Eight UCD research projects awarded Science Foundation Ireland funding grants

Pictured top: from left to right: Dr Angela Feechan; Dr Antonio Benedetto; Dr Liliana Pasquale; Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, Professor Mark Ferguson; Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation, John Halligan TD; Dr Eoin Cummins; Dr Eoghan McGarrigle; Dr Yan Yan; and Professor Simon Kelly
  • Awards help early and mid-career researchers to develop essential skills
  • Grants will fund projects carried out by 100 researchers from seven countries
  • Gender initiative ensures maximum of six applicants at each institution were male

Research projects at University College Dublin have received eight of the 40 awards granted in the latest round of funding from Science Foundation Ireland.

The awards are allocated under the Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) and Career Development Award (CDA) Programmes.

With grants ranging from €450,000 to €877,000 over four years, the projects will support nearly 100 researchers from seven countries.

The 40 research projects will be funded through nine research bodies: University College Dublin (8), Dublin City University (7), National University of Ireland Galway (3), National University of Ireland Maynooth (1), Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (2), Trinity College Dublin (9), Tyndall National institute (2), University College Cork (3), University of Limerick (5).

The 40 research projects cover a diverse range of sectors, including health and medical, food and marine, energy and environment, manufacturing and materials and ICT and communications.

“This investment in the SFI SIRG and CDA Programmes allows researchers to advance their research investigations and continue developing their careers,” said Minister of State for Training, Skills and Innovation, John Halligan TD, who announced the awards.

“The nine industrial collaborations linked with these awards provides industry with access to the emerging research expertise found throughout Ireland.

“Collaborations at these early career stages will help establish relationships which will advance Ireland’s economy, society and reputation for research excellence now and in the future.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, said Science Foundation Ireland places a heavy emphasis on supporting researchers at every stage of their careers.

“The SIRG and CDA awards help early and mid-career researchers develop essential skills and track records necessary to become the next generation of research leaders in Ireland.  I have high expectations for these projects and look forward to these teams contributing to the advancement of Ireland’s international reputation in areas such as energy, materials, technology, and health,” he added.

A gender initiative was employed for the 2015 SIRG awards, ensuring out of the 12 eligible applicants from a research body, a maximum of six of the applicants could be male. In 2013, 27% of applicants and 27% of awardees (six out of 22) were female.

The 2015 gender initiative can be considered a success in that of the 94 eligible applications, 44 were from female applicants (47%) and 50 were from male applicants (53%).  Of the 20 proposals awarded, 55% of awardees (11 out of 20) are female.

Health & Medical

  • Developing our understanding of how nanoparticles interact with immune system, which will open new routes for designing nanoparticles for effective vaccine delivery; (SIRG awardee)

PI: Dr Yan Yan, School of Chemistry

  • Investigating how certain mechanisms underpinning the effects of higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide in the blood may affect the immune system; (CDA awardee)

PI: Dr Eoin Cummins, Assistant Professor, School of Medicine

  • Investigating how the management of sensory and reward information in the face of environmental demands is deficient in many major brain disorders; (CDA awardee)

PI: Professor Simon Kelly, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering

Food and Marine

  • Identification of the proteins used by bacteria to infect wheat, in order to re-establish immunity in wheat; (CDA awardee)

PI: Dr Angela Feechan, Assistant Professor, School of Agriculture and Food Science

Manufacturing & Materials

  • Developing the automated processes involved in manufacturing carbohydrates, which holds promise in speeding up the development of new vaccines and medicines; (CDA awardee)

PI: Dr Eoghan McGarrigle, Assistant Professor, School of Chemistry

ICT and Communications

  • Developing new software technology that will transform cyber and physical forensic investigations in the future; (SIRG awardee)

PI: Dr Liliana Pasquale, Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science

  • A study of the interaction between organic biomolecules, known as room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs), and biomolecules, that could open up new opportunities for applications in biomedicine, pharmacology and food science. (SIRG awardee)

PI: Dr Antonio Benedetto, Lecturer, School of Physics

  • Investigating the use sophisticated machine learning techniques (deep learning) for the detection of novel events in data streams, such as CCTV images or data from a wearable medical device; (CDA awardee)

PI: Dr Brian MacNamee, Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science

By: Jamie Deasy, digital journalist, UCD University Relations

UCD Research – Immune System Plays Major Role in Regulation of Body Weight

New research involving a team of Irish, American and Canadian researchers reveals that the immune system could be responsible for as much as 40% of our body’s ability to regulate weight.

