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Six UCD Research Projects Receive Funding through SFI Investigators Programme

Monday, 27 April, 2015 

Damien English TD, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation recently announced over €30 million in research funding for 23 major research projects, including 6 from University College Dublin (UCD).

The funding will be delivered by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation through the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Investigators Programme. The Programme will provide funding, ranging from €500,000 to €2.3 million, over a four to five year period, for the projects involving over 100 researchers.

Damien English TD said, “This funding provides assistance to individual researchers to advance their investigations and address key research questions in sectors such as energy, medicine, food and nutrition, technology and agriculture. It allows researchers to further their careers and build partnerships with leading industry partners who also benefit from access to some of the leading academic talent on this island. The Investigators Programme is an important contributor to Ireland’s credentials as a research leader in a number of sectors.”

The SFI Investigators Programme supports excellent scientific research that has the potential to impact Ireland’s society and economy. The 23 projects were selected by competitive peer review involving 400 international scientists after a call for proposals across a number of thematic areas of national and international importance.

Pictured above, at the announcement that over €30 million of research funding for 23 major research projects are Professor John Doherty, UCD; Professor Martin Steinhoff, UCD; Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English TD; Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland; and Professor Torres Sweeney, UCD.

The awards include research in areas such as materials science, data management, medicine and pharmaceuticals, food and nutrition, agriculture and veterinary research and have links to 40 companies.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland added, “The SFI Investigators Programme provides important support to researchers in Ireland, creating employment opportunities and allowing them to leverage State funding to access additional funding streams, such as the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme. Their research focuses on areas such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, animal breeding and disease prevention, ICT and data storage, as well as bioenergy among other topics. These are areas that will make a difference to both Ireland’s economy and society.  All of the successful projects have been peer reviewed by international experts to ensure scientific excellence and we have funded every project deemed to be of the highest standard internationally.”

The 6 UCD funded projects are as follows;

Professor Fiona Doohan,UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science - The challenge of increasing wheat production by 70% to feed the world population in 2050 is great. We have to make a concerted international effort to increase yields, not least by controlling the diseases that reduce yield and contaminate grain with toxins. This project focuses on unravelling novel mechanisms involved in wheat response to stress and delivering knowledge and tools that can be used in plant breeding and crop biotechnology in order to improve wheat resistance to disease. Consequently, it will contribute to our understanding of plant biology, and to the development of sustainable means for enhancing food productivity.

Professor Walter Kolch, UCD Conway Institute - Malignant melanoma is a skin cancer that is one of the deadliest cancers because of its tendency to spread rapidly and its resistance to drugs. The recent introduction of new drugs that inhibit Raf and MEK kinases has achieved remarkable treatment successes, which unfortunately are of limited duration. The aim of this proposal is to investigate the mechanisms of resistance to these drugs and based on this understanding (i) design personalized drug combinations that can avoid or overcome this resistance; and (ii) derive diagnostic biomarkers that predict which drug combinations will be most effective for individual patients.

Dr Alexey Lastovetsky, UCD School of Computer Science and Informatics - In our digital era, computing becomes truly comprehensive and ubiquitous with more and more areas routinely relying on high performance computing (HPC). Science, engineering, Internet-based computing, data analytics and data mining, financial computing, smart cities just to name a few all need HPC resources. To respond to this ever increasing demand, HPC systems become highly heterogeneous, hierarchical and extremely large and complex. Traditional applications and software cannot efficiently utilize this new generation of computing systems. The goal of the proposed research programme is to develop fundamental algorithms and methods that would allow application programmers to efficiently use these platforms.

Professor Grace Mulcahy, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine - Liver fluke infection (fasciolosis) is a global disease of farm animals and causes great losses to the agricultural community. By merging recent technological advances in molecular biotechnology we will gain a deeper understanding of how liver fluke parasites interact with their animal hosts, cattle and sheep. We will learn at a molecular level how these parasites invade their hosts, how they control and regulate their immune responses and how this leads to chronic disease, pathogenesis and death. Then, using this new knowledge, we will develop new effective vaccines to counteract the parasite and to protect farm animals from this disease.

Professor John O’Doherty, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and Professor Torres Sweeney, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine - Widespread use of antibiotics in veterinary and human medicine has, over time, selected for a broad spectrum of pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics. This is of major concern for public health and has resulted on an EU ban on ‘in-feed’ antibiotics in animals. Hence there is an urgent requirement to identify alternatives. The preventative and therapeutic properties of seaweed has been known since early times. The objective here is to characterise the molecules in native macroalgae that have health promoting properties, develop the large-scale methodologies to purify them and explore commercial avenues for them in the animal feed industry.

Professor Martin Steinhoff, UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science and UCD Charles Institute of Dermatology -Worldwide, itch is the most frequent symptom in dermatology with a significant impact on quality-of-life for patients and their family members. Therapy-resistant itch is a major medical burden in many diseases (skin, renal, dialysis, liver, leukemias) and elderly people. A major barrier for therapeutic progress is our poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms of itch in humans. To develop new treatments against therapy-resistant itch, we will first identify in a translational setting key cytokines and chemokines in different human itch subtypes. With companies, we will then test in human studies the beneficial effects of treating itch by blocking cytokine/chemokine pathways. 
Under the SFI Investigators Programme, 23 research projects were funded through 14 research bodies, as follows: Dublin City University (2), Dublin Institute of Technology (1), Marine Institute (1), National University of Ireland Galway (3), Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (1), Teagasc (1), Trinity College Dublin (5), University College Cork (2), University College Dublin (6) and University of Limerick (1).