the AI Premie project. Using biomedical, clinical and machine-learning techniques, the AI Premie team are developing a prototype clinical-decision support tool for preeclampsia.

Using a routine blood test, the AI Premie tool can help diagnose preeclampsia and give an indication of the patient’s future outcome. This information allows the care provider “to make more informed, real-time decisions in the best interest of the mother and baby,” Maguire explains.

“Diagnosing preeclampsia in a timely way will mean effective, efficient clinical decision-making with a huge impact on societal good, by preventing premature birth and saving the lives of mothers and babies.”

‘Every hour, day or week a baby can safely spend in utero is precious for its development’

The multidisciplinary AI Premie project brings together clinicians and frontline staff from the three maternity hospitals in Dublin, a team of basic, clinical and computer scientists from UCD, and data scientists from the SAS Institute and Microsoft, with funding from Science Foundation Ireland.

“The collective mission of the team is to get our AI Premie test to every patient who needs it worldwide as we really do believe it will save lives,” says Maguire.

AI Premie has been listed in the global top 100 projects by the International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence, under the auspices of Unesco. With an ‘Excellent’ rating, AI Premie is among the top 30 projects globally using AI to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals.

The future of healthcare

It was in her directorship role at the Institute for Discovery that Maguire “became exposed to and inspired by the possibilities of integrating AI in data-rich biomedical research”.

She runs the UCD AI Healthcare Hub, an accelerator for data projects in collaboration with SAS Institute and Microsoft. The aim of the hub, which was founded in 2020, is “to make artificial intelligence and augmented intelligence technologies accessible to all non-coding researchers to accelerate their projects, enabling data-driven decisions to all”.

Maguire thinks AI is the biggest trend in healthcare. She hosts a webinar series addressing the topic. One of her recent guests was Dr Ronan Glynn, health sector lead at EY Ireland and former deputy chief medical officer at the Department of Health. According to Glynn, “AI in healthcare is not coming down the tracks, it’s already here”.

Maguire agrees with Glynn’s statement. “Robotics, digital therapeutics, artificial intelligence are already part of the healthcare landscape,” she says.

“I think models of care will dramatically change as medicine becomes more personalised and people begin to have access to their own health data via their wearables and phones.”

‘The automating and streamlining of health data will also be key to improved care’

Maguire believes that “information is power” and that the more information people have about their own healthcare, the more they will be motivated to actively manage their health.

Not only does AI give people more access to their own health information, that access and the insights it can provide should also improve outcomes. “The automating and streamlining of health data will also be key to improved care,” Maguire says.

“If care providers see a pregnant woman at 3am in hospital and they have all of her health data available at their fingertips – the results of her blood test she has just had along with her health history and family history – they will be able to make better, more informed decisions in real time and achieve safer outcomes.”

Birth of a scientist

Aside from a brief spell in industry, Maguire has always been a researcher. She gained a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and genetics, and a PhD in pharmacology under the guidance of Prof Kay Ohlendieck.

Her research portfolio is impressive. She co-directs the UCD ConwaySphere research group with consultant haemotologists Prof Fionnuala Ní Áinle and Dr Barry Kevane. This multidisciplinary group is on a mission “to diagnose and understand a host of inflammatory diseases, including thrombotic disorders, using our unique knowledge of platelet blood cells, the cargo platelets contain, and other circulating factors in human blood”.

“Platelets are our ‘first responders’,” Maguire explains. They “help to form blood clots to slow or stop bleeding and to help wounds heal”.

“Having too many or too few platelets that don’t work as they should can cause problems. For example, we published a study showing how Irish patients admitted to hospital with severe Covid-19 infection had ‘hypersensitive’ platelets.”

‘An unequal playing field’

Though her skill is undoubted, it wasn’t always plain sailing for Maguire.

“As a young aspiring scientist, I definitely encountered an unequal playing field,” she reveals.

Maguire recalls finding out on two separate occasions that, “I was being paid less than my male counterparts for the exact same job even though we had the exact same qualifications”. Instead of being demoralised by the inequality, Maguire believes it made her “more determined”.

She was a founding member of UCD Women in the Sciences forum, which held information sessions and raised awareness about equality, diversity and inclusion.

Maguire believes things are finally changing for the better. “I’ve seen a huge change in the last 10 years.” She cites the appointment of UCD’s first woman president, Prof Orla Feely, as a sign that “the future is incredibly bright”.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic