US Department of Health funds five research projects at TCD

The US Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) has awarded Trinity researchers significant funding to pursue five ground-breaking research projects in a number of fields related to human health, including neuroscience, psychiatric illness and pulmonary disease.

Professor of Psychiatry, Michael Gill, and Professor in Psychiatry, Aiden Corvin, were successful as partners funded by the NIH National Institute of Mental Health (and co-funded by Science Foundation Ireland) for a project led by the University of North Carolina.

The Trinity team will lead a global research effort, applying genome sequencing to identify genes that predispose to major mental disorders in multiply affected families.

Professor Corvin said: “It will be an honour to lead this ambitious programme working with researchers and families from around the world as part of the international Psychiatric Genomics Consortium initiative.”

Professor of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Technology, Anne-Marie Healy, was successful as a partner within 2 NIH grants led by Professor John Fahy of the University of California. She will focus her research on carbohydrate-based therapies for people living with lung disease.

Assistant Professor in Neuroscience, Colm Cunningham, was funded by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His five-year programme is focused on how the loss of a chemical called acetylcholine from the brain leaves it vulnerable to inflammation arising during acute illness.

Professor of Neurology Orla Hardiman’s pre-eminence in the study of Motor Neuron Disease (MND) was recognised by the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), and she will now coordinate a project that includes partners from Latin America and Italy. The project will examine the relationship between MND prevalence in differing and mixed-race populations. Professor Hardiman will establish new registers of the incidence, prevalence and risk factors for MND in three Latin American countries, Cuba, Chile and Uruguay. This is the first time that the US government has provided federal funding for research in Cuba.

Trinity’s Research Development Office supported these projects as part of the Colleges Funding Diversification Strategy. This strategy aims to optimise the funding for research in Trinity by exploiting opportunities beyond the traditional national and EU funding programmes.

Research Project Officer at TR&I, Tony Flaherty, said: “This investment of US Government funding is a huge endorsement in the world-leading health research that is ongoing in Trinity, and in the societal impact it is having globally.”

International employers view Trinity graduates among the elite

Graduates from Trinity College Dublin are among the most employable in the world, according to the 2016 Global Employability University Rankings. Trinity is the only Irish university to appear in the rankings, where it sits at number 134.

This unique ranking was provided by 1) surveying a panel made up of recruiters from 20 countries, who were at a management level and had experience of hiring graduates, and 2) by surveying 3,450 managing directors of international companies.

The survey effectively asked what recruiters look for in university graduates, before ranking universities based on the number of votes they received from international respondents.

Importantly, Irish recruiters were not included in the first panel. As a result, Trinity’s presence in the Top 150 shows just how highly its graduates are valued by international employers, because it secured its votes solely from the managing directors of large, internationally recruiting companies.

These companies were free to cast up to 10 votes for universities whose graduates they valued highly, and they were also allowed to vote for those coming from local (national) universities as well as those from other countries.

The rankings were designed and commissioned by the French Human Resources consulting agency, Emerging. They are a valuable tool for employers, but also for students in choosing their university.

Commenting on the results, Director of the Careers Advisory Service at Trinity, Sean Gannon, said: “Employability is not simply the ability to get a job directly after graduation but is a measure of present and future career success. That success draws on a wide range of knowledge, skills and attributes which are developed not only in the formal curriculum but through the wider student experience.”

“In light of the likely challenges facing the Irish economy in the years ahead this ranking underlines the importance of the current work on curriculum reform in the College with the emphasis on the development of 21st century skills and key graduate attributes.”

New genes from scratch – Trinity geneticist discusses the evolution of DNA

Professor in Genetics at Trinity, Aoife McLysaght, explained how new genes evolve and how they sometimes become essential as she addressed a packed audience while delivering the 2016 JBS Haldane Lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.

The DNA in every living cell, including all of those in our bodies, has been passed down from our ancestors, going right back to the origins of life.

In recent years, geneticists have used new technologies to compare the all-important DNA sequences in different species and individuals that explain why life’s myriad variations exist. Having direct access to the blueprints that have sprung from billions of years of evolution has provided these geneticists with incredible information about how – and why – evolutionary novelties arise.

