TCD scientists discover how ‘natural killer’ cells target cancer

Findings may explain why people with obesity have impaired capacity to fight disease

Kevin O’Sullivan


Scientists at Trinity College, Dublin have worked out how a biological engine that powers cancer-killing cells functions.

Crucially, their research highlights how that engine is fuelled and confirms the presence of cholesterol-like molecules act as a “cut-off” switch, making it hard for our “natural killer” (NK) cells in the body to act against cancer. This is particularly so with patients that have cancer and are obese.

The scientists, led by Dr David Finlay, assistant professor in immunometabolism at TCD, have published their findings in the journal Nature Immunology. They outline a previously unknown metabolic switch, which is essential for initiating the anti-tumour actions of NK cells. These are immune cells that play an important role in defences against cancer, as they can directly kill tumour cells.

Once activated – eg by proteins known as cytokines which occur with inflammation – NK cells increase uptake of cellular fuel, which is then converted into energy which powers the all-important tumour-killing machinery.

The research shows activated NK cells use a very different engine configuration to that observed in other immune cells, and that the key factor that switches NK cells to this engine configuration is a protein called an SREBP.

Similar to cholesterol

When the scientists used oxysterols, which are very similar to cholesterol, to prevent this switch from activating, NK cells failed to kill tumour cells.

Dr Finlay said: “The function of SREBP – the key factor that controls the energy production in natural killer cells and thus fuels their activity – is known to be blocked by cholesterol and cholesterol-like molecules called oxysterols. Therefore, our findings reveal a previously-unknown way by which the cancer-killing functions of natural killer cells can be disrupted.”

As tumour cells can produce oxysterols and cholesterol, and levels tend to be higher in people with obesity, the scientists believe they may now have part of the explanation for why NK cells typically perform poorly in patients living with cancer and obesity.

“The next step is to investigate whether the functions of NK cells are indeed impaired in individuals with high cholesterol level, and whether cholesterol-lowering interventions can restore NK cell function in these individuals,” Dr Finlay added.


Breakthrough Allows Identification of Resistance to Breast Cancer Treatment

Early detection development by Irish researchers enables different strategy to be put in place

Kevin O’Sullivan


Majella O’Donnell at the launch of the Irish Cancer Society’s breast-cancer fundraising campaign “Cups Against Cancer” on Monday
Majella O’Donnell at the launch of the Irish Cancer Society’s breast-cancer fundraising campaign “Cups Against Cancer” on Monday

Irish researchers have developed a way of identifying women with breast cancer who are likely to be “resistant” to some of the most common treatments for the disease.

Their breakthrough comes with the potential to identify such patients more quickly, and in turn develop treatments that increase survival rates.

Prof Leonie Young and Dr Sara Charmsaz of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland outlined details of their research at an Irish Cancer Society event to launch a new fundraising drive to fund further scientific work by the Breast-Predict group, which includes the RCSI and five other Irish universities.

The RCSI team with Beaumont Hospital surgery department have found a new way to monitor the treatment of oestrogen-positive (ER-positive) breast cancer patients. Women with this form of cancer, which is one of the most commonly diagnosed, usually take drugs such as Tamoxifen or Aromatose inhibitors to reduce the chances of the cancer coming back.

Some of these patients, however, can become resistant to these treatments and their cancer returns. The team discovered that ER-positive women with a high level of a “biomarker” called S100Beta in their blood and “are significantly more likely to see a recurrence of the disease”.

“The early detection of patients with treatment resistance enables a different strategy to be put in place which can significantly improve there patients’ survival,” explained Prof Young.

Clinical trial

The next stage is for this research to undergo a clinical trial, Dr Charmsaz told The Irish Times. This would, it is hoped, lead to new monitoring strategies which could increase survival of patients, she added. Identifying women in this category quicker would mean that the cancer would be treated before metastasis, when it has spread to other parts of the body.

