March 2013

Interview with interim Director, Professor Frank Powell

In conversation with Claire O'Connell

If your skin has a problem, then so do you. Conditions such psoriasis, rosacea, acne and even warts can cause physical or social discomfort. Severe burns open the way to potentially dangerous infections. And some skin problems can be fatal - including cancers and rare genetic disorders.

The UCD Charles Institute of Dermatology at University College Dublin will tackle many of those problems head on as Ireland’s first dedicated research centre for dermatology, or the study of skin.

“The vision of the Charles Institute is to not only be an Irish resource but to be a centre of excellence for dermatology research within Europe,” says interim director Professor Frank Powell, who is Associate Professor of Dermatology at UCD and a consultant dermatologist at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital.

The new, purpose-built home of the Charles Institute lies between the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular & Biomedical Research and the UCD Health Sciences Complex. 

Its position allows it to be a crucible for the scientific research at the Conway Institute and the clinical expertise of UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science and its teaching hospitals, the Mater and St Vincent’s University Hospitals, notes Professor Powell: “There is simply not another facility in Europe similar to this, in the unique setting of a university linked with other serious basic science research facilities and also closely linked with translational activity.”

The Institute grew out of the sale of the City of Dublin Skin and Cancer Hospital in Hume Street: a fortunate result of the property boom meant the site raised a large sum, and the Board of Governors of the City of Dublin Skin and Cancer Hospital charity earmarked €12 million to found the Charles Institute, named after Andrew Charles FRCSI, who founded the Hume Street Hospital.

UCD added a further €6 million to the initiative, which was launched in 2008, and the building was officially opened in 2011. “Hence we now have an 18 million-Euro structure designed as a research institute specifically for skin diseases,” says Professor Powell. “It’s an excellent opportunity to develop dermatology research on the campus.”

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So what kinds of conditions are the researchers looking at? One is rosacea, an area where Professor Powell himself has a track record.  

Rosacea is a red-face skin condition sometimes associated with an enlarged nose and sometimes reflected in inflammatory lesions - there’s a mistaken belief in the general population that it is associated with the abuse of alcohol,” he says. “But one of the things we have found in our research is that there is a small organism called Demodex that seems to flourish in the environment of rosacea-affected skin.

While Demodex mites are reasonably common in humans, particularly as we age, the bacteria carried in the mites may spark an immune reaction in some people and trigger the symptoms of rosacea, explains Professor Powell. 

He has also been working with biochemist Dr Lorraine Brennan at the Conway Institute to assess skin secretions in people with rosacea, and they have discovered that people with the condition harbour an unusual profile of long-chain fatty acids - it’s a factor they want to explore further. 

Other skin conditions will also be put through their paces at the Charles Institute, including skin cancers, which are a particular risk for Irish skin, and a rare condition called epidermolysis bullosa, or EB, where children are born with extremely fragile skin and generally don’t survive beyond their twenties.  

In EB mere friction of the skin causes the skin to blister and the peel off - even wearing shoes, the friction will cause blisters and they leave raw areas within the skin,” says Professor Powell.  “There is no treatment so far today, however there is a group called Debra that generates research funds to look at the basic underlying fault in the skin in this condition. Debra Ireland are keen to link in to the Charles Institute to start a module that will be looking at the structure of the skin - what holds the surface onto the underlying layer.

The Charles Institute will also build up expertise in growing artificial skin for experimental work and for grafts, he adds. “Tissue engineering in dermatology is an exciting new frontier - it’s an important research area because it has immediate clinical relevance.”

And a co-ordinated biobank will collect, store and provide real samples of skin from patients for research on various conditions and potential treatments.

It will be the first such biobank in Ireland - we hope to develop a resource that will be available for researchers into the future.

Pharmaceutical and medical device companies are now linking in with the Institute because of its unique focus on dermatology, according to Professor Powell. “We would see that as an increasing area of interaction with industry leading to translational therapies into the future,” he says.

Because it’s all very well a scientist looking down the microscope and seeing wonderful things, but if that doesn’t translate into a treatment for a patient then it defeats the ultimate purpose.

He is looking forward to seeing the results that the combination of skills brought together by the Charles Institute will produce.

Rather like the Irish rugby team, we have our individual Brian O’Driscolls and our Paul - but it’s when the team gels together into a force that you really see how they can excel.

Prof Powell on 'Sun Smarts' for Irish Skin

It’s almost a cliché, but it can be easy to spot the Irish person who has recently started a sun holiday - the lobster hue is all too familiar.

It’s no joke though: there’s a danger to fair skin that has been exposed to too much ultra-violet light from the sun or sun beds. 

"About 80 to 90 per cent of the Irish population is skin type I or II, which means they burn in the sun and freckle, they don’t tan,” explains consultant dermatologist Professor Frank Powell, interim director of the Charles Institute at UCD.

Freckling is a failure of the body to tan, and because of that our population is particularly susceptible to developing skin cancer.

Melanoma is generally the most aggressive and potentially life-threatening form of skin cancer, and research is ongoing at UCD to identify more effective ways to block its growth.  

However, prevention is better than cure, and Professor Powell notes the need for more effective education about the potential dangers of over-exposure from the sun or sunbeds when the skin has not been genetically endowed with an ability to tan easily.

Overexposure can result in blotchy pigmentation and pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions, he notes. And if that doesn’t encourage sun safety, the onset of wrinkles might.

"UV exposure gradually causes collagen deterioration,” explains Professor Powell.

Collagen is the packaging that keeps our skin together and keeps young people looking young - if you get too much UV light the collagen degenerates and the skin begins to sag and begins to wrinkle.

His advice to fair-skinned visitors to sunny climes is to do as the locals do and keep out of the sun during the most intensely hot hours of the day, and to use sunblock but not assume it is a license to stay out in the sun for prolonged periods.


Professor Frank Powell is a dermatologist and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Charles Institute and acting Director. He is currently the President of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology and is a Past-President of the Irish Association of Dermatologists. He is a member of several international dermatologic societies and honorary member of the American Dermatologic Association, and the Hungarian and Romanian Dermatology Associations.