Professor McLysaght, who was the first to discover a set of new genes that only occur in humans, explored these ideas in her lecture. She placed a particular emphasis on our rapidly growing understanding of how new genes evolve, and on the the link between new genes and disease, including cancer.

New genes may appear in genomes in a variety of ways, but much of Professor McLysaght’s work focuses on the origins of de novo genes, which are those that arise from sections of the DNA code which previously did not code for proteins.

Professor McLysaght said: “It is a huge honour to have been awarded the JBS Haldane Lecture Prize. It is a real challenge to present complex scientific ideas to a lay audience in a way that is comprehensible while at the same time not losing the excitement of the work, and I was thrilled to deliver this lecture to a tremendous audience.”

“It was a fantastic opportunity to explain my recent work on the evolution of new genes, as well as the broader context, to the audience at the Royal Institution. I was also able to speculate on how the special evolutionary conflicts around the origin of new genes might explain why so many new genes have a role in cancer.”

The lecture is named in honour of John Burdon Sanderson (JBS) Haldane, who was a British scientist known for his contributions to the fields of physiology, mathematics, evolution and genetics. He is credited with laying the foundations for modern evolutionary synthesis, having created models of population genetics, which essentially unified the theories of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution via natural selection in the early 20th Century.

The lecture is organised by the Genetics Society UK. Taking place once each year, it recognises an individual for his/her outstanding ability to communicate topical subjects in genetics research.

TCD Immunologists Unearth Key Piece of MRSA Vaccine Puzzle

Immunologists from Trinity College Dublin have unearthed a key piece of the MRSA vaccine puzzle by identifying specific ‘helper’ cells whose role in the immune response is critical in affecting infection outcomes.

The immunologists were able to develop a model vaccine, which targeted these ‘T-helper type 1’ cells, and then showed experimentally that its use led to improved infection outcomes.

Assistant Professor in Immunology in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity, Dr Rachel McLoughlin, said: “To design an effective vaccine it is imperative you know how a bacterium interacts with its host. By screening patients with Staphylococcus aureus blood stream infections we were able to isolate key players in the immune system that dealt with these infections and then designed a model vaccine that effectively sparked them into action.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns of an impending “post-antibiotic era,” with the potential to undermine modern medicine. Anti-microbial resistance is a global crisis that demands the development of new antimicrobials, but developing alternatives to antibiotics such as vaccines would prevent infection in the first place.

The bacterium S. aureus is a major cause of healthcare-associated infections, and blood stream infections caused by S. aureus are associated with significant mortality. Resistance in S. aureus to the main antibiotic used for treatment, methicillin, was first reported in the 1960s and, over the past decades, antibiotic resistant S. aureus, or MRSA, has become endemic in hospitals throughout the world.

The incidence of MRSA blood stream infections in Irish hospitals has been steadily decreasing in recent years, but is still higher than several other European countries, which means there is an urgent need to develop a vaccine to prevent this infection.

To date, around eight promising candidate vaccines have failed in clinical trials, despite showing promise in pre-clinical models. Traditional approaches to vaccine development have thus failed to develop an effective weapon against MRSA.

We now know that cellular immunity (involving ‘T-cells’) is vitally important in protection against S. aureus infection, because individual T-cell subsets are very important for activating phagocytes – the immune cells that ingest and kill bacteria.

Dr McLoughlin and her colleagues found that ‘T-helper type 1 cells’ were elevated in patients following S.aureus infection. Their model vaccine, which jolted these cells into action, improved infection outcomes. The results therefore support the design of vaccines that specifically target these cells in humans.

Dr McLoughlin said: “This study demonstrates the importance of truly translational research. Using pre-clinical models we identified an immune mechanism important for protection against S. aureus infection, but it was via collaboration with clinicians at three Dublin teaching hospitals that we were able to translate these findings to show the same mechanism of immunity is relevant in human infection. Our findings will directly inform the design of next-gen anti S. aureus vaccines and could significantly increase our chances of realizing an effective vaccine to protect patients from MRSA.”

