Trinity researchers secure prestigious Investigator Awards

23 October 2017

Three Trinity researchers have secured prestigious SFI-HRB-Wellcome Investigator Awards worth a combined total of approximately €5.5 million.

Ussher Assistant Professor in Immunology, Dr Rachel McLoughlin, will investigate more effective MRSA treatment options; Professor of Population Genetics, Dan Bradley, will sequence hundreds of thousands of ancient Irish genomes to investigate links to disease; and Professor of Neurogenetics, Mani Ramaswami, will explore how the brain regulates access to feelings, perceptions and memories.

The Investigator Awards are conferred in partnership between SFI, the Wellcome Trust and the Health Research Board (HRB).

Dr McLoughlin is a pioneer in the interactions between the human immune system and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Understanding these interactions is necessary for the development of alternative treatment options to antibiotics for S. aureus infections. Dr McLoughlin will investigate mechanisms that might allow MRSA to suppress or avoid detection by the immune system.

These defence mechanisms may ‘train’ the immune system, making it unable to respond to vaccines designed to boost the immune response to an S. aureus infection. The research project will develop strategies to overcome or neutralise this ‘training’ to improve the vaccine’s effectiveness. 

Dr Rachel McLoughlin.

Dr McLoughlin said: “The SFI-HRB-Wellcome Investigator Award will help us to develop treatment strategies for MRSA. This is not only positive for treatment of the bacterium which has a serious impact on a patient’s medical outcome, but it also means we are further developing Irish research skills in immunology.”  

“The award will enable me to expand my research programme at Trinity and enhance my reputation as a leader in my field. It will allow me to now provide training to a team of postgraduate and postdoctoral trainees. I am honoured to be supported by the programme.” 

Professor Bradley will lead a project to sequence hundreds of human genomes to better understand the genetic aspects of disease. The project will build on findings that the petrous bone, the hardest bone in the body, can act like a time capsule, excellently preserving DNA over thousands of years.

The research will sequence full genomes from 160 bones sampled throughout the whole of Ireland and Portuguese prehistory. A complete genomic history will create a greater understanding of genetic factors in disease and pinpoint newly discovered genetic differences which could impact modern patients. 

Professor Dan Bradley

Dr Bradley said: “The SFI-HRB-Wellcome Investigator Award will allow us to sequence the genomes of ancient Irish humans, giving an almost complete genetic history of the people of this island, including the origins of important diseases."

"It will also enable us to compete in this very fast-moving scientific discipline and allow us to train the next generation of Irish genome scientists.” 

Professor Ramaswami is investigating the process by which the brain regulates access to memories stored in the brain for retrieval at appropriate times. Perceptions and memories are represented in the brain by the positive activity of assemblies of excitatory neurons. Negative representations of these assemblies may be created by the brain to prevent inappropriate activation.

Professor Ramaswami will study the construction of negative representations, and their effects and regulation by environmental or behavioural context in fruit flies, which share key structures of their brain circuits with humans. This research has clinical implications as issues with memory encoding, recall and habituation are associated with psychiatric conditions. 

Professor Mani Ramaswami

Professor Ramaswami said: “This award allows us to pursue a fundamental new discovery that emerged from our previous SFI-funded work. The idea that the brain forms and uses inhibitory replicas of neural patterns encoding information or memories, originally suggested by our work in fruit flies, is now supported by independent work on humans done by my colleagues and co-authors in Oxford.”

“We now have the opportunity to analyse how inhibitory replicas form in the brain and are dynamically regulated to allow appropriate behaviour. The SFI-HRB-Wellcome Investigator Award will support interactions with outstanding scientists and institutions in India, USA and the UK that will provide valuable new opportunities for students and young scientists in Ireland.  It will also give us a platform from which to explore how and whether these processes are affected in human psychiatric conditions." 

The SFI-HRB-Wellcome Biomedical Research Partnership has funded biomedical research in the Republic of Ireland since 2010. The partnership supports outstanding researchers and innovative research programmes in biomedical research. The vision of Wellcome is to achieve extraordinary improvements in human and animal health.

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