€1.5m awarded to breakthrough Irish science projects

The best and brightest in Ireland were rewarded with €1.5m for two projects that include a gel for chronic pain and nano-scale imaging.

A transformative treatment for people suffering from chronic pain scooped the inaugural SFI Future Innovator Prize of €1m while a project based on biological imaging secured a second place €500,000.

Minister for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, TD, today announced the first winner of the SFI Future Innovator Prize, Dr Alison Liddy and her project team at NUI Galway (NUIG). Dr Liddy and the project team have been awarded €1m for their project, Hydrobloc, a novel and transformative treatment for people suffering from chronic pain.

“I am delighted to say that the calibre of research supported has been so high that a special award was made to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his team for their novel imaging technology”

A special prize of €500,000 was also awarded to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his team at PEARlabs, University College Dublin (UCD), in recognition of the potential impact of their project to develop a novel, nanoscale biological imaging technology.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize, funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland, is part of an overall government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland.

Challenging the best and brightest

This prize challenges the country’s best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end-users.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize has a strong team focus with each member bringing necessary expertise to advance the project. Teams work to tight deadlines, with the necessary supports and flexibility, in order to accelerate progression towards their proposed solutions.

“The SFI Future Innovator Prize is part of an approach to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland to accelerate and validate excellent and innovative solutions to critical societal and global issues,” said prof Mark Ferguson, director-general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Government of Ireland.

“The Hydrobloc team headed by Dr Alison Liddy proved to be worthy first winners, successfully completing all aspects of this demanding and disruptive programme with the potential to alleviate chronic neuropathic pain with a novel nanogel. I am delighted to say that the calibre of research supported has been so high that a special award was made to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his team for their novel imaging technology.”

Chronic neuropathic pain sufferers live with constant pain, which has a significant personal and societal impact. Neuropathic pain is caused by damage or disease affecting the sensory nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information).  It is estimated that 8pc of the European population suffer from neuropathic pain, 300,000 in Ireland alone.

The Hydrobloc nanogel (a nanogel is a tiny particle of submicroscopic size) developed by Dr Alison Liddy and her team at NUIG provides long term pain relief which is drug free without the severe side effects of prescription medications.

“The SFI Future Innovator Prize has been pivotal in allowing the Hydrobloc team at NUIG to significantly progress our research and realise its potential. We are honoured to win the final prize and have no doubt after being through the programme that there is a world class level of innovative talent in Ireland which will benefit our country in the future.”

The UCD PEARlabs team, led by Prof Dominic Zerulla, UCD School of Physics, developed a highly innovative imaging solution that enables super-fast real-time nanoscale optical microscopy. This aims to transform our understanding of processes such as cell signalling and cell proliferation in cancer. Their project was entitled, Enabling Next Generation Biological Imaging.

“I am delighted to receive this award, which is verification that the transformative potential of our disruptive imaging method has been recognised. Our PEARlabs technology will allow life science researchers to understand bio-medically relevant mechanisms to enable an unparalleled in-depth understanding of life-threatening diseases such as cancer and pandemic viral infections, including the coronavirus. This will in turn facilitate the development of faster drug delivery and testing.”

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 8 May 2020