The research was supported by funding from the Health Research Board (HRB) and the Wellcome Trust. A copy of the journal article, just published in PLOS Pathogens, is available on request. The article can be viewed here.

TCD Scientists to study the link between illness, brain dysfunction and dementia

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin will study the interaction between acute illness and brain dysfunction after they were awarded significant funding – a projected $1.2 million over five years — from the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Assistant Professor in Neuroscience in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity, Colm Cunningham, will use the funding awarded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the US National Institutes of Health to explore why – and how — the brain is sometimes left vulnerable to the negative effects of acute illness.

Although it has not been widely appreciated until recently, acute illness can have negative effects on brain function and can even injure the brain. Delirium is a frequent neuropsychiatric complication of acute illness in the elderly that encompasses profound disorientation and confusion. As well as being extremely distressing and often causing extended stays in hospital, it is now clear that these episodes also accelerate the onset and progression of dementia.

The pathophysiological mechanisms by which acute illness induces cognitive dysfunction and lasting brain injury are poorly understood and this award by the NIH is aimed at unravelling the molecular mechanisms by which inflammation outside the brain alters inflammation inside the brain (neuroinflammation). In particular, the studies will focus on how the loss of a key brain chemical, acetylcholine, whose levels decline with age, alters the activation of brain immune cells called microglia and leaves the brain vulnerable to the negative effects of acute illness.

Professor Cunningham commented: “Evidence that inflammation throughout the body can trigger dysfunction and injury in the brain has been slowly accumulating, but this award allows us to really get into the detail of how the brain becomes vulnerable when acetylcholine levels decline and to examine the role that inflammation plays in disrupting brain performance and integrity. With fantastic tools made by our collaborator John Lowry in Maynooth University, we can also now start to look at how brain metabolism is changing during acute illness.”

Dr Molly Wagster, Chief of NIA’s Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch, said: “We are delighted to support this collaborative investigation into the molecular underpinnings of delirium, a condition once thought transient but that we now know can cause long-term — or even permanent — cognitive problems in older people.”

Although those studies will rely exclusively on mouse models, the group are also pursuing this story in elderly patients who experience acute inflammation in the form of hip fractures, as co-investigators in a collaborative project just funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. The ASCRIBED study, led by Professor Chris Fox in the University of East Anglia, takes advantage of a cohort of elderly hip-fracture patients from whom brain fluid (CSF) is being collected in order to track the inflammation and brain injury ‘biomarkers’ that are produced as a consequence of the inflammatory trauma of hip fracture.

Professor Cunningham added: “Together, it is hoped that these two studies can begin to piece together how acute inflammation triggers delirium and acute brain injury and to what extent this drives the progression of dementia.”

Trinity and St James’s Hospital announce plans for new cancer institute

Ireland’s first cancer centre to set gold standard in cancer patient care

The intention to develop a new cancer institute was jointly announced by Trinity College Dublin and St James’s Hospital at the launch of Cancer Week today. The first of its kind in Ireland, the new cancer institute will set a new standard for cancer care nationally, integrating medicine and science in cancer prevention, treatment and survivorship. Based on similar leading international models, it will be located in one designated facility at St James’s Hospital.

Cancer in Ireland is projected to double by 2040 with increases in all types of cancer. The population need for the development is therefore acute.

Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Patrick Prendergast said: “The cancer institute will consolidate our strengths in clinical and scientific research for the ultimate benefit of patient care. It will deliver substantially improved outcomes for cancer patients by providing research-led diagnosis and treatment, and promoting a better understanding of cancer through interdisciplinary research.”

“We will be educating the next generation of cancer clinicians, health professionals and scientists. Both Trinity and St James’s Hospital share a long history together training medical doctors, nurses and health professionals who have treated the people of Dublin and Ireland with expertise and dedication. With this new institute we intend to lead the way in innovative new cancer treatment.”

St James’s Hospital CEO, Lorcan Birthistle said: “This cancer centre will place research, education and treatment side by side which is in line with the model for the very best cancer centres internationally. The best outcomes for patients are achieved in centres that combine high volume and highly specialised evidence based cancer care with scientific and technological advances. This exciting joint development between Trinity College and St James’s will achieve this goal.”

