New programme to Advance Clinical Research Capability

A team of Irish clinical academics have secured one of seven major awards that have been made across the UK and Ireland by the Wellcome Trust as part of an initiative to increase clinical research capability.  The scheme, which will be known as the Wellcome – HRB Irish Clinical Academic Training Programme, will support the intake of eight postgraduate trainee doctors a year for a five-year period, providing fully integrated clinical and research training up to consultant level.

The award represents an overall investment of almost €13 million with €7.5 million coming from Wellcome and the Health Research Board (HRB) matched with a further combined contribution of €5.5 million from the Health Service Executive and the Health and Social Care Research and Development Office, Northern Ireland, and the partner Universities.  The partner universities involved in the programme include Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, NUI Galway, University College Cork, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast.

Lead investigators within each institution include:

  • Professor Michael Gill (Trinity College Dublin, Director & Co-Investigator)
  • Professor Paddy Mallon (University College Dublin, Deputy Director & Co-Investigator)
  • Professor Conall Dennedy (NUI, Galway, Co-investigator)
  • Professor Joe Eustace (University College Cork, Co-investigator)
  • Professor Ray Stallings (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Co-investigator)
  • Professor Peter Maxwell (Queen’s University Belfast, Co-investigator)
  • Dr Mark Watson (Molecular Medicine Ireland, Co-ordinator)

The programme will be open to applications in autumn 2016 for an intake beginning in July 2017 and is being coordinated through Molecular Medicine Ireland, an inter-University collaborative entity owned by NUIG, RCSI, TCD, UCC and UCD.

Announcing the programme today, Minister for Health, Mr Simon Harris TD noted that

A research-active health system is proven to have better outcomes for patients.  Patients will be the long-term winners as this collaborative investment will fundamentally improve both the number and calibre of Clinician Scientists working in our universities and health services.  I’m really pleased to announce this significant investment in the future of the health service, and I know the positive impact for patient care is going to be very real.  I very much look forward to seeing this important programme in action over the next few years.  I welcome the strong collaboration that is core to this research award, and I am particularly pleased that Northern Ireland is part of it, making this an all island and multi-institutional Programme.

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, Ms Michelle O Neill MLA said;

This is the largest ever investment in academic medicine through an all island collaborative partnership and it will make a real difference to the health of people across the island of Ireland and further afield.  I want to congratulate all those involved in securing this programme and in particular pay tribute to the role played by Professor Peter Maxwell, from Queen’s University in Belfast.   This initiative demonstrates what can be achieved through collaborative working across the whole island of Ireland.

Professor Michael Gill, Principal Investigator and Director of the Wellcome-HRB Irish Clinical Academic Training Programme said,

Our goal in securing this award was to enable a fundamental change in the training of future academic clinicians on an all-Ireland basis. At its core is a fully integrated clinical and research programme that will provide seamless, supported and mentored training of the highest standard, targeting future clinical academic leaders in the universities and health care system.

The programme will identify, recruit, and mentor doctors during their postgraduate training who have the potential to become future academic leaders. They will be supported through a structured career pathway, aligned with our national research strengths and postgraduate specialities. In doing so, this programme will position Ireland well to meet future challenges in clinical innovation and excellence in healthcare.

Our application has the full support of all major stakeholders; the Postgraduate Forum representing specialist training bodies, the Health Services North and South, the Universities and the Health Research Board.  Trainee Clinician Scientists will be based at six major Irish universities in Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway, and will be able to take advantage of existing clinical research infrastructures and supports in their associated hospitals, many of which have been funded by the HRB.

Deputy Director of the Programme, Professor Paddy Mallon, Associate Dean for Research, Innovation and Impact at the UCD School of Medicine commented,

This exciting programme represents real systems change in how we train clinician scientists in Ireland and is designed to attract the very best physicians and support them in pursuit of the research excellence. This programme would not have been possible without the investment in national structures for clinical research and training that has been committed over the past decade or more. Funding of this prestigious programme reflects international recognition of the sound infrastructure available within Ireland to conduct the highest quality clinical research.