UCD Clinical Professor, Prof Donal O’ Shea, Consultant Endocrinologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and a Fellow in UCD Conway Institute is one of the lead authors on the research paper. Prof O’Shea explained,

“We know that once weight is gained, for the majority of people, it is very difficult to lose that weight. It is too simplistic to say eat less, move more and the weight will come off. It doesn’t actually work like that. The body has a very powerful reaction to defend against weight loss, which we now know involves the immune system.

We normally think of the immune system as something that guards against infection and diseases. However in evolutionary terms, a sudden or rapid weight loss could be a more immediate threat to survival. This immune system response contributes to why people really struggle to lose weight, despite their best efforts to control calories and do exercise. Our findings give us a much better understanding of why this is so and they illustrate the dynamic role that the immune system plays in regulating body weight”.

Dr Lydia Lynch, Assistant Professor, Harvard Medical School, and Associate Professor, Trinity College Dublin, and the first author on the study explains:

“We discovered that a very common immune cell, called the invariant natural killer T cell (iNKT cell), plays a key role in setting off a complex chain of events that regulate and enhance weight loss.

The iNKT cell is needed to help fat cells make a small protein called fibroblast growth factor-21, (FGF-21), which triggers the body to metabolise or turn white fat into a much healthier brown fat. This browning of white fat uses large amounts of energy, leading to increased metabolic rate and weight loss.

We know that people who are obese often have sluggish immune systems and a lower amount of these iNKT cells. With less iNKT cells, the body doesn’t make FGF-21, and this prevents the body from converting white fat to change it into brown fat.

So, if you stimulate the body to produce iNKT cells, you can increase the amount of FGF-21. This, in turn, leads to enhanced browning of white fat, and increased metabolic rate and weight loss.

This new knowledge opens up novel areas for treating weight loss, and will greatly enhance our ability to improve existing hormone treatments for weight loss.”

Graham Love, Chief Executive of the Health Research Board, who funded the Irish arm of the research said,

‘This is a highly significant breakthrough in understanding obesity, one of the global health challenges of our time. It will help change approaches we take to care for and transform many people’s lives’.

Professor O’Shea believes that these findings represent a significant step forward in our understanding of why people often find it so hard to lose weight, despite their best efforts.

“The findings should help break many of the stigmas associated with obesity, and most importantly, could dramatically improve outcomes for patients. Ultimately, this research underlies the absolute importance of prevention of weight gain in the first place. This work should be used by policy makers to prioritise obesity prevention strategies, especially childhood obesity’.

The research was funded by the Health Research Board in Ireland, the European Research Council and the National Institute of Health, USA.  The research has just been published in the journal Cell Metabolism and is available from their website at the link below.

Original Research Article


UL International research seminar on the mental health of students with autism spectrum disorder

The inaugural i-TEACH (Teaching for Inclusion) research seminar, whose theme was “New Foundations: Perspectives in Supporting the Emotional Wellbeing of Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)” was held at the newly built Analog Devices Building, UL last week. The seminar was attended by more than 50 delegates from across Ireland, and marked the launch of the i-TEACH network, a network of educators and allied professionals who support students with additional and complex learning needs.

The main objective of the seminar was to foster dialogue and exchange of knowledge in order to contribute to the search for solutions to challenges confronting educators in best supporting students with ASD who are at high risk of developing serious social emotional issues, particularly in adolescence. The seminar was funded by the Irish Research Council and led by Dr Jennifer McMahon, lecturer in Psychology and Special Education and director of the i-TEACH lab. Dr McMahon noted ‘We wanted to shine a light on this hugely important issue. School is not just about academic success but also about ensuring that students have the social emotional skills to navigate the complex and often daunting social world that will impact all areas of their development. Evidence-informed practice advice is critical for improving the effectiveness of support offered to students with ASD in our schools’.

From left Associate Professor Tatja Hirvikoski, Dr Judith Hebron, Professor Richard Hastings, and Dr Jennifer McMahon

Dr Rachel Msetfi, Assistant Dean of Research at UL, opened proceedings noting the importance of bringing together all the key stakeholders responsible for supporting students with ASD. The papers presented at the seminar were prepared by international experts drawn from Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Dr Tatja Hirvikoski, Associate Professor at The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, presented on the high risk of suicide in people with ASD. Professor Hirvikoski’s research was nominated as one of the top 10 Autism research papers of 2015 by Autism Speaks, the most influential autism advocacy organisation in the world. Dr Judith Hebron, research fellow at the University of Manchester, presented on the experience of students with ASD on the transition from primary school to secondary school. Professor Richard Hastings, University of Warwick, presented on the mental health of young children with ASD and the impact on the wellbeing of family members such as mothers and siblings. Richard Hastings is a Professor of Education and Psychology as well as the Cerebra Chair of Family research in the Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal & Research (CEDAR). In addition he is advisor and research partner to Ambitious about Autism and SIBS, a charity for brothers and sisters of people with a disability.