Trinity and St James’s Hospital have been scaling up for the new cancer institute with the recruitment of key new clinical academic and research appointments in oncology. Accreditation for the new institute is also being sought from the Organisation of European Cancer Institutes that sets the gold standard for leading cancer institutes in Europe. It will benchmark performance against international standards and direct the cancer services and research to the next level.

Minister for Health, Simon Harris said: “I welcome this association between the health sector and third level education on cancer care involved in the collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and St James’s Hospital. Such combined working holds great potential to ultimately benefit the patient experience.”

The announcement was made at the opening of the International Cancer Conference at Trinity College Dublin as part of Cancer Week. It was made ahead of the government publication of the National Strategy on Cancer.

Cancer – the Irish context

The National Cancer Registry estimates that the incidence of cancer in Ireland will increase by 50% in 2025 (compared with 2010) and by 100% in 2040 based on population changes. While there have been improvements in cancer care in Ireland over recent years, most indicators show survivorship rates for many cancer types remain lower than in comparable developed countries.

Trinity College Dublin Welcomes US First Lady, Michelle Obama and Daughters for Visit

 

The Obamas touring Old Library at Trinity College on Monday
The Obamas touring Old Library at Trinity College on Monday

Trinity College Dublin welcomed US First Lady,  Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Sasha and Malia to visit the Old Library today. The leading Irish university was the first visit as part of their itinerary in Ireland.

Welcoming the Obamas, Provost Dr Patrick Prendergast said:

“We are delighted to welcome  the US First Lady and daughters, to Trinity College, Ireland’s  oldest university which has produced some of the world’s great minds across the sciences and the humanities, including two Nobel Laureates, Samuel Beckett in literature and Ernest Walton in science.”

“We are honoured by your visit which goes to strengthen our relations with America. As a country, America has welcomed many of our graduates over the years where a large number of our alumni are living.  Our graduates who play a critical role in shaping the knowledge economy are our diaspora.”

“Your visit has particular meaning for us today  given the connections we have as an institution with President Obama’s own  ancestor,  John Kearney  who in the 18th century was also a Provost here in the university.”

 

The Obamas visited Trinity’s Long Room situated in the College’s 18th century Old Library building.

During their visit  they were escorted by the Provost where they were shown the Book of Kells, a 9th century gospel manuscript written and illustrated by Columban monks, famous throughout the world for its beautifully intricate decoration and representative of Ireland as a seat of art and learning.

The First Lady and her daughters were also given a presentation on their own family genealogy and connections to Ireland, compiled by one of Trinity’s own spin out heritage and archives companies, Eneclann.  It researched President Obama’s Irish ancestry from Falmouth Kearney, President Obama’s second great-grandfather to his seventh great-grandfather, Joseph Kearney.   The Kearneys  belonged to  the Church of Ireland and John Kearney, who was a distant cousin of  the President, went on to become the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and later Bishop of Ossory. He held the Chair of Oratory in Trinity from 1781 until his appointment as Provost in 1799.   As part of the genealogy exhibition the Obamas were shown an original 19th century map provided by the National Library of Ireland of lands of Gorthgreen from where some of the family originated.

The Obamas also saw the College Harp − Ireland’s oldest harp dating from the 15th century and on which Ireland’s national emblem is based.

In concluding their tour of the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, Provost, Dr Prendergast,  wished the First Lady and her daughters a pleasant visit and emphasised the need to continue forging  innovative  research and academic synergies and partnerships with leading universities in America.

Cancer Week 2016 kicks off with optimistic outlook on new era in treating cancer

From training the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, to robotic cancer surgery, the options for treating cancer are entering a new era.

Cancer Week Ireland 2016 kicks off today with a conference at Trinity College Dublin to explore new frontiers in personalised cancer care. Scientists and clinicians will discuss the future of treating cancer and how personalised and targeted therapy using the latest techniques in immunotherapy, surgery and genomic profiling are fundamentally changing the way we approach this disease.

