Four Conway Fellows receive SFI Frontiers for the Future awards to meet the challenges of preterm birth, infection and cancer.


Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Patrick O’Donovan TD has announced awards valued at €34 million to support research across seven research bodies. 

Conway Fellows, Professors Ulla Knaus, Walter Kolch, Fionnuala McAuliffe and Cormac Taylor are among seven UCD researchers to receive funding in this round of the SFI Frontiers for the Future awards.

Minister O’Donovan said: “These awards support the development of world-class research in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The projects these higher education institutions are focusing on will help deliver solutions to some of the major challenges facing society, including in healthcare, the environment and technology.”

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Pictured (L-R): Professors Cormac Taylor, Walter Kolch, Ulla Knaus and Fionnual McAuliffe

Prof. Fionnuala McAuliffe from UCD School of Medicine, UCD Conway Institute will investigate preterm birth prevention. Preterm birth, when a baby is born too soon, is the biggest killer of infants and children. Of those who survive, many are left with complex long-term health and cognitive problems. This places huge burden on these babies, their families, and the society in which they live. 

Most preterm births occur when healthy vaginal microbes become replaced by unhealthy microbes, leading to vaginal inflammation that triggers preterm birth. By using a probiotic supplement and novel scientific techniques to detect its effect, this project hopes to finally find a preterm birth prevention strategy that we, as a society, so desperately need.

Prof. Ulla Knaus from UCD School of Medicine, UCD Conway Institute will explore ‘Raising oxidants for immune protection in infectious disease’. Emerging infectious diseases and increasing antibiotic resistance will be a challenge for healthcare, society, and the economy for the next decades. Existing approaches in microbe detection, data sharing, vaccine and drug development need to be strengthened, but new strategies in infection control are also required. 

One arm of the immune system remembers microbes, but destruction takes several days. Hence, the other arm called innate immunity is the first line of defence that attacks any invader. Our goal is boosting innate defence systems in lungs and gut during the acute early phase of infection by triggering prolonged activation of protective enzymes.

Prof. Cormac Taylor, UCD School of Medicine, UCD Conway Institute will investigate ‘GLYCOPLEX: A new entity regulating glucose metabolism in hypoxic cells’. Cells normally use oxygen to make energy but when oxygen is scarce (hypoxia) such as in rapidly proliferating cells, they need to switch to glucose metabolism to survive. This switch has important implications for cell survival during immunity but also for cancer cell survival. 

Understanding how glucose metabolism (glycolysis) is regulated is key to understanding metabolism in health and disease and to produce new therapeutic agents. Prof. Taylor and his team have identified a new mechanism of regulating glucose metabolism in low hypoxia. Now, their goal is to fully interrogate the structure function and role of this complex in healthy and cancer cells.

Most cancer treatments are thwarted by drug resistance. Director of Systems Biology Ireland, Prof Walter Kolch from UCD School of Medicine and UCD Conway Institute will investigate 'The Role of Dynamic Protein-Protein Interaction Changes in Adaptive Drug Resistance'. A new source of drug resistance are changes in multi-protein complexes (MPCs). MPCs are teams of proteins working together. Changing the interactions in these teams can help cells to quickly adapt to and escape therapy. 

Using modern technologies, Prof. Kolch and his team systematically map the interaction changes in MPCs when cells become drug resistant. To prove that these interaction changes cause drug resistance, they artificially create or destroy them. Prof. Kolch believes that such critical interactions could be new targets for cancer therapies that eventually may replace genome damaging drugs.

Commenting on the award, Prof. Kolch said: "We are honoured to receive this substantial funding award from Science Foundation Ireland, which will enable us to further our research in personalised medicine and drug resistance. SFI has always been a great champion of the work we do in SBI and we are grateful for the continued support." 

Dr Ruth Freeman, Director, Science for Society at Science Foundation Ireland, said: “The SFI Frontiers for the Future awards provide opportunities for independent investigators to conduct highly innovative, original research on important questions.”

In total, 28 awards announced will support 124 research positions including 58 postdoctoral positions, 53 PhD students and 13 research assistants and other positions across 7 research bodies. This programme has been funded in collaboration with SEAI.