Luke O’Neill: ‘President? Maybe in a few years’

Paul Cullen and some younger questioners meet the immunologist and professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin

The Covid-19 pandemic might be receding in the rear-view mirror, but Luke O’Neill shows no sign of slowing down. The nation’s celebrity scientist is just back from receiving an international award in Hawaii, and later on the day we meet he is due to speak at the Oxford & Cambridge Society of Ireland’s annual dinner.

He has a new children’s book out, which is why we’re in the lab, nestled high in one of Trinity College Dublin’s modern blocks on Pearse Street, on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve brought my son Luca and his friend Ruairí, who are both nine, and my daughters Tana and Rosa, who are 13 and 16, to help with the questions.

The young people don oversized lab coats, stick fingers into machines and squeeze blue liquids out of giant stoppers. O’Neill, who is not the president of the Irish Science Teachers Association for nothing, amps up the giddy atmosphere. Science is still fun, even after four decades.

The questions come thick and fast. “Have you had any explosions here?” Luca wants to know.

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“Er, no, I hope not. That would be a bad thing. But you do get spills, which is why we wear the coats.”

“Even small explosions?”

O’Neill’s new book, What Makes Us Human, is aimed at children in fifth and sixth class. It’s a characteristically breezy read on life’s big issues — from love to food, music to death, and much more in between.

There is a section on “the God stuff”, which tackles the often fraught relation between science and religion. While for scientists “there is no evidence for God”, O’Neill does note the similarities between the two areas of life. Just as with religion, scientists tend to “revere” scientists and “vilify” heretics who go against “the dogma,” he explains.

Ruairí wants to know about allergies. That gives the professor, who’s based in Trinity’s school of biochemistry and immunology, the opportunity to show us the gong he picked up in Hawaii. Inside a giant glass cuboid is a small spiral, a model of the IL-4 protein he has been studying for 35 years.

“Make too much of that and you’ll get an allergic attack,” he explains, beaming at what he calls his “aul fella’s award”. “But the latest drugs to stop allergies block IL-4.”

We are off now on a breathless journey of scientific explanation, told as a kind of war story. Luca wants to know what immunology is.

“It’s the science of how your body fights infection,” O’Neill responds. “It’s a bit like troops who can fight the bad guys. Your immune system is made up of these troops, who can fight and make you better.”

“The problem is that sometimes the immune system goes out of control. For some unknown reason, it starts attacking tissue. We don’t know. That’s why we need all of you to become immunologists, because maybe you’ll discover why someone gets Parkinson’s and other horrible diseases.”

Luca has a lot of questions. He also wants to know about vaccines.

“Vaccines train the immune system to fight the bad guys. Let’s say you are a bad cowboy and you have a hat on.” O’Neill reaches for a wide-brimmed hat and places it on Luca’s head. “How will I make sure my immune system recognises you? I take your hat and I show it to the immune system. You are the bad guy. If I show you, you’ll beat me up. Instead, I show the immune system this hat and now the system knows it. A day later, you come into my house, and I recognise you from the hat and I squish you.”

I’ve made a few discoveries about the immune system that no one else in history has even seen. That’s mind-blowing, a real thrill, as it is to see my name in textbooks

Tana is curious about how he became interested in science.

O’Neill has an effervescent, I’m-glad-you-asked-me-that answer to every question: “I was always a bit curious. My mother gave me a chemistry set for Christmas. I began doing experiments in my bedroom, my first lab. I got bored one day and put every chemical in the set into a test tube, added water and stuck it over the burner. It exploded. There was a black mark on the ceiling for years.”

He says he was lucky to have had a great biology teacher at Presentation College Bray, in Co Wicklow, who further nurtured his interest in science.

Luca wants to know why he ended up studying biochemistry. “I like biology,” O’Neill says. “I was drawn to the study of life. Then I went to university and I became fascinated by the molecules of life — that’s biochemistry.”

Why immunology, Rosa asks.

In his last year of his degree, O’Neill did a research system on Crohn’s disease, the inflammatory GI condition. “Even then, back in 1985, we knew it was the immune system causing all the damage, hence I had to study immunology,” he says.