TV star Majella O’Donnell, who is married to singer Daniel O’Donnell, paid tribute to the researchers and underlined the need for ongoing funding to reduce the incidence of cancer and provide more effective treatments. She was speaking at a launch of the cancer society’s “Cups Against Cancer” campaign which is being staged during October, where members of the public are being asked to host a coffee morning and raise funds for the society.

Four years on from her own encounter with breast cancer, she said eight Irish women a day continue to be diagnosed with the disease. While treatments had improved, “research is the only way to address this”.

She added: “When I found out I had breast cancer I was shocked. The treatment was tough and it was difficult emotionally. Thankfully there are a lot of supports available and more advances are being made as a result of cancer research, which is improving outcomes.”

Phenomenal reaction

She described the constant worry of “looking over the shoulder” to ensure the cancer had not returned. But she had learned to relax and go in and get the reassurance of her oncologist when it was needed. Her appearance on the Late Late Show had prompted a phenomenal reaction, especially “a sharing of support and learning from other people” – it also helped raise more €700,000 for the society.

Her advice to women recently diagnosed was to “take each day at a time” and not to avail of “Dr Google” though human nature was such that searching for information through that source was understandable in the circumstances.

Cancer society head of fundraising Mark Mellett said the “Cups Against Cancer” campaign would enable researchers to continue to find better ways to diagnose and treat this disease, and ensure women were supported “through such a frightening and worrying time”.

Device that could heal diabetic foot ulcers using DNA gets €1.3m funding

Diabetic foot ulcer
Patient with diabetic foot ulcer receiving treatment. Image: kirov1976/Shutterstock

Those living with diabetic foot ulcers will be happy to hear that a new device aims to treat the ailment with DNA.

The AMBER centre and Dr Cathal Kearney of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland have been awarded €1.3m to alleviate something that affects thousands of people in Ireland: diabetic foot ulcers.

People living with diabetes across the world are at risk of foot ulcers, with up to a quarter of the 422m-strong diabetic population expected to suffer from the ailment in their lifetime.

The ulcers are very difficult to heal and are often prone to infection, which can lead to amputation. In 2015 in Ireland, 2,400 people were hospitalised with them, with nearly one in five leading to amputations.

The new funding was provided under the European Research Council’s (ERC) Starter Grant for groundbreaking research and will now allow Kearney to assemble a team to develop his research titled ‘BONDS: Bilayered ON-Demand Scaffolds for diabetic foot ulcers’.

The goal of this new programme is to develop a device that will support the body’s own cells to grow new tissues to repair skin damage on the foot caused by ulcers.

The device will be made of a sponge-like material and DNA will be delivered inside it, directing cells to heal the wound.

Could benefit diabetes patients globally

Kearney said: “I am honoured to have been awarded this prestigious research grant from the ERC. This research has the potential to change that for the better for people with diabetes, not only in Ireland but across the world.”

The ERC’s Starter Grant is quite prestigious in European academic circles, with this being just one of two awarded to Irish institutions this year, out of a total of 406.

Carlos Moedas, European commissioner for research, science and innovation, said: “Top talent needs good conditions at the right time to thrive. The EU provides the best possible conditions at the early stages of a researcher’s career through the ERC Starting Grants. That’s why this funding is so crucial for the future of Europe as a science hub: it keeps and attracts young talent.”

The news coincides with the promising results seen in a test that could help those living with metabolic conditions such as diabetes, using a patch that can convert unhealthy white fat into more manageable brown fat.

