UL researcher awarded prestigious global fellowship

Physiotherapy researcher Dr Mary O’Keeffe is the first UL graduate to receive the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship from the European Commission.

A University of Limerick, Health Research Institute researcher has been awarded a prestigious global fellowship to further her research into lower back pain.

Physiotherapy researcher Dr Mary O’Keeffe is the first UL graduate to receive the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellowship from the European Commission. The award will enable Dr O’Keeffe to attend the George Institute for Global Health at University of Sydney, Australia, one of the top ten research institutions in the world for scientific impact. There, she will be hosted for two years by Professor Chris Maher who is the world leader in lower-back-pain research.

“I absolutely love research and think it has great potential to have a positive impact on the economy, health system and most importantly the patients and public all over the world,” Dr O’Keeffe commented.

“Back pain is the leading cause of disability in the world and I hope by strengthening both my research and communication skills I can one day contribute to improving the lives of millions of people worldwide for the better. Good science and research are powerful weapons and have the potential to do great things. Knowledge is power! I am very fortunate to be this position and I am excited for all the opportunities ahead,” she added.

Dr O’Keeffe will conduct advanced analysis of her PhD multicentre randomised controlled trial which investigated the role of a personalised multidimensional treatment for chronic low back pain within the Health Service Executive. Her doctoral research was undertaken through a competitive PhD scholarship from the Irish Research Council.

While at the George Institute for Global Health, Dr O’Keeffe will be trained in mediation, moderation and economic evaluation and will be involved in pharmacological and exercise trials. The fellowship also involves skills development in networking, grantsmanship, project management, leadership and student supervision and communications training with a media office and a multi award winning health journalist, Dr Ray Moynihan, co-author of Selling Sickness-How the World’s Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies are Turning us All into Patients.

The fellowship also involves an internship with Wiserhealthcare, an international and interdisciplinary collaboration to reduce over-diagnosis and overtreatment of conditions like lower back pain.

In the third year of the fellowship, Dr O’Keeffe will return to UL to be hosted by her PhD supervisor Dr Kieran O’Sullivan. During this time she will complete a secondment to the European Pain Federation (EPF) in Brussels. EPF creates a forum for European collaboration on pain issues and to encourage communication at a European level.

“I am delighted to have been awarded this prestigious fellowship. Post PhD can be hard and a confusing time to decide ‘where do I go and what do I do next?’ This fellowship gives me a-once-in-a-life-time opportunity to further my training and development in a world class research team and this will build my capacity to become a leading light in my field of back pain,” Dr O’Keeffe concluded.

Network of European experts exploring new weapons against drug-resistant bacteria

Professor Colum Dunne from University of Limerick (UL) Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS) is a member of the AMiCI Management Group.


A network of European experts has begun examining the potential of antimicrobial coatings to prevent the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals.

The Anti-Microbial Coating Innovations (AMiCI) consortium is studying the development, regulation, and “real life” use of these coatings, which can be used on textiles, including bed sheets and gowns, and solid surfaces such as walls, floors, beds and tables. Professor Colum Dunne from University of Limerick (UL) Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS) is a member of the AMiCI Management Group.

According to Professor Dunne: “New approaches are needed to protect hospital patients and healthcare staff. Antimicrobial coatings have great potential. These are surfaces fortified with active ingredients that are responsible for the reduction and even elimination of micro-organisms that come into contact with them”.

Healthcare associated infections, including multidrug-resistant bacteria, effect four million people annually in the European Union, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

More than 60 universities, research institutes and companies from 26 European countries are participating in the network, which represents the first time this issue is being addressed on such a large scale.

Members of the AMiCI consortium are organised into five groups concentrating on different areas relating to antimicrobial materials.

They will examine the design and manufacture of antimicrobial materials, their performance testing, risk assessment, management and cleaning.

“While some materials, such as copper and silver, have recognised antimicrobial properties, there are promising new technologies for use in coatings. In this network, we will evaluate the impact of introducing these in healthcare facilities, their potential for impact on spread of infection, practical aspects of their regulation and use, and possible development of resistance,” Professor Dunne adds.

