SFI: Cutting edge of science research

A wide range of ground-breaking research is being funded under SFI’s technology award


The development of new drugs for the treatment of cancer and diabetes, new ways to detect cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, the development of genetically modified crops tolerant to drought, and research into underground high-voltage power cable technology as a substitute to overhead power lines are just a few of the wide range of ground-breaking research projects being funded under Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) Technology Innovation Development Award (TIDA) programme, in collaboration with Enterprise Ireland.

The TIDA programme focuses on commercially relevant research projects and is aimed at enabling research teams to take the first steps in developing discoveries and inventions with commercial potential. The latest round of funding amounts to €6.9 million with 62 projects being supported.

“As set out in Agenda 2020, one of SFI’s strategic objectives is to become the best scientific funding agency in the world at creating impact from excellent research and demonstrating clear value for our research investment,” says SFI director general Mark Ferguson. “Each submitted project has been through a rigorous review process and ultimate selection was on the basis of the quality and novelty of the proposed innovation, its potential impact, and its fit with the national research prioritisation areas. Additionally, the commercial expertise that Enterprise Ireland brought to the TIDA selection process played a key role in further underpinning the market potential of the award recipients.”

Cancer treatments
A number of the projects are investigating novel cancer treatments. Warren Thomas at RCSI is looking at a particular cancer which is currently incurable. Malignant pleural mesothlioma (MPM) is associated with asbestos exposure and there are currently very few therapeutic options available for it with post-diagnosis survival being just six to 18 months. The TIDA-funded research will look into the design and synthesis of chemotherapeutic drugs which will target the specific site of the MPM.

Also in the area of targeted cancer therapies is the project being led by Anne Moore at UCC. This is examining the feasibility of developing a dissolvable microneedle-based drug delivery system that specifically targets drugs for the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is active in the metastatic spread of cancer, infection and is part of the immune system, but it is not easily accessible by conventional modes of chemotherapeutic delivery. The micro-delivery system is aimed at enhancing the distribution of the drugs to where they are most needed. This could have significant therapeutic benefit to cancer patients and healthcare systems.

Another novel cancer treatment is the photodynamic therapy (PDT) being developed by Mathias Senge in TCD. PDT is a non-invasive treatment of cancer which involves the interaction of light with a photo-sensitiser molecules used to target the cancer. The photo-sensitiser is accumulated inside the target tumour where it can be activated with light to produce toxic singlet oxygen resulting in death of the cancerous tissue. Selected photo-sensitisers are highly fluorescent and can therefore also be excellent tumour indicators with the capacity for highly sensitive detection protocols.

While many forms of diabetes are now treatable and controllable with little difficulty the issue of cost does present challenges for sufferers in the developing world. Eoin Scanlan of TCD is exploiting a novel synthetic methodology that has been applied to the synthesis of anti-diabetes drugs and has the potential to significantly reduce manufacturing costs. Making it very suitable for application in the developing world is the fact that the method is unique in that it can be carried out using water as a solvent, at room temperature without the use of expensive protecting groups.

Also in the area of diabetes is the research into MODY (Maturity-onset-diabetes-of-the-young) being carried out by Jochen Prehn at RCSI. MODY is an early onset form of non-insulin dependent diabetes. Approximately 80 per cent of MODY patients are misdiagnosed as having type 1 diabetes and are often treated inappropriately with insulin injections. The standard procedure for diagnosing MODY is through an expensive genetic test which is not widely available. Prof Prehn is developing novel biomarkers as therapeutic targets for the disease and is proposing to use microRNAs circulating in the bloodstream as a diagnostic test to differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Another project with particular relevance to the developing world is the crop research being led by Prof Charles Spillane, head of the botany and plant science group at NUI Galway. He is using his TIDA award to develop genetically modified crops which are tolerant to drought and has identified lineage-specific genes which confer tolerance to drought. The TIDA funding will help determine if these genes can be commercially developed across multiple crop species.

Another NUI Galway project may offer good news to transplant patients. Thomas Ritter is evaluating the use of glyco-engineered cells to assess their ability to suppress the immune response from host cells during tissue or organ transplantation. Glyco engineering involves coating the cell surface with carbohydrates that are recognised by the host recipient as being the same as themselves thus ensuring that cell rejection does not occur. This method may permit researchers and clinicians to perform transplants with no adverse immune reaction from the host.

While the research topics themselves are hugely important there is another very significant dimension to the TIDA programme. It incorporates an entrepreneurship training course to consolidate and intensify the commercial skills of postdoctoral researchers active in SFI funded research labs.

“This course, which will support over 100 personnel, is designed to develop the skills necessary for SFI-funded researchers to assess the market for potential commercial developments from research discoveries,” says Ferguson.

“It is also designed to create a network of researchers with business acumen who will interact regularly with each other, with SFI, Enterprise Ireland and Ireland’s Technology Transfer Offices established across the higher education institutes.”

To find out more about the SFI TIDA programme go to sfi.ie.