Trinity’s world-class research awarded in SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme

16 research projects funded in the latest round of funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)

Trinity has been awarded funding for 16 projects today from Science Foundation Ireland via the prestigious Frontiers for the Future Programme. The research supported will investigate areas such as childhood ADHD, gene therapy approaches for brain tumour related epilepsy, optimizing wind farm power production, helping scientists to find new deposits of elements worldwide and the link between obesity and cancer.

The SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme provides opportunities for independent investigators to conduct highly innovative, collaborative research with the potential to deliver impact, whilst also providing opportunities for high-risk, high-reward research projects. The SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme supports the development of world class research capability and human capital in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) that demonstrably support and underpin enterprise competitiveness and societal development in Ireland.

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD, announced 76 grants valued at €53.7 million today to support frontiers research across ten Higher Education Institutions through Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Welcoming the announcement, Professor Wolfgang Schmitt, Dean of Research at Trinity said:

I’m delighted to see so many excellent Trinity researchers receive funding for their exciting and innovative research projects and would like to congratulate the Trinity research community for their success and perseverance throughout the last difficult period. The projects will have great societal impact in addressing important scientific questions.

I thank the government and SFI for providing and supporting this SFI Future Frontiers Programme. These SFI investigator-lead research programmes are very important for research, providing exceptional opportunities for individuals, the wider teams and our university. They enable outstanding researchers to use their intellectual capacity to be creative and innovative and develop or maintain academic leadership in a diverse range of subject areas.

Minister Harris TD, said:

Congratulations to all the researchers who have received funding today as part of the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme. I am delighted to support this programme which funds individual-led research, with an emphasis on fundamental research at the cutting edge of science and engineering which will help us build a better future for Ireland through discovery, innovation, and impact.

“Not only will these grants support research in important areas for Irish society, they will also fund 216 people in varying research positions across 10 Higher Education Institutes to further develop their research careers. We are investing in talent. I would like to offer my thanks to the Higher Education Institutions for their support in delivering this programme again this year.

Professor Philip Nolan, Director General of SFI said:

After the success of the first SFI Future Frontiers Programme in 2020, I am delighted to see 76 research grants awarded. The research programmes are wonderfully diverse, but they have one thing in common: they ask fundamental questions and will lead to important scientific breakthroughs, with important applications in areas such as climate action, biodiversity, human and animal health and digital transformation, with real and lasting benefits to our society and economy.  The SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme is a key element of SFI’s new strategy – Shaping Our Future providing support for excellent research.

It is really encouraging to see that 42% of the research grants are led by female researchers for the second year running. SFI is committed to addressing the gender imbalance evident in areas of Irish research and this is another example of that commitment in action.

The Trinity awardees are:

Dr Amir Khan, Associate Professor, Biochemistry

Project Title: LRRK2 control of membrane trafficking in health and disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that is associated with a progressive loss of motor functions. The gene LRRK2 is the most common cause of inherited and autosomal dominant forms of the disease. The protein product of this gene is an enzyme that becomes overactive and leads to neuronal cell death. My goal is to understand how LRRK2 damages neurons.  Inhibitors of LRRK2 are currently undergoing clinical trials for treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Knowledge gained from my work may provide additional targets for therapeutics that could interfere with the enzymatic activity of LRRK2.

Amount awarded: €997,421

 

Professor Valeria Nicolosi, Chemistry

Project title: Engineering of hierarchical porous structures based on novel 2D nanomaterials: towards the new generation of battery devices beyond Lithium

Fuelled by an ever increasing demand for electrical energy to power modern life, Li ion batteries have been the primary energy storage device over the last three decades. However, low abundance, uneven distribution of lithium and cobalt in the earth crust and the associated cost of these materials make it a necessity to explore alternative battery chemistries based on other elements beyond lithium. This proposal aims to make a transformative leap forward towards the development of the next generation of batteries beyond lithium.

Amount awarded: €971,090

 

Professor Mark Cunningham, Professor of Neurophysiology of Epilepsy, Physiology, School of Medicine

Project title: Gene therapy approaches for brain tumour related epilepsy

Seizures are a frequent symptom for patients with brain tumours and are poorly controlled. These seizures are due to an increased level of a chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, around the tumour. Neurotransmitters such as glutamate allow brain cells to talk to one another. Glutamate does this by exciting brain cells. Excessive glutamate overexcites brain cells around the tumour causing seizures. We will explore the potential to use a gene therapy approach to deliver a protein to the brain that in the presence of excessive glutamate will silence abnormal brain cells to stop seizures.

Amount awarded: € 434,875

 

Dr Robert Whelan, Associate Professor, Psychology

Co-applicant: Dr Jane McGrath, Associate Professor of Child and Adult Psychology

Project Title: Predicting who will respond to stimulant medication in ADHD: A precision medicine approach using neurally informed computational models.

