SBI's Melinda Halasz Wins 2015 Conway Festival Gold Medal

Written by: Elaine Quinn
Written on: Thursday, 17 September, 2015

2015 UCD Conway Festival Gold Medal winners: (l-r) UCD Vice President for Research, Innovation and Impact Prof. Orla Feely, Dr. Alison Reyholds, Dr. Melinda Halasz and Prof. Walter Kolch, Director UCD Conway Institute and Systems Biology Ireland

Dr Melinda Halasz and Dr Alison Reynolds are joint winners of the 2015 UCD Conway gold medal for their respective research projects to find new treatment approaches in a highly aggressive childhood cancer and in a condition that can lead to blindness.

Neuroblastomas arise in children when a cancer causing gene (oncogene) called MYCN is amplified. Currently, there are no drugs available that can successfully block this oncogene. Dr Melinda Halasz, a postdoctoral researcher working with Walter Kolch in SBI, hopes to find a therapeutic approach to treating this cancer by identifying and targeting key proteins that interact with the MYCN oncogene. This approach seems promising as Melinda has been able to reduce the size of a tumour in a zebrafish model of neuroblastoma by targeting a key protein in gene regulation (RNA splicing inhibitor). 

Dr Alison Reynolds, a research fellow working with Dr Breandan Kennedy in UCD Conway Institute, is trying to identify a drug to treat retinal neovascularisation. This feature of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness. Alison brought a candidate compound identified from 1800 compounds forward into further experiments based on its ability to stop new blood vessel growth in the eye of a newborn zebrafish. The compound works by blocking a protein involved in inflammation and angiogenesis called CYSLT1. It was well tolerated in zebrafish, mice, and human cell lines. Synthetic versions of the original lead compound were made, tested for efficacy and a patent has now been granted for one of these novel drugs.

Drs Halasz and Reynolds accepted their award from Professor Orla Feely, UCD Vice President for Research, Innovation and Impact. Speaking at the ceremony at the close of the 2015 UCD Conway Festival of Research & Innovation on Thursday, 10 September, Professor Feely said; 

"I applaud these two early career researchers who have clearly impressed the judges not only with the quality of their research and its potential translation applications but also their ability to articulate this work concisely".‌

The judging panel comprised Professors Anne Ferguson-Smith, University of Cambridge, UK; Colin Hill, University College Cork and Christoph Lengauer, CSO of Blueprint Medicines, Cambridge, USA who were plenary speakers at the event. The 2015 UCD Conway Festival gold medal is sponsored by Cruinn Diagnostics. 

The UCD Conway Festival also featured 110 research project summaries from PhD students and postdoctoral researchers from across UCD Conway Institute as well as a discussion forum with senior managers from PfizerICONNovartisS3 Group and Blueprint Medicines addressing how job-ready are PhD graduates for employment outside of academia.

Moderated poster category winners:

Neuroscience & Cell Biology: Agata Blasiak (Prof Gil Lee group) 
Differential growth behaviour in CNS neurons in response to local axonal vs. global Netrin-1 treatment is mediated by Ca2+ , cAMP signalling and DCC dynamics

Cancer: Dr Melinda Halasz (Prof Walter Kolch group)            
Identifying a novel strategy to treat highly aggressive MYCN-amplified neuroblastomas

Diabetes & Vascular Biology: Dr Alison Reynolds (Dr Breandan Kennedy group)           
Phenotype-based discovery of 2-[(E)-2-(Quinolin-2-Yl) Vinyl]phenol as a novel inhibitor of developmental and pathological ocular angiogenesis

Infection, Inflammation & Repair: Dr Sinead Walsh (Prof Michael Keane group)
Investigating the origins of the myofibroblast in pulmonary fibrosis

Biochemistry & Structural Biology: Rebecca Reilly (Dr Judith Coppinger group)
Inhibition of the PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway improves trafficking of Δ508-CFTR in Cystic Fibrosis