In fact, cancer is not one disease at all, and there is no single magic bullet cure. Even within specific cancer types such as breast, prostate or lung, there are considerable differences between tumours of the same type in different patients, and between cancer cells within a tumour.

While treatments in the 1960s and 1970s employed one-size-fits-all blunderbuss type therapies, often with highly toxic side effects, the key to current and future cancer treatment lies in individualised innovative approaches for each patient’s particular cancer. This involves combining new and traditional therapies, an increased use of genomic profiling and new methods of determining a patient’s likelihood of responding to various treatments. Science, technology and clinical treatment have moved far beyond what many people commonly understand about cancer and how science and medicine are fighting it.

Dr David Gallagher, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Consultant Medical Geneticist at St James’ Hospital Dublin who heads up the cutting edge Cancer Genetics Unit in St James’ explained: “Over the past decade cancer treatment has become more precise. Personalised treatments have been used to target specific abnormalities in patients’ cancers with some notable success stories such as the breast cancer drug Herceptin. However, most cancers are too complex to succumb to single targeted treatments and consequently, progress in this area slowed somewhat after their discovery. Attempts to combine multiple targeted therapies have been hampered by the overlapping toxicities of the individual drugs, and for a period of time the promise of personalised cancer care plateaued.”

Dr Gallagher continued: “In the past one to two years optimism is returning. Treatments that modulate the immune system, effectively turning the person’s immune system against their cancer have produced some remarkable results. These agents are now being combined with targeted treatment, in addition to traditional chemotherapeutic agents and radiation, to make the cancers even more recognisable to the person’s immune system, thus priming them for targeting.”

“Another significant recent development is the emergence of, what’s known as, germline genetic predictors of response to treatment. What this means is that an individual’s core DNA that they inherit from their parents not only determines what diseases they get, but also predicting their response to different treatments.”

“Finally the growing awareness of the relevance of the epigenome – chemical compounds that can tell the genome what to do – in the formation of cancer, and the ability to target the epigenome, holds considerable promise for stopping and reversing cancer very early in its development.”

Dr Gallagher concluded: “These innovations will change cancer care dramatically over the next decade. Our greatest challenge may be to ensure that our creaking healthcare system maintains pace with this progress.”

Initiated by the Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin, Cancer Week Ireland is encouraging a national conversation about cancer this October. That conversation hopes to create a greater understanding of what cancer is, how we can better prevent it, detect it, treat it and how to survive and thrive afterwards.

Between Monday 17th October and Sunday 23rd October, communities and organisations around the country are hosting events for patients, medical professionals and members of the public, to be part of the conversation. All events are available on cancerweek.ie

Some of the key events taking place during Cancer Week Ireland are:

  • ‘Living Well with Cancer’, the annual National Conference for Cancer Survivorship organised by the Irish Cancer Society, (Saturday, 22nd October, Aviva Stadium Dublin).
  • The tenth International Cancer Conference, hosted by Trinity College Dublin, (Monday, 17th October, Trinity College Dublin).
  • ‘Cancer Prevention: from Denis Burkitt to the Human Genome Project’, a talk by the 2017 recipient of the Burkitt Medal, Dr Paul Brennan, Head of the Genetics Section of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC/WHO), Lyon, France. (Tuesday, 18th October, 16.20pm, Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, Trinity College Dublin).

Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society said “Cancer treatments have advanced significantly over the years and this is evidenced by increasing survival rates. Cancer survival rates in Ireland are at an all-time high, but the number of people diagnosed with cancer here is rising and is expected to double by 2040. It is therefore vital that we continue to invest in cancer research in order to better understand and treat this extremely complex disease.”

About Cancer Week Ireland

Cancer Week Ireland is the brain child of the Irish Cancer Society and Trinity College Dublin. Ireland’s first Cancer Week took place in 2014 and the theme was ‘Living with Cancer’.

This inaugural Cancer Week brought together national and international experts to discuss improvements in cancer treatments, as well as tackling the physical and emotional consequences that a cancer diagnosis can bring.

In 2015 the Cancer Week concept continued to grow and led to another successful week-long programme of events in September on the theme of cancer research and clinical trials.