His parents were a huge influence. “My mother gave me the chemistry set, while dad was always saying ‘Go for it!’ The house was full of books, and discussions. They weren’t scientists, but everything was about education.”

O’Neill’s mother died of cancer when he was 17 and she was only 56, leaving himself and his father to cope in the house. “When I got my degree, back in 1985, he said: ‘You should go away and see the world and build your career’. He was very keen on me moving out and having adventures.”

O’Neill went to London for his PhD, working on rheumatoid arthritis — more inflammation research.

There were still forks in the road. He considered taking a job offer in the City of London but turned it down. He came back to Dublin via Cambridge, and embarked on a successful career “scrabbling around in academia”, as he calls it.

I just love science, I see it as a hobby. It’s like solving crossword puzzles

Some scrabbling; three years ago, a biotech company he cofounded was sold to the Swiss pharma giant Roche. It commissioned four trials with the drugs that O’Neill’s team had developed, each one costing €100 million; the results are due soon.

O’Neill no longer has a financial interest in the company, but he is understandably interested in the outcome. “We should hear any day. The trials could fail; it’s a risky business.”

At 58, he is sure of his place in the scientific firmament. “I’ve made a few discoveries about the immune system that no one else in history has even seen,” he tells us. “That’s mind-blowing, a real thrill, as it is to see my name in textbooks.”

Tana wants to know where his enthusiasm comes from.

“I just love science, I see it as a hobby. It’s like solving crossword puzzles.”

These days, he is more leader than coalface worker. “I’m like a football manager,” he says. “I don’t work in the lab any more. I try to guide them, give advice and bring in ideas and collaborators.”

O’Neill became a household name during the pandemic thanks to his earthy, optimistic takes on the fight against Covid-19.

Who’d have thought scientists would need to be protected by the guards? It’s strange

A hero to many for his efforts in explaining the science behind the virus, he is also a demon to some, mostly for his promotion of vaccines. But his belief in vaccines as the way out of the pandemic was shared by most scientists with relevant expertise, and has been vindicated by subsequent events.

The World Health Organisation’s executive director, Mike Ryan, recently spoke about the level of abuse he faced during the pandemic, including death threats. It wasn’t any different for O’Neill.

“Most scientists who went on the media in every country were attacked,” he says. “It’s almost as though there was an orchestrated campaign against them. We were all getting the same stuff — ‘You’re corrupt, you’re in it for the money, you’ve no credibility’.

“You get used to it. Whenever it happened, I’d double down and make sure to do more the next time, because you can’t let them win.”

The worst incident, he says, was being assaulted one day on Grafton Street in Dublin. “Some of the anti-vaxxers also turned up outside my house with their placards. That wasn’t great for my wife. But the guards had infiltrated them and they would keep me briefed. They knew they were coming, and they turned up that day.”

“Who’d have thought scientists would need to be protected by the guards? It’s strange. It seems to be the times we’re living in. It’s beyond understanding from my point of view, because these vaccines are the best thing ever.”

O’Neill says he has a thick skin. “Once I realised it wasn’t personal, that it was a campaign and I wasn’t really in danger, then it was okay.”

He says that “Leo and Micheál” — Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Taoiseach Micheál Martin — rang him occasionally for advice during the pandemic. He’s also on the advisory group set up as a replacement for Nphet. “So I’ve dabbled with a bit of that, but I’m first and foremost a scientist.”

O’Neill is famous enough to be asked whether he is interested in running for president. He’s not even surprised by the question.

“I’m waiting for you to ask that,” he says. “I’ve been approached. I’m too busy with the day job. I wouldn’t be interested in politics.”

And then he seems to reconsider. “I did decline. But maybe in a few years, you never know. I was surprised to be asked initially. I thought: ‘What are you asking me for?’ Then I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be good if our country had a scientist for a president? Wouldn’t that be a really good sign?’”

What Makes Us Human: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Amazing Existence by Prof Luke O’Neill is published by Gill Books