AMiCI is supported by the European Commission’s Cooperation in Science and Technology programme (COST) for four years.

Previous research, published by Professor Dunne and his colleagues, has reported the emergence of multidrug-resistant bacteria in Irish hospitals. It has also examined how outbreaks of these organisms have been successfully managed by infection prevention and control teams.

The mesentery: A ‘new’ organ you didn’t know you had

In case you’ve ever wondered what connects your intestine to your abdomen, there’s a word — and now, a single organ — for that: the mesentery. But don’t worry; you haven’t grown a new organ. It’s always been there, performing important functions that affect systems throughout the body, from cardiovascular to immunological.

Leonardo da Vinci depicted it as one contiguous organ, and it remained that way for centuries until 1885, when Sir Frederick Treves’ findings presented the mesentery as fragmented amongst the small intestine, transverse colon and sigmoid colon.
The research of Dr. J. Calvin Coffey, foundation chair of surgery at the University of Limerick, is reclassifying this part of the digestive system as a contiguous organ. In a new study, Coffey has established the anatomy and structure of the mesentery, using images and compiling research to show that the organ’s continuity can be seen only when it’s exposed in a certain way.
The current findings resonate with those of Carl Toldt, who accurately described the presence of the mesentery in 1878. But his research was largely overlooked. At the time, Treves’ findings supported the statements of Henry Gray, who mentioned multiple mesenteries in the 1858 first edition of his book “Gray’s Anatomy,” the go-to medical textbook for students around the world.
Coffey’s research has already prompted the latest edition of “Gray’s Anatomy” to refer to the mesentery as a continuous organ.
How the mesentery functions in your body. (A) Peritoneum, mesentery, fascia and intestine. (B) Mesentery, fascia and intestine. (C) Mesentery and intestine. (D) Mesentery.
University of Limerick Professor Dr. J. Calvin Coffey’s research reclassifies the mesentery as a contiguous organ.

What does it do?

Linking your gut to the rest of your body is an important task, and the mesentery performs it well.
Among its functions, it carries blood and lymphatic fluid between the intestine and the rest of the body. It also maintains the position of the intestine so that it’s connected with the abdominal wall without being in direct contact.
That connection is key.
“Without a mesentery to keep the intestine connected, the intestine would have to attach directly to the body wall,” Coffey said. “It is unlikely that it would be able to contract and relax along its entire length if it were directly in contact. It maintains the intestine in a particular conformation, ‘hitched up,’ so that when you stand up or walk about, it doesn’t collapse into the pelvis and not function.”
Although researchers know that the mesentery plays an important role in the intestinal, vascular, endocrine, cardiovascular and immunological systems, more research is needed to determine the extent of those roles.
But they do have evidence that the mesentery takes environmental signals from the intestine and orchestrates the body’s response, Coffey said. One example is how bacteria are sampled in the lymph glands in the mesentery. In response, the glands then coordinate immune responses.

Why has it been misunderstood?

To look at the shape of the membrane, which Coffey calls remarkable, it’s easy to see why the mesentery has been depicted differently. It has a spiral formation in the abdomen and is packaged along a spinal trajectory, starting in the upper abdomen and ending in the pelvis.
“In between, it fans out, like a Chinese fan, to span the length of the intestine from the upper small intestine to the end of the large bowel,” Coffey said.
The latest anatomy and structure clarifications aid not only doctors, but medical students as well.
“For students, it greatly simplifies the matter of the mesentery,” Coffey said. “This was traditionally regarded as a complex field. The current anatomic model is elegant and simple and will help students understand this structure. It will also provide them with a new perspective from which to view other organs in the abdomen. For example, we now know that the mesentery and intestine intersect along the entire length of the small and large intestine, whereas previously, this was though to occur in some regions only.”

