Building the bionic human – TBSI celebrates first five years

After just five years in existence, the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI) and its researchers have re-shaped the scientific and medical landscape by making a number of hugely influential discoveries.

These include an entire re-orientation of how we understand the immune system; a plethora of exciting new medical devices, a whole new way of regenerating tissues and organs, and exciting and innovative ways of understating and harnessing the neural engineering of the brain.

Some of these past successes were on the menu at the 5th anniversary celebration on Monday September 5th, at which Professor of Neurology and Academic Director of TBSI, Orla Hardiman, was also keen to focus on some of the next-gen research on the horizon, 

Professor Hardiman said: “The aim of the Institute is to provide a research environment where innovative and interdisciplinary approaches drive scientific discoveries. In this we have been spectacularly successful.”

“TBSI provides unique opportunities for exciting scientific cross-talk that builds innovative science. Here on Pearse Street, over 500 researchers live and work in close proximity. Nowhere else in Ireland can bioengineers engage across the corridor with immunologists, medicinal chemists with nanoscientists, or clinician scientists with neural engineers.”

Professor Hardiman added: “The research opportunities are boundless and the sky is the limit. And, not only are we leaders in fundamental biology, as exemplified by the outstanding success in grant awards and high-impact publications, but TBSI also contributes to new developments under way on the hospital campuses. Our successful research programmes, born in the laboratory, can expand and grow to fruition in clinical settings, as exemplified by the success of our spin-out companies. Equally, knowledge from real-life clinic experiences can help to drive our fundamental research across a wide range of disciplines to build truly innovative and highly competitive cross-disciplinary research.”  

Some of the key output statistics from TBSI’s first five years include:

  •          €83 million in research funding awarded to principal investigators
  •          7 spin-out companies formed
  •          194 PhD’s awarded
  •          > 120 people moved into non-exchequer-funded jobs
  •          34 patents applied for, and 12 already granted
  •          1,598 publications, of which 160 were based on collaborations with other research institutes and industry organisations in 56 different countries 

Multidisciplinary research involving bioengineers, cancer scientists, clinicians and immunologists working in TBSI is now moving us swiftly towards restoring sight by replacing corneas to order, and to programming cancer cells to attack themselves.

These amazing new avenues of research are just two examples of where the focus will be in years to come.

Restoring sight with personalised corneas

Dr Mark Ahearne and his team at the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering in TBSI are developing bioengineered corneas for use as alternatives to donated corneas for transplantation.

The cornea is the transparent layer located at the front of the eye that allows light to enter the eye. Corneal blindness resulting from damage or disease is one of the most common causes of blindness worldwide. In many cases a corneal transplant (or keratoplasty) is required to restore vision, but there is presently a global shortage of healthy donor tissue suitable for transplantation.

The native cornea consists of layers of aligned collagen fibres that are stacked perpendicularly on top of each other. This unique structure is vital to allow light to penetrate through the cornea and is necessary for us to see clearly. Dr Ahearne’s team can electro-spin nanofibers similar in size to native cornea fibres and assemble them in such a way as to replicate the fibre arrangement found in a healthy cornea.

Dr Ahearne said: “We are investigating the effect of different physical and chemical environments on the behaviour of corneal cells. This information can then be incorporated into the design of the bioengineered corneas to improve their function.We are confident that this research will generate new therapies to treat patients suffering from corneal blindness.”

A bio-engineered cornea sitting atop a letter A, to indicate the transparency of the material.

Targeting cancer cells with weapons from their own arsenal

Cancer remains a huge challenge for science to overcome. Every hour someone in Ireland dies from a form of the disease, while 40% of people will develop cancer at some point during their life time. The incidence of cancer is also increasing within Ireland and worldwide, and new therapeutic options are badly needed.

Associate Professor in Pharmacology, Lorraine O’Driscoll, and her team at TBSI are leading the fight, having discovered how to use cancer cell products – ‘exosomes’ – as weapons against their creators.

By reverse engineering exosomes to re-introduce a beneficial molecule to the affected cells in the body, they quelled the cancer’s aggressiveness, reduced its growth, and heightened its sensitivity to anti-cancer drugs. Their breakthrough discovery came when they successfully reintroduced the beneficial molecule miR-134 – which is lost in cancer cells.

Cancer ‘exosomes’ are mini-maps to their cells of origin. They transfer bad habits, such as drug resistance, from cell to cell, while apparently dampening the natural immune system’s ability to help kill cancer cells. Dr O’Driscoll and her team have also shown that the amounts of exosomes in blood samples may give a warning of the presence of some cancer types and whether or not they will respond to anti-cancer drugs.

Dr O’Driscoll said: “Exosome research is still in its relative infancy but its potential is huge. We are now heading up an H2020-funded cooperation in science and technology on exosomes and micro-vesicles in health and disease, which brings together 285 researchers from academia, clinics and industry in 27 EU countries to exploit these vesicles and provide a huge societal and economic impact.”

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Thomas Deane, Media Relations Officer | | +353 1 896 4685