Now in its third year, Cancer Week is rolling out nationally to become Cancer Week Ireland. This year it wants to start a national conversation about cancer and how more people are surviving as more advances are made in detection and treatment.

For more information and to see a list of events taking place, please visitcancerweek.ie.

Scientists make major breakthrough in understanding inflammation

  • The action of cells that spark inflammation causes a ‘re-wiring’ of their mitochondria, which amplifies the inflammation response
  • Targeting the cells responsible for the initial spark may keep the process under control and offer new treatment options for a host or inflammatory diseases

 

Scientists have made a major breakthrough in understanding the workings of the cellular machinery involved in a host of inflammatory diseases. Their discovery opens the door to potential new therapies if they are able to target specific cells and keep our natural inflammation response under control.

The scientists found that ‘macrophage’ cells, when activated, re-wire energy powerhouses called ‘mitochondria’ to amplify the response – sometimes to the point that a normal bodily reaction to infection or injury is way over the top.

This elevated response is implicated in a number of inflammatory diseases, such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and septic shock.

Macrophages have two jobs in the body; they must react quickly to an infection by kicking the body’s inflammation response into action, and they must then depress that initial response and repair tissues that are damaged as a result.

However, the scientists found that the initial macrophage activity diverts mitochondria from their normal role of producing energy, to instead producing toxic compounds that amplify inflammation.

The scientists now hope that they can find ways of suppressing macrophages to an appropriate level, so as to reduce associated tissue damage when the body’s inflammation alert status has amped up too far. The scientists, from the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute at Trinity College Dublin, report their findings today in the world’s leading life sciences journal Cell.

Co-lead author, Dr Evanna Mills, said: “Mitochondria are well known as the key energy generators in our cells, but we found that during inflammation they switch from that role to instead making toxic products from oxygen using an enzyme called succinate dehydrogenase, which promotes inflammation.”

Co-lead author Dr Beth Kelly added:  “Preventing this process turns the macrophage into a more benign anti-inflammatory cell, so if we can find a way of mediating the macrophage response, we might be able to preferentially calm down the inflammation.”

The work is a joint collaboration between the Inflammation Research Group at Trinity, which is led by Professor of Biochemistry, Luke O’Neill, and the Medical Research Council Mitochondrial Biology Unit, Cambridge UK, which is led by Dr Mike Murphy.

It involves a major effort by nine institutions, including the Universities of Cambridge, Helsinki and Tampere, Harvard Medical School, the Medical Research Council UK Cancer Unit, Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute Glasgow, and the Max Planck Institute, Germany.

Professor O’Neill said: “Our work contributes to a burgeoning area in immunology termed ‘immunometabolism’. We have great hope that this area will go on to yield a whole new understanding of the complexities of inflammation, which might ultimately benefit patients via new therapeutic options.”

The work in Trinity was supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Irish Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council.

Inside Trinity

inside-trinity

The 19,985 people that work, live and study on campus are the primary focus of a new documentary  ‘Inside Trinity’. The four part series is a vibrant and breathing portrait of their lives – capturing the depth and breadth of human and educational experiences that happen within Trinity’s campus, extending from Front Arch on College Green to the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute on Pearse Street.  Loosehorse Television and RTÉ, partnered with Trinity to produce the series which was filmed over the past year.

Filmed throughout the 2015/16 academic year, ‘Inside Trinity offers a fascinating glimpse of a great Irish institution at work.  The cameras capture the whole gamut of life:  study, teaching and learning, research, sports and lots more.

The first episode was aired last night and will be  broadcast on  RTÉ 1 Television for the next three weeks (10.15pm, Thursdays). Last night’s episode featured Freshers’ Week at the beginning of another academic term  with all the different clubs and societies  on Front Square. It featured the then Students’ Union President, Lynn Ruane as she moved her family into Trinity and settled into her new role. We also caught up with some of Trinity’s leading academics who talked about their work.

The next three episodes will show  our students and staff involved in a range of educational activities.   Sports clubs, Trinity Access Programmes and the Library also have prominent roles. Tune in of a Thursday evening for some very  interesting viewing.