Approximately 1-in-20 children worldwide have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition associated with disabling inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Poorly treated ADHD is associated with negative academic and socioeconomic consequences. Stimulant medications can be extremely effective, but they do not work for every child – and clinicians have no tools to predict who will eventually respond. This project will use cutting-edge home-based recording of brain activity and behaviour alongside advanced computer-modelling to develop a measure allowing clinicians to predict treatment outcome. Such a measure will allow children with ADHD to experience faster relief from symptoms.

Amount awarded: €478, 069

Professor Ursula Fearon, Molecular Rheumatology, Clinical Medicine

Project Title: Molecular signatures that distinguish RA and PsA pathotypes – impact for disease progression and response.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) are common causes of chronic arthritis and disability. Many patients respond poorly, not at all or suffer drug side-effects. We cannot predict who gets RA or PsA, who will progress and what medicine will work. Patients need smart, safe and effective treatments. The current proposal attempts to find specific molecules in immune-cells that cause inflamed joints and that distinguish RA and PsA, in terms of response to medication and progression of arthritis. This will lead to finding new markers of disease and candidate molecules to target for the treatment of RA and PsA.

Amount awarded: € 474,671

 

Dr Breiffni Fitzgerald, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Project title: Machine Learning for Wind Farm Aerodynamics and Control (MeLodiC)

In the current state-of-the-art, each turbine in a wind farm is controlled to maximise its own individual performance, ignoring the effect that the turbine has on the other turbines in the wind farm – this is a sub-optimal approach.  MeLodiC will develop new wind farm models taking aerodynamic wake interaction effects into account. These new models will be used to develop novel wind farm controllers with the goal of holistically optimizing wind farm power production. Advanced control algorithms will be integrated with powerful machine learning techniques (using high performance computing) to adaptively ‘learn’ the best way to control wind farms.

Amount awarded: €401, 871

 

Dr Joanne Lysaght, Associate Professor, Surgery, School of Medicine

Project title: Identifying novel aspects of immune checkpoint pathways to improve response rates in upper gastrointestinal cancer.

Cancer immunotherapy is a new type of treatment which uses the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer. It has shown promising results in many cancer types, offering hope for countless patients. These treatments affect the immune system, however recent work has found that that they can also affect the cancer directly. Our research will look at the benefit of immunotherapy in cancers of the food-pipe and stomach, both of which have very poor outcomes. We will find new ways of killing cancer cells using the immune system in the hope that more patients will benefit from these treatments.

Amount awarded: €297, 844

 

Dr Max Garcia-Melchor, Ussher Assistant Professor Chemical Energy Systems

Project title: Accelerated rational design of cost-effective hybrid materials for water splitting using machine learning

Hydrogen produced from water and sunlight is one of the most promising alternatives to polluting fossil fuels. So, what is preventing us from doing that to power our homes and electronic devices? The answer is very simple. Water dissociation is a very energy-demanding process which requires materials made of very scarce elements to make it feasible. To overcome this major challenge, this project aims to combine supercomputers and artificial intelligence to design highly active and cheap materials to spur the development and commercialization of water splitting technologies to supply clean, reliable and inexpensive energy, while reducing the global carbon footprint.

Amount awarded: €476, 158

 

Dr Hongzhou Zhang, Associate Professor, Physics

Project title: Controllable Resistive Switching in Two-dimensional Molybdenum Disulphide via Site-specific Helium Ion Irradiation

Breakthroughs in fabrication technologies have enabled profound advancements in the natural sciences and have been empowering modern industry. Mirroring these breakthroughs, this proposal aims to develop a novel method for ultimate material modification with unprecedented precision and controllability and expand the fundamental knowledge of emerging functional nanomaterials. It helps us to revolutionise device prototyping and demonstrate a new memory switch for making smaller, faster and more energy-efficient computer chips, leading to a myriad of other technologies in the future. This proposal will hence support the sustainability and innovation of Ireland’s industries and enhance the local economy.

Amount awarded: €479, 945

 

Professor Isabel Rozas, Chemistry

Project title: Towards an antiviral drug to treat Covid-19 infections

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has affected both healthcare systems and global economy. While our understanding of coronaviruses has increased and several clinical-trials started, there is still no effective treatment.

SARS-CoV-2 vaccines are currently being developed, but this solution requires time and, even when vaccines become available, part of the population suffering immunocompromised conditions will not benefit from them.

Clinical studies of repurposing drugs such as the virus-entry inhibitors camostat and nafamostat, are promising.  Based on the structures of these drugs, we propose to develop improved antivirals that will stop the entrance of SARS-CoV-2 into lung cells.