Improving surgery and treatment

More research will allow for better definition of the gut membrane’s function, what happens when it functions abnormally and diseases that affect it. This also allows for mesenteric science to become its own field of medical study, like neurology.
Coffey hopes that creating a better understanding of the mesentery can help with diagnosing issues and less invasive ways of assessing them. Currently, its remote location in the body means the mesentery can be accessed only radiologically or surgically. This research lays the foundation for investigating possible prescriptions and how less-invasive endoscopic procedures during a colonscopy could map the mesentery.
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Adopting a universal classification like this in the medical world has benefits that extend to standardizing surgical procedures, such as moving or cutting into the intestine. The mesentery extends from the duodenum, or first part of the small intestine immediately beyond the stomach, all the way to the rectum, the final section of the large intestine.
Because of this, it can factor into diseases such as Crohn’s, colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or cardiovascular disease and major health concerns like diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome. The more doctors know about the exact function of the mesentery, the more measures they can take to investigate the part it plays.
“For doctors, it provides us with an opportunity to refresh our approach to many diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and others,” Coffey said. “This could help in identifying the mechanisms underlying these conditions and help us in unraveling their cause and how they develop.”
 By Ashley Strickland, CNN
 Link to the original article here.

University of Limerick professor outlines evidence for categorising mesentery as organ

A University of Limerick (Ireland) professor has identified an emerging area of science having reclassified part of the digestive system as an organ.

The mesentery, which connects the intestine to the abdomen, had for hundreds of years been considered a fragmented structure made up of multiple separate parts. However, research by Professor of Surgery at UL’s Graduate Entry Medical School, J Calvin Coffey, describes the mesentery as one, continuous structure.

In a review published in the November issue of one of the top medical journals, The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Professor Coffey outlined the evidence for categorising the mesentery as an organ.

“In the paper, which has been peer reviewed and assessed, we are now saying we have an organ in the body which hasn’t been acknowledged as such to date,” Professor Coffey stated.

Better understanding and further scientific study of the mesentery could lead to less invasive surgeries, fewer complications, faster patient recovery and lower overall costs.

“When we approach it like every other organ…we can categorise abdominal disease in terms of this organ,” professor Coffey said.

According to Professor Coffey, the Foundation Chair of Surgery at UL’s Graduate Entry Medical School and University Hospitals Limerick, mesenteric science is its own specific field of medical study in the same way as gastroenterology, neurology and coloproctology.

“This is relevant universally as it affects all of us. Up to now there was no such field as mesenteric science. Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science…the basis for a whole new area of science,” he said.

“During the initial research, we noticed in particular that the mesentery, which connects the gut to the body, was one continuous organ. Up to that it was regarded as fragmented, present here, absent elsewhere and a very complex structure. The anatomic description that had been laid down over 100 years of anatomy was incorrect. This organ is far from fragmented and complex. It is simply one continuous structure,” Professor Coffey explained.

Already, medical students around the world are, from this year, learning about the mesentery as a continuous organ, after research by Professor Coffey prompted an update in one of the world’s best-known medical textbooks Gray’s Anatomy.

World-class research centre opens at University of Limerick

Investment of €86 million attracts leading scientists into UL’s Bernal Institute

Prof Don Barry:  Bernal Institute at UL is academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”. Photograph: Sean Curtin Press 22
Prof Don Barry: Bernal Institute at UL is academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”. Photograph: Sean Curtin Press 22

New drugs, better batteries and new materials are just a few of the discoveries expected to emerge from a €86 million investment in a new research institute at the University of Limerick.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was on hand on Monday to formally open the Bernal Institute, a huge multipurpose research space that will bring a number of existing institutes into a single location.

The Bernal Institute will provide the space but it will also have the personnel to advance Ireland’s research efforts.

The institute will house more than 260 researchers, including six world experts who already hold Bernal research chairs and who lead teams making discoveries in crystal engineering, fluid mechanics and microscopy among other disciplines.

These chairs between them have already attracted an additional €25 million in research funding and 70 companies have already formed partnerships with scientists who will be based at the institute.