By Colm Gorey

RCSI Researcher Awarded Research Council Grant for Ground-Breaking Research into Diabetes

Dr Cathal Kearney receives one of just two prestigious grants awarded this year to Irish institutions
Dr Cathal Kearney from RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) Department of Anatomy and the Science Foundation Ireland funded AMBER (Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research) centre has been awarded a €1.375 million European Research Council’s (ERC) Starter Grant for ground-breaking research to combat diabetic foot ulcers. The highly prestigious grant supports researchers across Europe to set-up their own research teams and pursue potentially life-changing innovations. In total, 406 grants were awarded this year to projects across Europe with Dr Kearney receiving one of just two given to Irish institutions. 
People with diabetes across the world are at risk of diabetic foot ulcers with up to a quarter of the 422 million diabetic population expected to suffer from the ailment in their lifetime. These wounds are very difficult to heal and are often prone to infection which can lead to amputation. It is estimated that every 30 seconds a limb is amputated as a result of a diabetic foot ulcer. In Ireland alone, 2,400 people were hospitalised in 2015 with the condition and 451 of these cases resulted in amputations.
Dr Cathal Kearney, Principal Investigator in the Tissue Engineering Research Group, RCSI received the funding for his research titled ‘BONDS: Bilayered ON-Demand Scaffolds for diabetic foot ulcers’. The goal of this research programme is to develop a new technology-driven device that will support the body’s own cells to grow new tissues to repair skin damage on the foot caused by ulcers. The device will be made of a sponge-like material and DNA will be delivered inside the device using a novel technology. The delivered DNA will then direct cells that enter the device to heal the wound.
Speaking about the funding, Dr Kearney said: “I am honoured to have been awarded this prestigious research grant from the ERC. In Ireland, it is estimated that €70 million/year is spent on the treatment of diabetic foot ulcers, with almost one in five cases resulting in amputation. This research has the potential to change that for the better for people with diabetes not only in Ireland but across the world.”
Director of Research and Innovation at RCSI, Professor Ray Stallings, welcomed the announcement saying: “This award to Dr Kearney is a testament to his stellar research in the area of biomaterials, and the expertise of RCSI’s Tissue Engineering Research Group that is addressing health issues arising from a range of chronic conditions such as diabetes. This innovation could transform the lives of diabetes patients across the world, and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of Dr Kearney’s work as his research expands as a result of this important grant.”
Dr Kearney has previously secured the prestigious Fullbright scholarship to attend MIT and Harvard University and the Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Fellowship at RCSI. His innovative work on drug delivery has been published in a number of high impact journals. Dr Kearney combines his research interests with a passion for teaching, having won the RCSI President’s Teaching Award 2017.
These coveted ERC Starter Grants support research in the life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, and social sciences and humanities and form part of the “Excellent Science” pillar of the European Union research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020.
Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “Top talent needs good conditions at the right time to thrive. The EU provides the best possible conditions at the early stages of a researcher’s career through the ERC Starting Grants. That’s why this funding is so crucial for the future of Europe as a science hub: it keeps and attracts young talent.  This time the ERC attracted researchers of 48 different nationalities based in 23 European countries. It’s an investment that will pay off, boosting the EU’s growth and innovation.”
RCSI is ranked among the top 250 (top 2%) of universities worldwide in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2018). It is an international not-for-profit health sciences institution, with its headquarters in Dublin, focused on education and research to drive improvements in human health worldwide.

More than 540 New Students Welcomed as Orientation Week 2017 Begins at RCSI

RCSI welcomed its new cohort of students to the College. 540 students began their courses in Medicine, Pharmacy and Physiotherapy and will get to know their way around the College, while also being introduced to the academic and administrative staff.

This year’s undergraduate intake of 441 Medicine students, 67 Pharmacy students and 32 Physiotherapy students come from Ireland and a host of other countries across Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The Heads of RCSI’s three Undergraduate schools, Professor Arnold Hill (School of Medicine), Professor Paul Gallagher (School of Pharmacy) and Professor Marie Guidon (School of Physiotherapy) welcomed their respective new students to RCSI this morning with an opening address which kicked off Orientation Week.

Further speeches were delivered by Philip Curtis, Associate Director of Admissions and Student Services, Dr Orna Tighe, Vice Dean for Student Support and Development and Ronan Tobin, Head of Student Engagement and Development. The students were provided with an overview of the extensive range of academic and non-academic supports that are available to all students in the College. The Students’ Union also briefed the new incoming students about the range of social activities that they have organised as part of Fresher’s Week and introduced the Clubs and Societies which play such an important part in the life of an RCSI student.