Discussion sessions during the seminar were moderated by a panel of experts comprising academics, policy makers as well as representatives of organisations that share a passion for the support of students with ASD and have unique perspectives on how it can be achieved. This complemented the diverse mix of expertise of delegates attending the research day and will discussions will provide a basis for formulating a blueprint for supporting students with ASD in relation to their emotional wellbeing in schools.

Bruin Biometrics and RCSI Partner on Pressure Ulcer Prevention Research

In a search for new ways to attack pressure ulcers – a persistent, £2 billion-plus (stg) problem throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom — Bruin Biometrics LLC (BBI, LLC), a developer of innovative sensor-based diagnostic products, and RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) announced today that they have agreed to undertake a number of collaborative projects that will employ BBI’s proprietary bioimpedance technology, the SEM Scanner, for the early detection and prevention of pressure ulcers.

Pictured (l-r) is Dr Tom O’Connor, Prof Zena Moore and Dr Declan Patton of the RCSI School of Nursing & Midwifery
The research programme aims to explore bioimpedance science as a novel methodology for the early detection and monitoring of pressure ulcer development. It seeks to radically alter the progression of the disease while contributing to the biological understanding of pressure ulcer development, the underlying pathophysiology and biomarkers, such as sub-epidermal moisture (SEM). The ultimate aim is to prevent pressure ulcers and reduce the prevalence of this persistent public health problem.

In order to maximize the collaborative nature of these projects and accelerate translation into the clinic, the partnership includes several educational grants designed to support a series of research projects with the SEM Scanner to be conducted by RCSI’s School of Nursing & Midwifery under the direction of Professor Zena Moore, Head of the RCSI School of Nursing and Midwifery, Dr. Declan Patton, Senior Lecturer and Director of Nursing & Midwifery Research and Dr. Tom O’Connor, Director of the School’s Academic Affairs.

Planned studies will explore the use of BBI’sin vivo bioimpedance device across a variety of patient settings (acute care, community care and home care). The data will assess the impact of real-time tissue health data on clinicians’ ability to introduce targeted pressure ulcer prevention strategies and ultimately improve clinical effectiveness and patient outcomes. These results have the potential to fundamentally shift the current standard of care for pressure ulcer prevention.

“This collaboration will harness BBI’s expertise in bio-sensors and bioimpedance and RCSI’s expertise in research and clinical patient care,” said Professor Zena Moore. “This engagement is another example of how RCSI can bring together the best of industry, academia and the clinical community to improve healthcare outcomes for patients in Ireland and beyond.”

“RCSI and BBI share a vision of transforming care for patients with pressure ulcers, so we can precisely detect earlier and, with targeted interventions, reverse the progression of damage to ultimately prevent pressure ulcers from occurring. This research will improve our understanding of the cascade of biological events leading to pressure ulcer development, and how to use that knowledge to diagnose and intervene earlier and more effectively than we can today,” said Colin Priestley, EMEA Managing Director for BBI.

“Today’s healthcare research involves a wide array of disciplines. At RCSI, we focus on harnessing cross-disciplinary approaches and fostering collaboration between RCSI researchers and faculty and industry to address needs for medical research. We are excited to expand our collaborative relationship with BBI, whose SEM Scanner represents an opportunity for dramatic improvement over today’s standards of care. Through this engagement, we hope to address one of the toughest medical challenges and public health issues – pressure ulcers – which is costing health services over £2 billion per year,” said Dr. Declan Patton.

About Pressure Ulcers
Pressure ulcers are a common medical problem that can lead to pain, disfigurement, infection and death. Also known as bedsores, pressure sores or decubitus ulcers, pressure ulcers are an area of localized damage to the skin and underlying tissue – usually around an area of bony prominence, such as the sacrum, coccyx, heels, and hips – that results from pressure involving shear and/or friction. Across Europe and the United States, it is estimated that 18%-25% of patients in both acute care and long-term care settings suffer from pressure ulcers, disproportionately impacting the elderly and patients with limited mobility. There are some 2.5 million pressure ulcer cases annually in the European Union, and nearly 500,000 in the United Kingdom, which spends £2.1bn, or 4% of the NHS budget, on the condition. In the U.S., some 2.5 million Americans develop pressure ulcers annually in acute care facilities, and 60,000 Americans die annually from pressure ulcer complications such as cancer, sepsis, cellulitis, and MRSA.

RCSI is ranked 46th in the world for ‘International Outlook’ and #251 – 300 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2015-2016). 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.