Pharmaceuticals and materials

“The institute will ensure that Ireland stays at the cutting edge of research and innovation,” the Taoiseach said at the formal opening. Advances in pharmaceuticals, medicines and materials will help tackle great world challenges facing society, he said.

The Bernal Institute was a great example of academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”, said UL president Prof Don Barry.

Funding for the institute has come from Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Higher Education Authority.

It is named for John Desmond Bernal, an influential scientist who was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He was a pioneer in the use of X-ray crystallography to study structures in molecular biology.

UL academic’s discovery could prompt new area of medical science

An Irish professor has turned more than a century of anatomy on its head by identifying a new organ in our guts.

Prof J Calvin Coffey identified an emerging area of science, having reclassified the mesentery as a single organ.

The remarkable discovery by J Calvin Coffey, professor of surgery at University of Limerick’s Graduate Entry Medical School, has already resulted in the rewriting of medical text books and the possible creation of a new area of medical science.

Prof Coffey’s research has led to the re-classification of the mesentery — a key part of the digestive system which connects the intestine to the abdomen — as an organ.

For well over a century, scientists and medics believed it was a fragmented, complex structure made up of several separate parts.

However, Prof Coffey found that it is actually one continuous structure — by definition, an organ.

He has outlined his findings in the November issue of one of the world’s top medical journals, The Lancet — Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

“In the paper, which has been peer-reviewed and assessed, we are now saying we have an organ in the body which hasn’t been acknowledged as such to date,” said Prof Coffey.

“The anatomic description that had been laid down over 100 years of anatomy was incorrect.

‘This organ is far from fragmented and complex. It is simply one continuous structure.”

Prof Coffey, who is from Cork, said a better understanding and further study of the mesentery could lead to less invasive surgeries, fewer complications, faster patient recovery, and lower overall costs.

He also said mesenteric science is its own specific field of medical study in the same way as gastroenterology or neurology.

“Up to now, there was no such field as mesenteric science,” he said.

“Now, we have established anatomy and the structure.

“The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease.

“Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science, the basis for a whole new area of science.”

His research has seen one of the world’s best-known medical textbooks, Gray’s Anatomy, being updated, with medical students now learning about the mesentery as a continuous organ.

University of Limerick appoints senior UCD academic as new president

Prof Des Fitzgerald’s appointment strong signal UL is seeking to move up in world rankings

Prof Fitzgerald, a clinical academic, has earned wide-spread recognition for his research into platelets and thrombosis in coronary artery disease. Photograph: UL press office
Prof Fitzgerald, a clinical academic, has earned wide-spread recognition for his research into platelets and thrombosis in coronary artery disease. Photograph: UL press office

Prof Fitzgerald, a clinical academic, has earned wide-spread recognition for his research into platelets and thrombosis in coronary artery disease.

Prof Des Fitzgerald, a vice-president of UCD and of the country’s highest paid academics, is set to be appointed as the new president of University of Limerick.

The appointment sends a strong signal that UL is seeking to boost its research capacity and move up in world university rankings.

Prof Fitzgerald playing a central role in transforming UCD’s research performance and helped develop a range of international partnerships, in particular in the US and China.

Announcing the appointment on Thursday, UL’s chancellor Mr Justice John Murray said Prof Fitzgerald was a widely-respected scholar with an enviable international research reputation and experience in a number of highly-ranked universities.

“I know I speak for the governing authority and the broader UL community in stating how much we look forward to working with Prof Fitzgerald to build on UL’s fine foundations as we realise the institution’s vision and objectives for the future,” he said.

In a statement, Prof Fitzgerald said he was honoured to lead UL and looked forward to working with colleagues and partners to secure a strong national and international academic profile.

“UL has unique strengths, its staff, students, alumni and friends; its powerful local, national and international partnerships; its stunning campus and its excellent reputation,” he said.

“I want UL to establish and lead pioneering initiatives that will deliver real impact in a range of important areas that are critical to Ireland’s future and the future of the mid west.”