 

Amount awarded: €454,018

 

Professor Maeve Caldwell, Physiology, School of Medicine

Project title: Apolipoprotein-E genotype influences inflammation in Alzheimer’s Disease

Cells isolated from skin can be reprogrammed into stem cells that can be made into the main cells of the brain in a culture dish. Brain cells called glial cells will be challenged with signals that will make them produce factors that harm nerve cells. 65% of people with late onset Alzheimer’s carry a risk gene called apolipoprotein-E4 so stem cells with this gene will be compared to cells without it, so as to determine how this gene contributes to this condition. In addition, cells will be treated with candidate drugs to find a compound that ultimately protects nerve cells.

Amount awarded: €479,995

 

 

Dr Clare Kelly, Associate Professor, Psychiatry / Associate Professor, Psychology

Professor Andrew Harkin, Professor in Pharmacology in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science

 

Project title: Sex matters: Identifying the neurodevelopmental origins of sex differences in depression

Depression is the leading cause of illness, worldwide. It affects twice as many women as men, suggesting that female biology increases vulnerability to depression. Yet, most basic scientific research on causes of and treatments for depression is conducted in male animals, creating a “data gap” that impedes translation of findings to humans, which disadvantages women. We will address this gap by identifying how stress affects brain development in male and female rodents, using the same neuroimaging methods we use in humans. Our findings will reveal how the stress-related brain dysfunction underlying depression takes root and how sex affects this process.

Amount awarded: €479,979

 

Dr. Shuo Yin, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical, Manufacturing and Biomedical Engineering

Project title: Novel digital holographic and modelling technologies for unlocking the metal-ceramic co-deposition mechanism during supersonic cold spray

MMCs are novel materials composed of metal matrix and ceramic reinforcements. CSAM, as a fusion-free deposition technology, is promising to fabricate MMCs. However, current CS technology is unable to fabricate MMCs with tailored microstructure since we haven’t fully understood what happens during the deposition of the metal and ceramic particles. In this project, we aim to develop a high-resolution imaging system specialized for observing the high-velocity impact event in CSAM and a sophisticated numerical model to scientifically interpret the observations. These new technologies will help to enable the evolution of current CS technology to be capable of fabricating high-performance MMCs.

Amount awarded: €479,278

 

Dr Michael Stock, Assistant Professor, Geology                             

Project title: Developing a process-based understanding of platinum group element mineralisation: a natural laboratory in Ireland (Critical-Ireland)

Elements like platinum are essential in modern green technologies. However, they are rare at the Earth’s surface and require research to find new deposits. In Ireland, ancient magma bodies have been exposed by millions of years of weathering and might contain mineable concentrations of these elements. In fact, weathering has provided such good exposure that these magma bodies allow us to track deposit-forming processes over large areas, which is impossible elsewhere on Earth. Critical-Ireland will use geological exposures in Ireland as a ‘natural laboratory’ to understand the processes which concentrate elements like platinum, helping scientists to find new deposits worldwide.

Amount awarded: €479,055

 

Professor Jacintha O’Sullivan, Surgery, School of Medicine

Co-applicant with Tracy Robson, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI)

Breaking the Obesity-Cancer link; a theranostic role for FKBPL in modulating immunometabolism across disease progression in oesophageal adenocarcinoma

After smoking, obesity is the most important avoidable cause of cancer, with Ireland having the worst projected obesity problem in Europe. Oesophageal cancer, one of the deadliest, is most strongly linked to obesity. If we can understand why fat cells feed tumour growth, we could help cut the increase in cancer incidence. Here we propose that a lack of sufficient FKBPL, a protein associated with prevention of both cancer and obesity, might contribute to this process. We will define the link between FKBPL, obesity and cancer so that we can harness its activity to prevent or treat oesophageal cancer.

Amount awarded: €910,324

Professor Vinny Cahill, Computer Science

Dr Ivana Dusparic, Ussher Assistant Professor, Computer Science

Project title: ClearWay: Advancing Deep Reinforcement Learning and Swarm Intelligence to Optimize Travel-Time Reliability in Mixed Traffic.

Offering predictable journey times is important to the uptake of sustainable road transportation including future public, shared, and on-demand mobility services and to on-time delivery of goods.

Unpredictability arises partly from poor coordination between vehicles. Exploiting developments such as increased deployment of connected and (semi-)autonomous vehicles, this project will explore the use of artificial intelligence to learn traffic-management strategies designed to mitigate congestion by harmonizing traffic flow with the specific goal of offering highly predicable travel times.

The project will inform future public traffic policy and contribute to Ireland’s economy by enabling new products and services for an international market.

Amount awarded: €998,170

 

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