The 2017 Buddy Programme also got underway with second and third year Pharmacy, Physiotherapy and Medicine students volunteering to act as ‘buddies’ for the new students this year. The Buddies provide an invaluable resource in the form of friendly, knowledgeable and experienced students, who welcome the new students to RCSI for the first time and provide them with first-hand knowledge about the College, the courses, extra-curricular activities and student life in Dublin.

Later today Professor John Hyland, President of RCSI, will host a reception which is an opportunity for our new student’s families to join in the excitement of the beginning of their life as an RCSI student. The President will provide an overview of the College and its wider activates. This will be followed by a presentation from Professor Clive Lee, Head of Anatomy, who will provide a unique perspective on RCSI and some of its distinguished graduates. Students and their families will also have the opportunity to meet with academic and non-academic staff at the President’s Reception.

On Tuesday, 5 September, the White Coat Ceremony will take place in No. 26 York Street. The White Coat Ceremony is undertaken in the first week in College as a common ceremony for all Medicine, Pharmacy and Physiotherapy students and Physician Associates – to mark their new role as student health professionals. Students are invited by Professor Hannah McGee, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, to make a commitment to professionalism that mirrors the graduates’ declaration recited at their conferring day, and that signals the responsibilities they must begin to undertake as trainee health professionals from the start of their programmes.

The symbolism of having all disciplines start together recognises their common pathway in developing professional competence – and the importance of teamwork in healthcare delivery. The ceremony will be live streamed on the RCSI website from 5pm to enable families and friends who are unable to attend the event can watch proceedings from anywhere in the world.

As well as orientation, it is also Freshers’ Week for the students. There are a wide variety of social events organised including sign-up day for Clubs and Societies on Wednesday, 6 September; the Freshers’ Festival on Thursday, 7 September in the RCSI sports grounds in Dardistown and a ballad session on Friday, 9 September to close the week.

Oatmeal, Healthy Bugs And A Happy Heart

“Oatmeal; healthy bugs and a happy heart “ according to research published today by scientists at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded APC Microbiome Institute in Cork.
Pictured are (left to right):
Prof Noel Caplice, Professor of Cardiovascular Science, Director of the Centre for Research in Vascular Biology and investigator APC Microbiome Institute, UCC, Prof Catherine Stanton, leader of the research, APC Microbiome Institute and Teagasc Food Research Centre, Moorepark, Co. Cork, and Dr Paul Ryan, APC Microbiome Institute, UCC.
Picture: Cathal Noonan

PC Microbiome Institute scientists have confirmed that gut microbes play a role in heart health.  We also demonstrated that we should consume porridge regularly to get the benefits of oat beta glucan for heart and gut health!

Our study, published in Microbiome, found that consumption of oat beta glucan not only lowered blood cholesterol in mice, it also helped keep body weight down and altered both the composition and functionality of the gut microbiota.  The level of butyrate, a type of fatty acid produced by gut bacteria which has been previously shown to protect against diet-induced obesity in mice, was elevated in this study. Oat beta glucan also acted as a prebiotic, and increased bacteria in the gut which are being explored by others to treat obesity.

Plant sterol esters, which too were tested in this study, were found to be the most effective in lowering blood cholesterol and helping to avoid plaque build-up, but caused the greatest weight and adiposity gains and adversely affected the gut microbiota composition of the mice.

Cardiovascular disease is currently responsible for approximately 30% of deaths annually across the globe.  Diet and exercise are known interventions to prevent or slow down the development of atherosclerosis but it has become evident that our gut bacteria also contribute.

In the study mice were fed a high fat diet together with either a food supplement or medication over a period of 24 weeks.  The food supplements used in the study were plant sterol ester (the plant equivalent of cholesterol, currently added to some foods) and oat beta glucan (found in porridge).  The drug used was Atorvastatin, one of the ‘statin’ group of drugs. The particular mice used are susceptible to the build-up of cholesterol in their arteries because they are apoE-/- deficient.

