Science Foundation Ireland 2020 Science Awards recognise key leaders in the Irish Research Community. The SFI Industry Partnership Award celebrates a collaboration between an academic research group and industry.

Professor Fergal O’Brien, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, AMBER Deputy Director, received the prestigious award from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD, at the annual SFI Science Summit. for his long standing collaboration with Integra LifeSciences.

Integra’s longstanding engagement with RCSI began in 2005 as a collaborator on a SFI President of Ireland Young Researcher Award received by Fergal. Integra supplied his group with type-1 collagen which has subsequently formed the basis of over 60 high impact publications with more than 40 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers benefitting from the partnership - developing and characterizing biomaterials for a myriad of applications. An engagement in the area of peripheral nerve repair began in 2015 with Integra fully funding an exploratory study coordinated through the SFI Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research (AMBER) focused on the development of a new regenerative biomaterial. Since 2017, the collaboration has grown to a >€1million AMBER co-funded spoke project led by Prof Fergal O’Brien (RCSI) and Prof Conor Buckley (TCD) as PIs. This SFI AMBER project has successfully developed two unique peripheral nerve repair technologies, both of which have proven highly effective in repairing damaged nerves in pre-clinical trials. These technologies have been protected by three patent filings and transferred to the company under appropriate commercialisation agreements. The AMBER researchers and business development team, supported by the Innovation Team in RCSI and Technology Transfer Office at TCD has worked to rapidly accelerate the development and translation of these biomaterials, helping Integra remain at the cutting edge of nerve repair treatments for the benefit of patients and society.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland, congratulated Prof. O’Brien and 10 additional award winners, saying:

“I am delighted to congratulate this year’s award winners on their inspiring success and dedication. The Science Foundation Ireland Awards recognise the expansive contribution that scientists make to our society and economy through innovative breakthroughs, industry collaborations, entrepreneurship, public engagement, and mentorship of the next generation”.

Dr Claire McKenna, International Funding Manager at AMBER, and Dr Cormac Ó’Coileáin, Research Fellow in the School of Chemistry and CRANN have secured SFI Public Service Fellowships that will see them work on specific collaborative research project with a Government Department, agency, and/or the Library & Research Service of the Oireachtas..

12 fellowships have been awarded to foster innovation within the Public Sector by supporting the development and implementation of data-driven and evidence-based approaches.

Dr McKenna will be hosted by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. She said:

“I am working on the development of a standard research classification system for tracking public investment in research. This is a deliverable under Innovation 2020, Ireland’s Strategy for Research and Development, Science and Technology.

A standard classification system will enable a greater understanding of how public money is spent across the Irish research ecosystem. I am looking forward to using my research background in the AMBER centre in Trinity to make a meaningful contribution to the development of future national research policy.”

Dr Ó’Coileáin said:

“I will be looking at the economic, social and ethical implications of Nanotechnology as a Researcher in Residence at the Oireachtas Research & Library Services. It is an interesting opportunity to share scientific knowledge and experience – to help inform evidence-based development of policy within Ireland.”

Announcing the award, Minister Harris, said:

“I am delighted to support the SFI Public Service Fellowship initiative which will contribute to the Government’s objective of promoting a culture of innovation through collaboration, knowledge exchange and the development of data-driven and evidence-based solutions. The successful researchers will play a pivotal role in enhancing collaboration between the research community and Government for the benefit of society.”

Welcoming the announcement, Dr Ruth Freeman, Director Science for Society at SFI said:

“Congratulations to all of the Public Service Fellowship award recipients announced today during Public Service Innovation Week. The SFI Public Service Fellowship programme recognises the importance of connecting the Irish research community with public sector organisations to help inform new policy and improve the services that they deliver. The projects announced today will enhance collaboration of the research community with public bodies while also allowing researchers to advance their work and further develop their careers.”

New analysis presents evidence of global infant exposure to microplastics and the need for appropriate mitigation strategies and new plastic technologies.