UL Study Finds Irish Mothers Struggle To Recognise Overweight Or Obesity In Their Children

A University of Limerick study has found that mothers of overweight and obese children struggle to recognize their child as overweight or obese.

The study reported on 7,655 mothers and their nine year old children using data from the national longitudinal study of children, Growing Up in Ireland. Study co-author, Professor Ailish Hannigan, highlighted that “while three quarters of overweight mothers and 60% of obese mothers in the study recognised themselves as overweight or obese, mothers of overweight or obese children were much less likely to recognise this in their child.” Just 1 in 6 mothers of obese children classified their child as moderately or very overweight.

“Interestingly, overweight or obese mothers with accurate perceptions of their own weight were more likely to correctly classify their overweight or obese child”, said study co-author, Dr. Helen Purtill. The public health significance of the study was highlighted by Dr. Kieran Dowd, Centre for Physical Activity and Health Research, University of Limerick “If mothers, who are the primary caregivers in the majority of Irish homes, are unable to identify their child as overweight or obese, it is unlikely that they will react or intervene to change this. This may result in continued weight gain throughout the remainder of childhood and adolescence into adulthood”.

“Open and honest discussions between health professionals and parents about the child’s weight status should be encouraged”, said study co-author Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, “together with practical strategies for helping the family maintain a healthy weight. Importantly, weight control measures aimed at children should be family-based and include all family members.”

The research, which was published in the international journal Archives of Disease in Childhood was conducted by a multidisciplinary research team at the University of Limerick composed of Dr Kieran Dowd (Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences), Mr Robert Kirwan (Graduate Entry Medical School), Professor Ailish Hannigan (Graduate Entry Medical School), Dr. Helen Purtill (Department of Mathematics and Statistics), and Professor Clodagh O’Gorman (Graduate Entry Medical School).

New RCSI Research finds High Prevalence of Risk Factors for Patients Post Stroke

A new research study has found a high prevalence of risk factors for patients at six months post stroke, despite the widespread prescription of secondary preventative measures.  The ASPIRE-S research study was carried out by researchers from RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) and funded by the Health Research Board (HRB).  The research set out to assess whether patients who experience an ischaemic stroke (IS) receive the necessary secondary preventative therapy which aims to reduce the risk of future stroke following discharge from hospital.
Ischemic stroke occurs when an artery to the brain is blocked.  The brain depends on its arteries to bring fresh blood from the heart and lungs. The blood carries oxygen and the necessary  nutrients to the brain, and takes away carbon dioxide and cellular waste.
According to the research, a number of important targets for preventative therapy were not being met in Ireland. These included 68% of patients with a BMI greater than 25 (in other words overweight or obese); 16% of patients still smoking; 63% of patients with uncontrolled high blood pressure, 23% with high cholesterol levels; and 28% of diabetic patients with poor control of their condition.
Commenting on the research, Professor David Williams, Head of the RCSI Department of Geriatric Medicine & Consultant Stroke Physician said “Our research highlights the need to improve the management of preventative interventions for patients after ischaemic stroke to ensure patients lower their risk of another ischaemic stroke. We can do this by streamlining the management of patients, incorporating guidelines into quality assurance cycles in stroke care, educating patients and providing risk management programmes for patients.”
The ASPIRE-S study also found that 57% of patients had cognitive impairment, such as difficulties with memory, visual and executive functioning (published in BMC Neurology, 2015). Many patients reported psychological distress. Despite this high prevalence of cognitive and mood difficulties, almost two-thirds of patients did not receive any form of psychological service either in hospital or in the community. A related paper published in the International Journal of Stroke (2015) examined the impact of stroke on family carers of people with stroke. Substantial levels of dissatisfaction with community and hospital services were reported, as well as notable levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms among caregivers, with caregiver and stroke patient well-being found to be strongly interdependent.
Professor Anne Hickey, Head of the Department of Psychology, RCSI said “Cognitive impairment is associated with a poorer quality of life for patients following stroke and is a significant impediment to patients returning to their activity and engagement levels pre-stroke. The high levels of anxiety and emotional challenges reported by patients’ and caregivers highlights the need for access to psychological services post-stroke as part of routine stroke rehabilitation.
Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in Ireland (1). The WHO estimates stroke is the second most common cause of death and the fourth leading cause of disability.
The research was led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and conducted in collaboration with Beaumont Hospital, Connolly Hospital and the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. The research was published in BioMedCentral Neurology.
Editors Notes
  • Data from 256 patients was used in the study over a six month period.
  • 34% of patients were under 65years of age and 66% were over 65.
  • 43% of patients were female and 57% were male.
  • The average age for patients presenting with stroke was 69.