Atorvastatin and plant sterol esters are known to reduce levels of ’bad‘ cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL) and triglycerides in the blood, while increasing levels of ’good‘ cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL).  They are used to treat high cholesterol, and to lower the risk of stroke, heart attack, or other heart complications in people with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, or other risk factors. In this study, mice treated with Atorvastatin had similar physiology to the mice treated with oat beta glucan (reduced body weight and percentage body fat).

The takehome message is to take porridge regularly to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease whilst also protecting your gut microbiota.


Paul M. Ryan, Lis E. London, Trent C. Bjorndahl, Rupasri Mandal, Kiera Murphy, Gerald F. Fitzgerald, Fergus Shanahan, R. Paul Ross. David S. Wishart, Noel M. Caplice and Catherine Stanton (2017) Microbiome and metabolome modifying effects of several cardiovascular disease interventions in apo-E-/- mice Microbiome DOI 10.1186/s40168-017-0246-x

New Confirm research centre at UL is a ‘game changer’

New Confirm research centre at UL is a 'game changer'
The launch of the Confirm research centre at the University of Limerick is a game-changer for Irish manufacturing competitiveness according to its director.

The launch of a new World-class research centre at the University of Limerick is a game-changer for Irish manufacturing competitiveness according to its director.

The €47 million Confirm centre will be led by UL and Professor Conor McCarthy, with Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork, Cork Institute of Technology, NUI Galway, Athlone Institute of Technology, Maynooth University and Limerick Institute of Technology as academic partner institutions.

The new centre will address ways to optimize production systems, adding intelligence and enhanced information technology.

“Confirm will act as a beacon for international talent in the areas of advanced manufacturing from robotics to artificial intelligence,” said Prof McCarthy following the launch.

The new centre, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the industry, is one of four which was launched by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week.

“Investing in leading-edge scientific and technological research is good for our economy and helps us to discover new innovations which can improve our quality of life. Our SFI Research Centres represent a virtuous triangle between government, industry and higher education, and show just what can be achieved when there is a shared vision about reaching your ambitions.”

Barry O’Sullivan, general Manager of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care which has operations in Plassey, has welcomed the launch of the new research centre at the University of Limerick.

“Confirm will allow us to enable customer-driven customization. So it’s not just about automation, it’s about tailoring more customer-focused solutions so that we can add more value and bring more business back into Ireland,” he said.

Founder of Wikipedia to headline event at Trinity College Dublin

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales with U2’s Bono

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is set to take part in a talk at Trinity College Dublin next October.

The Alabama native, who previously ranked as one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people is set to discuss the fight against fake news, the launch of his recent news website WikiTRIBUNE, and how threats to online knowledge-sharing can be combatted with evidence-based journalism.

The event celebrates Ireland’s Internet Day in Trinity College Dublin on Thursday, October 26 and tickets can be booked online.

Now in its third year, Ireland’s Internet Day, aims to promote awareness, knowledge, use and understanding of the internet in Ireland by its citizens, businesses and communities.

It highlights the achievements of Irish and international internet entrepreneurs and the impact on society of the internet innovations and technologies.

Mr Wales, founded the free encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, in 2001. Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website globally and counts half a billion unique visitors each month.

Mr Wales is also the president of Wikia, a for-profit wiki hosting company that allows users to build their own specialised wikis typically relating to a specific interest or ‘fandom’.

On a mission to combat the rise of ‘fake news’ with evidence-based journalism, this year Mr Wales will launch WikiTribune.

Jimmy Wales’s Internet Day address will take place on Thursday, 26 October at 18:15 in the MacNeill Theatre, Hamilton Building, Trinity College Dublin. Tickets cost €15, with all proceeds going to CoderDojo, the volunteer programming club for young people. Click here to book your ticket.