New research shows that high levels of microplastics (MPs) are released from infant-feeding bottles (IFBs) during formula preparation. The research also indicates a strong relationship between heat and MP release, such that warmer liquids (formula or water used to sterilise bottles) result in far greater release of MPs.In response, the researchers involved – from AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research, TrinityHaus and the Schools of Engineering and Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin – have developed a set of recommendations for infant formula preparation when using plastic IFBs that minimise MP release.

Led by Dr Jing Jing Wang, Prof John Boland and Prof Liwen Xiao at Trinity, the team analysed the potential for release of MPs from polypropylene infant-feeding bottles (PP-IFBs) during formula preparation by following international guidelines. They also estimated the exposure of 12-month-old infants to MPs in 48 countries and regions and have just published their findings in the high-profile journal NatureFood.

There is growing evidence to suggest that micro and nano plastics are released into our food and water sources through the chemical and physical degradation of larger plastic items. Some studies have demonstrated the potential transfer of micro and nano plastics from oceans to humans via the food chain but little is known about the direct release of microplastics (MPs) from plastic products through everyday use. Polypropylene (PP) is one of the most commonly produced plastics in the world for food preparation and storage. It is used to make everyday items such as lunch boxes, kettles and infant-feeding bottles (IFBs). Despite its widespread use the capacity of PP to release microplastics was not appreciated until now.

Drawing on international guidelines for infant formula preparation (cleaning, sterilising, and mixing techniques), the team developed a protocol4 to quantify the PP-MPs released from 10 representative infant-feeding bottles that account for 68.8% of the global infant-feeding bottle market. When the role of temperature on the release of PP-MPs was analysed a clear trend emerged; the higher the temperature of liquid inside the bottle, the more microplastics released.

Under a standardised protocol, after sterilisation and exposure to water at 70⁰C, the PP-IFBs released up to 16.2 million PP-MP per litre. When the water temperature was increased to 95⁰C, as much as 55 million PP-MP per litre were released, while when the PP-IFB’s were exposed to water at 25⁰C – well under international guidelines for sterilisation or formula preparation – 600,000 PP-MP per litre were generated.

Given the widespread use of PP-IFBs and the quantity of MPs released through normal daily use, the team realised the potential exposure of infants to MPs is a worldwide issue. The team estimated the exposure of 12-month-old infants to MPs in 48 countries and regions by using MP release rates from PP-IFBs, the market share of each PP-IFB, the infant daily milk-intake volume, and breastfeeding rates. The team found that the overall average daily consumption of PP-MPs by infants per capita was 1,580,000 particles. Oceania, North America and Europe were found to have the highest levels of potential exposure corresponding to 2,100,000, 2,280,000, and 2,610,000 particles/day, respectively.

Given the global preference for PP-IBFs it is important to mitigate against unintended generation of micro and nanoplastics in infant formula. Based on their findings the team devised and tested a series of recommendations for the preparation of baby formula that will help minimise the production of MPs.They note though, that given the prevalence of plastic products in daily food storage and food preparation, and the fact that every PP product tested in the study (infant bottles, kettles, lunch boxes and noodle cups) released similar levels of MPs, there is an urgent need for technological solutions.

As Prof. John Boland, AMBER, CRANN, and Trinity’s School of Chemistry explains:
“When we saw these results in the lab we recognised immediately the potential impact they might have. The last thing we want is to unduly alarm parents, particularly when we don’t have sufficient information on the potential consequences of microplastics on infant health.We are calling on policy makers, however, to reassess the current guidelines for formula preparation when using plastic infant feeding bottles. Crucially, we have found that it is possible to mitigate the risk of ingesting microplastics by changing practices around sterilisation and formula preparation.”

Prof. Liwen Xiao at TrinityHaus and Trinity’s School of Engineering said:
“Previous research has predominantly focused on human exposure to micro and nanoplastics via transfer from ocean and soils into the food chain driven by the degradation of plastics in the environment. Our study indicates that daily use of plastic products is an important source of microplastic release, meaning that the routes of exposure are much closer to us than previously thought. We need to urgently assess the potential risks of microplastics to human health. Understanding their fate and transport through the body following ingestion is an important focus of future research. Determining the potential consequences of microplastics on our health is critical for the management of microplastic pollution.”

