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AMBER researcher awarded €3 m European Research Council funding to revolutionise treatment for joint injuries

6 April 2018

Professor Fergal O’Brien from the RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) Department of Anatomy and AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre, has been awarded a highly prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant for a research project that aims to revolutionise the treatment of damaged articular joints such as the knee or ankle. Currently, there is no successful treatment for repairing damaged cartilage with even small defects often progressing to degenerative osteoarthritis requiring joint replacement.

The award is one of just three ERC Advanced Grants being made to Irish Institutions this year. The funding, worth a total of €653 million, will give 269 of Europe’s senior researchers the opportunity to realise their most creative ideas and potentially produce results that will have a major impact on science, society and the economy.

Professor O’Brien, who is Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group in the Department of Anatomy at RCSI and Deputy Director of AMBER, has been awarded funding of €2,999,410 for a project entitled ‘ReCaP. Regeneration of Articular Cartilage using Advanced Biomaterials and Printing Technology’.

The ReCaP project proposes a new approach to articular joint repair which will transform the way articular cartilage injuries are treated. The project will achieve this by combining cutting edge recent advances in the area of 3D printing and advanced manufacturing with new insights in stem cell and gene therapy to develop a platform biomaterial technology (a scaffold) capable of repairing both bone and cartilage. A novel surgical procedure will then be applied to allow this scaffold to be anchored to the joint surface while encouraging the body’s own cells to infiltrate the material and repair the surrounding damaged tissue. Using this new approach, the treatment will promote the restoration of even large regions of damaged tissue.

This research builds on the pioneering regenerative scaffolds developed in Professor O’Brien’s laboratory over the past decade which have already improved the quality of life for patients with orthopaedic injuries. It combines knowledge gained from the development of these scaffolds with new insights in scaffold-based gene delivery obtained from previous European Research Council funded projects (CollRegen and miRaColl) together with new developments on 3D printing of regenerative biomaterials from the SFI-funded AMBER Centre.

Professor O’Brien said: ‘I am honoured to have been awarded this prestigious advanced research grant from the European Research Council. It builds on previous ERC-funded projects undertaken at my lab. Combining these insights with advances in 3D printing of biomaterials from our AMBER Centre and a new surgical approach for joint repair, offers new hope to patients suffering from damage to their articular joints.’

Commenting on today’s announcement Professor Janusz Jankowski, Director (Corporate) Chief Research and Innovation Officer and Deputy Vice Chancellor said: ‘This award to Professor Fergal O’Brien is a testament to his exceptional, impactful and unique research in the area of biomaterials and the expertise of RCSI’s Tissue Engineering Research Group. Moreover, this clinically applied research is addressing common health issues arising from a range of chronic conditions such as injuries that lead to osteoarthritis. This innovation could transform the lives of patients around the world, and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of Professor O’Brien’s work as his research expands during this important grant. This latest success adds a further exemplar of what a quality, innovative and impactful research programme should look like for all our students and young researchers.’

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: ‘The ERC’s Advanced Grant scheme has supported outstanding and established research leaders since 2007. It provides a great example of how EU funding can help expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge, providing the resources necessary to continue ground-breaking, high-risk projects, and ensure Europe’s global competitiveness.’

The ERC Advanced Grants are part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020. Demand for ERC grants remains very high: 2,167 research proposals were submitted this time, out of which 12% were selected for funding. These grants will not only allow top researchers to execute their best ideas at scientific frontiers, but will also lead to job creation as an estimated 2,000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff could be employed in the grantees’ research teams.

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