According to Dr Graham Love, Chief Executive at the Health Research Board,

We are committed to fostering a research-active culture among health professionals so they can continually evolve and improve care.  It is great to see that the ongoing collaboration between the HRB and Wellcome Trust continues to extend new opportunities to researchers in Ireland.

Dr Anne-Marie Coriat, Head of Research Careers at Wellcome said;

This is one of seven new clinical PhD programmes across the UK and Ireland that Wellcome has funded.  Training small groups of PhD students in programmes provides an opportunity to develop cohort focussed training opportunities and further embed clinical academic training within universities and university hospitals.


Brief overview of Programme Structure

Wellcome – HRB Irish Clinical Academic Training

Year 1

Clinical (70%) Academic (30%) Accredited for clinical training. Fellows appointed as Clinical Lecturer and allocated to clinical positions in a university affiliated hospital with protected time to participate in education/research. Three core modules and one elective module will be taken, chosen from an existing Clinician Scientist Curriculum at Molecular Medicine Ireland or from additional modules in any partner institution. Fellows will be supported to make their final choice of supervisor and will submit their research proposal. Progression to PhD will follow independent review of the proposal and interview. With extensive support, we expect low drop-out rates.

Year 2-4

Joint clinical (10%) / Academic (90%). One year accredited for basic or higher specialist training (BST or HST). Continue as Clinical Lecturer. Fellows will complete their research under supervision and will take additional taught components relevant to their PhD. They will maintain limited clinical activity approved by the relevant training body that does not disrupt research.

Year 5-7

Joint clinical (80%) / Academic (20%). Accredited for HST. Continue Clinical Lecturer appointment. Fellows will return to training positions in hospitals aligned with their host university under the guidance of their supervisor and Mentors. Fellows will complete requirements for clinical training while continuing to participate in research, working with their supervisors and mentors to apply for suitable post-doctoral fellowships.

About the Funders


Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.

Health Research Board

The Health Research Board (HRB) is the lead agency in Ireland responsible for supporting and funding health research, information and evidence. We are motivated and inspired by our vision; Healthy people through excellent research and applied knowledge (

QUB and Almac Group in New Breast Cancer Discovery

Almac Group’s Diagnostics business, in collaboration with Queen’s University, has announced the identification of a novel immune response mechanism in breast tumours deficient in DNA repair.

The study has been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI).

The publication entitled ‘Activation of STING-Dependent Innate Immune Signalling By S-Phase-Specific DNA Damage in Breast Cancer’ follows on from Almac’s previous publication of a 44 gene immune based assay capable of prospectively identifying breast cancer patients with a defect in the FA/BRCA pathway who benefit from anthracycline based chemotherapy.

The current study explains the molecular basis of this 44-gene immune based assay and demonstrates that the genes in the assay reflect activation of the innate immune response cGAS/STING/TBK1/IRF3 pathway in response to DNA damage.

The study is particularly interesting because it provides a clear rationale for the observed link between DNA repair deficiency and activation of the immune checkpoint PD-L1. Almac will now pursue their 44-gene assay as a means of prospectively identifying breast cancer patients likely to respond to PD-L1 targeted therapies.

Dr Eileen Parkes, Academic Clinical Lecturer at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s said: “This research provides a new way of explaining how immune cells are targeted to certain breast tumours, and could help decide which patients are most likely to respond to this new class of immune therapies. Approximately one third of breast cancers will have this immune-rich picture, therefore a huge amount of patients could benefit from this research.”

Professor Richard Kennedy, MD, PhD, McClay Professor in Medical Oncology at Queens and VP and Medical Director, Almac Diagnostics commented: “The study provides strong justification for the underlying biology that causes enhanced PD-L1 expression. Almac will now engage with pharma and academia to investigate the potential clinical benefit for predicting response to immune checkpoint inhibitors, such as PD-L1 and IDO1 and their use in combination with DNA damaging agents.”