Looking back, starting a new research institute in 2011 was probably not a good idea. The impact on the financial crisis was being properly felt in Ireland for the first time, and government cuts soon saw research funding fall dramatically. The Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI) had just been opened by An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Made up of the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, the Centre for the Study of Immunology and the Centre for Medical Device Technologies, the new institute was focused on a new kind of cross-discipline approach that it was hoped would see Trinity become a home for world-leading research.
“It was the toughest time in Irish history, the recession was so bad, the fact that we survived that was a real thrill”, Prof Luke O’Neill, the former Academic Director of TBSI, tells The University Times . Today however, the institute is celebrating its five years of existence, during which time it has raised €83 million in research funding, and is now home to 599 researchers across biochemistry, pharmacy, medicine, immunology and bioengineering.
O’Neill is something of a celebrity within TBSI. Apart from having a regular science slot with Pat Kenny on Newstalk, the Professor of Biochemistry was also made a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in April, joining leading scientists from around the world. Today, he says he is “overjoyed” at the progress the institute is making: “The trajectory we’re on now is really positive”.
The expansion of TBSI over five years has been rapid. Institute staff have produced 1598 research publications, working with co-authors in 56 different countries. Part of this is because of the large sums of funding the institute has been able to attract from a variety of sources. For instance, 49 per cent of the institute’s funding comes from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), while 15 per cent comes from EU Commission funding. Some level of funding was consistent even during the worst years of the recession. “Even though the country was in great difficulty, SFI were still supporting research, and we could get a fair amount of it”, O’Neill says.
The proportion of non-state funding has also steadily increased since 2011, even as state funding has proved unpredictable. Between the end of 2015 and the start of July 2016, TBSI attracted nearly €8 million, four times the amount they received in their first year.
“It was the toughest time in Irish history, the recession was so bad, the fact that we survived that was a real thrill”
During the conference today, a brief summary of the work undertaken by TBSI scientists was presented, spanning everything from new methods of treating different cancers to using non-pathogenic worms as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis.
In the latter, Prof Kingston Mills, who is Head of the Centre for the Study of Immunology in TBSI, is researching the use of the secreted products of some forms of parasite to prevent autoimmunity, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue. Speaking to The University Times the Academic Director of the institute, Prof Orla Hardiman, described the “world-leading” research taking place in immunology in Trinity at the moment.This includes work Trinity’s Inflammation and Immunology Research Centre (INNATE), which is based in TBSI, and involves collaboration between across four universities and four hospitals.
The significance of this kind of research, and TBSI as a whole, is that it is spans numerous research disciplines. Describing the work of INNATE at the symposium this morning, Hardiman said: “It’s a collaborative consortium across Trinity and other universities in Ireland to build a programme in immunology and inflammation.”
The institute had “created national pride and excitement at a time when it was much needed”
Speaking at a symposium celebrating the fifth anniversary, the Provost, Patrick Prendergast, heaped praise on the institute, describing the “groundbreaking and potentially game-changing research” its staff carry out. All modern research, he said, “has to be collaborative, it has to be interdisciplinary and it has to be international”.
Prendergast too referenced the “environment of a recession” the institute had been forced to work in for its first three years. Yet, with its focus on cancer research and immunology, and on producing research with a real societal impact, the Provost said the institute had “created national pride and excitement at a time when it was much needed”.
TBSI, while predominantly a research institute, has not ignored the needs of students over the last five years. “Students are a really important part of TBSI, they’re the future generation of researchers, they’re the future ambassadors of the university, so it’s really important that we give students a really high-quality experience of their life here”, Hardiman says.
The building is already home to some of the biggest lecture theatres on campus, and is the main base for medicine and other health science students. Despite this, Hardiman admits that the current student spaces within TBSI are “not fit for purpose”. The plan for the future is to create a space on the ground floor for students and researchers to study and interact. The institute is currently “in the process of identifying a mechanism by which we can fund that”, Hardiman says, “It’s going to cost a bit of money, but I think it’s really important”.
Yet alongside supporting undergraduate students, TBSI is also hoping to encourage graduate and postgraduate researchers to continue to work within Trinity. A new internal funding stream for the institute has been created, with financial support coming from the Development and Alumni Office, to develop the next generation of researchers who will continue the cross-discipline focus of TBSI in their work. The fund will ultimately be supported through a combination of industry and philanthropy, Hardiman says, and will be launched in the next few weeks. One industry partner has already committed their support, and Hardiman is confident that more will join in the near future.
“Students are a really important part of TBSI, they’re the future generation of researchers, they’re the future ambassadors of the university”
As TBSI’s research reputation has grown, so has its staff. Twice during her presentation Hardiman teases the Provost about the lack of space left within the institute for research. So how close is TBSI to some kind of expansion? “TBSI was built with some commercial space. We’re in discussion with the university about how we can work with the university to utilise that space in a way that allows the university to grow and develop, but taking into account the financial restrictions within the university as well”, Hardiman says.
With research continuing, and links with industry growing, TBSI is one of the success stories of the last five years. O’Neill is optimistic that it can continue to grow: “The hope is that now the country is a bit more financially viable, they’ll see what we’ve done in difficult times and support us even more. Because there’s great science going on here, and the Irish government would be stupid not to support it”.