The road to discovery is paved with good muffins
Is immunology the new rock’n’roll? Maybe not, but looking for ways to fight inflammatory diseases with Prof Luke O’Neill and his team is more fun than it might seem
Kevin Courtney demonstrates his skills with a pipette to Prof Luke O’Neill at the school of biochemistry and immunology, Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Need something to help reduce inflammation? Prof Luke O’Neill and his team may be able to help you there. Prof O’Neill is Ireland’s leading expert on the immune system, and a recipient of the RDS Irish Times Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence. He has forged an enviable international reputation thanks to his groundbreaking work on boosting our understanding of how the immune system works. I’m going to spend a day with him and his research team as they search for ways to combat such inflammatory diseases as rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and cancer. So, no pressure.
My destination is the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI), a brand new building on Pearse Street that has been built with one goal in mind: to make scientific discoveries that will directly help in the understanding and treatment of a range of diseases.
Now that’s serious ambition. And no better man than Prof O’Neill to take on the role of academic director of the TBSI, along with his other duties as head of the Inflammation Research Group and chair of biochemistry at TCD. You could call him the Bono of biomedicine, as he’s equally charismatic, though he is about twice the size of the U2 frontman.
He’s also plainly infected with a common inflammatory condition: rock’n’roll fever. He likes his music and, when he’s not blinding you with complex biomedical data, he’s dazzling you with his encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock. When I meet him, he’s just back from a conference on immune-based therapies in Cleveland, Ohio, but the highlight of his trip was a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Did you know it was originally planned to be in New York, but Cleveland was chosen because it was the home town of Alan Freed, the DJ who coined the term rock’n’roll?” No, I did not know that. And I’m a so-called rock journo.
Pretty soon, I’m going to find out just how little I know about the workings of the human immune system, but at least I’m going to learn a very important skill: how to use a pipette to measure out minuscule quantities of cell culture.
Pipettes are basic tools of the trade – everyone has their own, and woe betide you if you use someone else’s without permission. By the end of the day, I reckon I might just be the Eric Clapton of pipetting.
Inflammation is a hot topic right now, and new discoveries are being made on a regular basis. Ireland is a world superpower in immunology right now, so the research work Prof O’Neill and his team are doing is bearing fruit. The next step is to take the findings and develop new treatments for inflammatory diseases, so he set up drug- development company Opsona, which recently raised €33 million in financing.
The immunologists’ typical day begins with an injection of sucrose and caffeine, via a giant plate of delicious muffins, cookies and flapjacks, which are passed around the team while they sip their lattes from the coffee shop next door.
It’s the morning briefing, during which researchers take turns to bring the rest of the team up to speed on their work to date, and a strategy for the day’s research is worked out. This isn’t just fiddling around with test tubes full of coloured liquid, the research is results-focused, and every experiment is carried out with a view to achieving a clear outcome.
After the briefing, it’s time to spend some time in the lab. “I suppose we’d better put on the lab coats, just for show,” laughs Prof O’Neill, gesturing to a row of green coats hanging in the corner. I’m entering a realm where dangerous organisms such as salmonella and E.coli are kept. I can see the headline now: “Deadly Dublin 2 outbreak traced to clumsy Irish Times journalist.” The less hazardous viruses – the ones that might only make you sneeze – are kept in open refrigerated units. The more dangerous ones are kept in more secure units, and handled with big, industrial-sized gloves. The really nasty ones are safely hidden away. But you can rest assured, there’s nothing on the magnitude of ebola or Marburg in the TBSI, and nothing that’s likely to turn the human race into flesh-eating zombies.