Lead authors, Dr Dunzhu Li and Dr Yunhong Shi, researchers at AMBER, CRANN and Trinity’s School of Engineering, said:
“We have to accept that plastics are pervasive in modern life, and that they release micro and nano plastics through everyday use. We don’t yet know the risks to human health of these tiny plastic particles, but we can develop behavioural and technological solutions and strategies to mitigate against their exposure.”

Dr Jing Jing Wang, Microplastics Group at AMBER and CRANN, said:
“While this research points to the role of plastic products as a direct source of microplastic the removal of microplastics from the environment and our water supplies remains a key future challenge. Our team will investigate specific mechanisms of micro and nano plastic release during food preparation in a host of different contexts. We want to develop appropriate technologies that will prevent plastics degrading and effective filtration technologies that will remove micro and nanoplastics from our environment for large scale water treatment and local distribution and use.”

This work has been undertaken by the Microplastics Group led by Dr Jing Jing Wang at AMBER and CRANN, with internal collaboration from TrinityHaus and Trinity’s School of Engineering and School of Chemistry. This research was supported by Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, a School of Engineering Scholarship at Trinity, and the China Scholarship Council.

Trinity researchers awarded €550K to develop innovative nano and micro devices for consumer electronics, car manufacture and healthcare.

Researchers at AMBER, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research and Trinity’s School of Chemistry have received 550k under the EU’s Horizon 2020 “Future and Emerging Technologies – Open” (FET Open) programme 5D NanoPrinting consortium. The project, entitled ‘Functional & Dynamic 3D Nano-MicroDevices by Direct Multi-Photon Lithography’ has been awarded a total budget of €3.58 million.

The project aims to develop innovative smart materials and novel fabrication methods for micro and nano devices. In the next four years, it will advance micro and nano printing technologies, allowing faster prototyping of devices and design of novel functional materials with tailorable properties for a range of applications from consumer electronics to healthcare.

Micro devices, or MicroMachines – also known as “MEMS” (Micro ElectroMechanical Systems) – refer to microscopic devices with moving parts which are capable of accomplishing a specific task. The current production of these micro devices presents challenges that the project will address, and attempt to overcome, such as the limitations in the materials and the fabrication methods. Together with the expensive development process that many devices need, these issues are impeding the full development of the technology, making them more expensive and slowing down the access to the market.

The 5DNanoPrinting approach will unlock the full potential of “MEMS” by creating these microdevices in less time, with lower costs and higher flexibility. The project will especially focus on direct laser writing, a 3D-printing technology that uses focused laser pulses to prepare complex structures with extremely high resolution. This new experimental approach of rapid prototyping makes the production process faster and it allows the customisation of the devices during the production phase. Moreover, when compared to the standard fabrication techniques, the 5DNanoPrinting methodology can lower the production costs of MEMS thanks to the possibility of producing small quantity lots on-demand. This is particularly appealing in the case of bio-medical devices or other components where personalisation is a key factor.

Prof. Larisa Florea, from AMBER and the School of Chemistry, Trinity College Dublin is one of the principal investigators in the project. She said “We are absolutely delighted to have received funding for this exciting project under the FET-OPEN. This is one of the most competitive programmes under H2020 and one of the few programmes dedicated to funding early stage research in science and technology. We believe that this project will advance the state-of-the-art in micro and nano printing technologies, to allow for faster prototyping of microdevices. My team will design new functional materials to enable the realisation of microdevices proposed in this project.”

Prof. Florea, who also received a prestigious ERC Starting Grant in 2018, has extensive experience in the field. “The interdisciplinarity of these collaborations”, she says, “enables breakthroughs which could never be envisaged by individual partners. It complements the ERC programme, to allow breakthrough technologies to be applied for greater societal benefit.”

Prof. Virgilio Mattoli, Center for MicroBioRobotics at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), Italy, leads the project. Together with IIT, the project’s consortium includes academic and industrial partners from both Italy and other European countries that will bring their expertise in chemistry, material science, physics and engineering including CNR – Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, Italy; Graz University of Technology, Austria; University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Trinity College of Dublin.

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