New Study at UCC Shows How Your Gut Bacteria Could Influence Anxiety

As it turns out, a healthy gut microbiome could affect the development of conditions relate to anxiety or anxiety-like behavior. The new study by researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute showed the connection in tests involving mice.



As it turns out, a healthy gut microbiome could affect the development of conditions relate to anxiety or anxiety-like behavior. The new study by researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute showed the connection in tests involving mice.


A team of researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute of the University College Cork in Ireland has stumbled upon an intriguing connection between the bacteria living in the human gastrointestinal tract and anxiety. While there are studies that link anxiety-like behaviors to the gut microbiome, this is the first that makes a connection between the microbes and a particular kind of biological molecule called microRNA (miRNA) in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of the brain.

“Gut microbes seem to influence miRNAs in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex,” lead research Gerard Clarke said in a press release provided by BioMed Central. “This is important because these miRNAs may affect physiological processes that are fundamental to the functioning of the central nervous system and in brain regions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression.”

The team was able to identify this connection by comparing mice grown in a germ-free environment (GF mice) with normal mice. In the GF mice, 103 miRNA’s in the amygdala and 31 miRNA’s in the prefrontal cortex differed with ordinary mice. Furthermore, adding back gut microbes into the GF mice later on normalized these levels.


Within this study, published in the journal Microbiome, Clarke and his colleagues also observed how depleting the gut microbiota — the collective community of microscopic organisms — of adult mice using antibiotics affected miRNA levels in the brain in a manner similar to GF mice. How this worked remains unclear, so further studies are needed before it might be replicated in clinical tests.

Still, the potential of these findings could offer an alternative approach to treating anxiety-like behavior. Instead of targeting miRNA in the brain, which can be tricky, “our study suggests that some of the hurdles that stand in the way of exploiting the therapeutic potential of miRNAs could be cleared by instead targeting the gut microbiome,” Clarke explained.

According to the most comprehensive study on anxiety to date, about 1 in 13 people around the world experience anxiety or anxiety-related behavior. It’s the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting around 18.1 percent of the population or some 40 million adults every year. It may soon be possible to hep all these people by giving them a healthy gut microbiome.

University of Limerick president to introduce ‘no smoking zones’

University president Dr Des Fitzgerald has outlined that UL is moving towards becoming a ‘smoke-free’ campus
University president Dr Des Fitzgerald has outlined that UL is moving towards becoming a ‘smoke-free’ campus

The University of Limerick is moving towards having a ‘No-Smoking’ campus, its president Dr Des Fitzgerald has announced.

Dr Fitzgerald said there will be designated smoke-free areas all around the campus in the coming months, with some being introduced next month.

The full details of the number and the locations of the smoke free zones are currently being finalised and will be announced in advance of implementation.

In addition, UL will be offering support programmes for students and staff seeking help to quit smoking.

“This is a programme close to my heart,” Dr Fitzgerald told thousands of graduating students last week.

“Through this initiative we aim to create a model of excellence and to promote a healthy environment in which to develop the minds and bodies of our students,” he added.

“UL has an outstanding reputation for its campus, for the care and support it provides students and for its sports culture, and the Healthy Campus Initiative is an important step in developing this further,” he said.

UL already has a ‘smoke free’ policy, which outlines that all employees and students have a right to work and study in a smoke-free environment and that all its enclosed workplaces are smoke-free.

Smoking is prohibited in all University controlled buildings, including all indoor facilities, single occupancy offices, meeting rooms and restaurants.

In  the context of this policy, ‘smoking’ includes the use of electronic cigarettes, electronic cigars, electronic pipes or other such electronic nicotine delivery systems intended to simulate smoking, whether they deliver a nicotine dose or not.

An anti-tobacco group, Action on Smoking and Health Ireland, has praised a number of institutions, including the Athlone institute and Westport College for their smoke-free campuses.

These colleges have completely banned the use of tobacco products on campus, including the use of electronic cigarettes.

University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin have also started the process to become completely smoke-free zones.