Professor Mark Ferguson
Director General, Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland
Health research impacts almost everyone, whether it be through treating a life-altering disease, informing nutrition for the optimal diet, or dealing with the challenging problems of an ageing population.
Advances in science and technology mean that we are rapidly moving away from a “one size for all” healthcare to a “personalised” approach, tailored to individual health and lifestyle needs. In Ireland, we are at the forefront of many of the research developments in this sector both in our academic institutions and in industry.
Who is using the personalised approach?
FutureNeuro, the SFI Research Centre for Chronic and Rare Neurological Diseases, is based at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Led by Professor David Henshall, the team seeks a better understanding of brain diseases like epilepsy, which allows them to develop treatments that are not only effective, but which are also personalised. They are tailored to the patient, taking into account both individual genetic differences as well as those elicited through studying individual brain waves and responses to different treatments.
At CÚRAM, the SFI Research Centre for Medical Devices based at NUI Galway, research teams led by Professor Abhay Pandit explore and develop innovative personalised medical technologies. With a particular focus on respiratory, neural, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, renal and soft tissue disorders, the overarching aim of CÚRAM is to provide affordable, transformative solutions for chronic diseases.
Likewise the cell-based research in regenerative medicine, led by Professor Fergal O’Brien of the SFI Amber Research Centre, addresses individual patient needs following trauma or arthritis. Professor Walter Kolch’s research group at the Conway Institute UCD are pioneering approaches to tailor personalised effective pharmaceutical treatments to individual cancer patients.
Wearable sensors in sports
A major area of growth is the development of wearable sensors to continuously monitor various parameters e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, sweat, distance walked etc. and analysis of the large amounts of data these devices generate to provide tailored advice to the individual on e.g. sports training, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, detecting early disease onset etc. Much of this occurs in the SFI Research Centre for Big Data Analytics – Insight – and several innovations have resulted in start-up companies, most recently Outdoor Sports who, in March 2019, announced a partnership with major US league soccer team, Colorado Rapids, to bring their technology to individual athlete testing and tracking.
In all of the above examples, there is extensive, and mutually beneficial, research collaboration and cooperation with companies both large and small e.g. J&J, Boston Scientific, Stryker, Astra Zeneca, Arch Therapeutics.
Funding for the personalised approach
In a new, all-inclusive, approach to funding competitive research, which will improve Irish society and the economy, including the health of people living in Ireland, SFI have launched Challenge Based Funding. To compete for the SFI Future Innovator Prize, multidisciplinary teams must identify economical and societal challenges and develop potential new solutions. Many of the competing teams have identified personalised health related challenges e.g. creation of personalised orthopaedic implants, treatment of rare diseases like epidermolysis bullosa (EB) through gene-editing, reducing the burden of chronic pain, and improving breast cancer diagnosis.
Given the rapid pace of scientific discovery and its application, and the ever-growing opportunities arising from the convergence of genetic analysis, sensors, ICT, big data analytics and artificial intelligence, the potential to develop better diagnostic tools and therapeutic interventions that are more effective because they are focused on the individual, has never been greater. It is important that researchers in Ireland from both academia and industry remain at the forefront of these exciting developments – so that all of us can benefit by leading healthier, longer and fulfilling lives.