Prof Fitzgerald, a clinical academic, has earned wide-spread recognition for his research into platelets and thrombosis in coronary artery disease.

He joined UCD in 2004 after being head-hunted by the college’s then president Hugh Brady from a senior leadership role in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

In 2009 it emerged that he was Ireland’s highest paid academic, with a salary of €409,000 per year.

However, his salary fell to just over €260,000 following cost-cutting and pressure from outside the college to reduce his salary.

UL – New programme encourages women to pursue STEM2D education

Pictured at the launch, from left, was Dr Leisha Daly, Janssen, Liz Dooley, Project Lead WiStem2D, Minister of State for Justice with special responsibility for Equality, Immigration and Integration, David Stanton and Dr Mary Shire, VP Research UL. Photo: Oisin McHugh True Media

The University of Limerick and global healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson have launched a significant collaborative education programme to support and encourage women to pursue educational opportunities in STEM2D (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Manufacturing and Design).

Minister of State for Equality, David Stanton TD officially launched the programme at the University of Limerick on Wednesday evening.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has entered into 10 partnerships around the world to encourage the increase of undergraduate women enrolling in STEM2D related disciplines, and UL is the only Irish university to be chosen to participate.

The new WiSTEM2D programme will focus on increasing the number of undergraduate women enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programmes at UL and those graduating with STEM degrees.

Supported by J&J, the new programme will build on UL’s ongoing work to expand the reach and quality of STEM education, attracting more women to careers traditionally dominated by men.

Speaking at the launch, Dr Leisha Daly, Country Director, Janssen said, “Building a diverse STEM2D community is one of a number of approaches J&J is taking to accelerate the development of female leaders. As a company that is to the forefront in promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace, we are increasingly aware of the fact that only one quarter of people currently working in STEM related careers in Ireland are women”.

“This collaboration will seek to identify the barriers that currently exist and facilitate programmes that will allow for greater female participation in STEM.  By partnering with UL and offering a mentoring support programme, we can provide role models that will promote and encourage STEM on campus, specifically amongst female undergraduates and post graduates”, concluded Dr Daly. 

Speaking on behalf of UL, Dr Mary Shire, Vice President Research, said “UL is delighted to be partnering with J&J on this unique programme. This builds on our wider engagement with J&J across many successful research collaborations. UL has the highest number of females in professorial roles in Ireland and is one of the first Irish universities to have achieved an Athena Swan award. Supporting greater female participation at undergraduate level in the STEM subjects is a vital part in promoting greater diversity at all academic and professional stages.”

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.

UL Health Research: Connecting Our Future

On Thursday 19th May 2016 Dr Pat Kiely, GEMS Senior Lecturer in Molecular Biology, hosted a public event outlining how collaborative research is helping us target Ireland’s diseases.

Medical students, nursing students, parents, school kids, teachers and the general public were invited to take part in a public forum discussing how we can target these diseases head on by working together with researchers from around the world. The audience enjoyed contributions from leading researchers in their fields covering topics from scientific research, to health awareness and health education that were disseminated to the audience on a relatable level, especially for those from a non-scientific background.  Invited speakers and topics on the night included;

Professor Dorit Ron, University of California, San Francisco – Alcohol abuse disorders and addiction.

Professor Rosemary O’Connor, University College Cork – Cancer biology and diabetes.

Prof Aideen Long, Trinity College Dublin – Immune system functions in health and disease.

Prof Marco Racchi, University of Pavia, Italy – Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Giorgia Egidy: Pasteur Institute, Paris – Melanoma

pat kiely.png
Pictured above: Dr Pat Kiely and his lab team from UL GEMS along with speakers from the event, Prof Dorit Ron, Prof Rosemary O’Connor, Prof Aideen Long, Prof Marco Racchi, Dr Giorgia Egidy, Prof Lasse Jenner, Dr Emanuela Crosini along with visiting postgraduate students from Denmark and University College Cork.