Using platelets as little health sensors in our blood

Research Lives: Patricia Maguire, Professor of Biomedical Science at University College Dublin

Your research is on blood platelets, what do you find interesting about them?

When we learn about the components of blood, we often hear that the red blood cells carry oxygen, the white blood cells fight disease and the platelets form clots. That’s true, but our platelets do so much more.

They travel around the body, and for the 10 days or so that they are in the bloodstream they pick up proteins and other molecules as they go. This means they are treasure troves of information about what is going on in the body, they are like little sensors in our blood.

How have you been using platelets as sensors?


I work very closely with Prof Fionnuala Ní Áinle and Dr Barry Kevane, who are consultant haematologists. We set up the UCD Conway Sphere research group to look at the links between blood components and inflammatory conditions including Covid-19, multiple sclerosis and a serious complication in pregnancy called pre-eclampsia.

As an example, we want to see can we use platelets to identify biomarkers to understand when pre-eclampsia will develop, and how severe it will become.

How is the pre-eclampsia work going?

Really well. We are carrying out studies with the major maternity hospitals in Dublin. One of our team, Dr Paulina Szklanna, collected blood samples from pregnant women who are in hospital, sometimes in the middle of the night, for analysis. Now we are collaborating with experts to use machine learning to analyse the platelet data in the wider clinical context for each mother. We call it AI_PREMie.

I love that kind of project, where you are integrating lots of different types of information to get answers. Fionnuala, Paulina and I recently won Nova UCD’s Invention of the Year for 2021 for AI_PREMie, and we were named as finalists in Science Foundation Ireland’s AI for Societal Good challenge.

What inspired you to work in science?

As a child, I was always messing with broken radios and building things. I had a wooden bench in the back garden, and my mam remembers me constantly hammering nails into it even when I was a very small child. In secondary school in Artane, one of our teachers was a nun, Sr Mary Caroll, who taught us science in a really engaging way.

She was a big inspiration for me. I did a joint honours degree in pharmacology and genetics in UCD, and I think that started me on the track of connecting up different areas of expertise, which is something I still love to do.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

For the last four years I have been director of the UCD Institute for Discovery. We run events to help UCD staff, students and schoolchildren broaden their horizons.

That has been really rewarding, and we have had fascinating speakers on topics as broad as artificial intelligence to Leonardo da Vinci to climate change – just last month we took part in the Dublin Climate Dialogues, which included a talk from US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry.

The event brought home to me that, as with many other problems humanity faces, the only way we will overcome the climate challenge is by working together in multidisciplinary teams.

How has the pandemic been for you and your family?

Like a lot of families, we needed to adjust to everyone working or doing school from home. We are all very active, and I enjoy running. My husband is an excellent cook, so that has been wonderful during lockdown, and our three daughters are very sporty, so we have been making sure they get out for lots of exercise daily.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation