You work on a condition called epidermolysis bullosa or EB. What is that?
EB is a rare, genetic skin condition people are born with, where the skin becomes blistered and damages very easily, even after just a light touch. It is very painful and the skin develops wounds, which can become infected. Also scarring and tissue damage can affect the person’s mobility. There are different types of EB, and we work on one called recessive dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa or RDEB.
It sounds terribly painful and debilitating. Why does the skin get damaged so easily?
In RDEB the body cannot make a protein called collagen VII. This protein acts like a “velcro” to keep layers of skin together, so if it is not there in sufficient quantities the top layers of skin can easily detach.
And how do you plan to help with your research?
The research in my lab is developing a way to deliver a gene into the body so that the body can make collagen VII. We want to be able to deliver this gene with a simple gel that you put onto the skin, or if the wound is large it would be injected in.
How do you convince the collagen VII gene to go into the cells where it is needed?
We have made a carrier from a polymer. If you could see its shape it would look like a tiny tree with lots of branches. When we put the gene with the polymer the branches “hold on” to the gene, and we can put the polymer and gene complex into a gel. The polymer is very gentle on cells and when it gets into the cell the polymer breaks down, leaving the gene there for the body to use.
This sounds exciting – how far along are you with the research?
We are making good progress. One of the researchers, Dr Lara Cutlar, has been doing studies on models of the disease in the lab, and we are seeing some positive results there. The next step is to do a clinical trial in humans, and we are moving towards that.
How did you become interested in EB?
“I didn’t really know much about the disease when I started in Galway, but I was interested in using chemistry to develop a delivery system to help.
The research is supported by the EB charity DEBRA Ireland as well as Science Foundation Ireland, so I got to meet patients and advocates, and it really drove me to understand more about EB and to keep working on this disease, to try and develop something that could really make a difference and improve the lives of people born with it.
How do you unwind?
I spend a lot of time thinking about work, and I set up my own company to help move the research from the lab towards the clinic. But when I get spare time I like to read.
You are originally from China – what brought you to Ireland?
I left China 17 years ago, and I worked in Belgium and then the UK. I moved to Ireland to take up a post in NUI Galway nine years ago, and I moved to UCD three years ago where they have a specialised centre for skin research, the UCD Charles Institute of Dermatology. I think Ireland is a good place for research.