What is your research about?

My research focuses primarily on the therapeutic potential of mesenchymal stem/stromal cells (MSCs) in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis with associated cartilage and bone repair. MSCs are defined by their capacity to self-renew and their ability to differentiate into multiple cell types. We’re looking at three different concepts in this area. One is whether stem cell depletion or dysfunction contributes to the development of osteoarthritis, the second is looking at the process of MSCs changing to cartilage cells or chondrocytes to study osteoarthritis development. The third aspect is investigating the role of inflammation in disease progression. All of this is to help us identify novel targets for drug development.

Do you collaborate with industry and clinicians?

We work closely with both industry and clinicians, and we are currently involved in a Phase II clinical trial for osteoarthritis. At the moment we’re working on an exciting CÚRAM co-funded collaboration with AbbVie. Our objective is to understand how cellular therapies can work in decreasing pain and protecting joints from degenerative arthritis and use this knowledge to identify novel pharmacological targets that will lead to new therapies so badly needed by these patients. The synergy of expertise and shared common goals will ensure the success of the project. 

How does your research get translated?

Clinical trials and translation to a clinical setting is the biggest challenge for our research. Our end goal is to translate this research, either using cells directly or their products, to produce a positive affect for patients. The applied focus of my research is on A) developing a methodology for the affordable manufacture of MSCs for therapeutic use and B) creating devices that will enable stem cell therapy to become commonplace. I coordinate an EU project called Autostem that will develop automated, robotic production of MSCs. Robotic production of stem cells would lower the cost of production and lower the risk of human error in terms of GMP production. Autostem will also enable development of novel devices for sterile collection of bone marrow and closed delivery of the therapeutic cell product. Companies that are involved with the project, e.g. Crospon and Orbsen Therapeutics are central to these developments and this type of industry, clinical and academic collaboration is critical in enabling the cell therapy field to move forward.

How did you become interested in this type of research?

After postdoctoral positions in Ireland and the US, I started working with Osiris Therapeutics in the US, the first stem cell company to be established worldwide. Research here focused on the area of cartilage / orthopaedic repair.  After nearly 10 years there I made the move to REMEDI in 2004 – the Regenerative Medicine Institute here at NUI Galway, led by Prof Tim O’Brien, who is now one of the co-directors of CÚRAM. Osteoarthritis is still a primary challenge in this area and I’d like to see a growth in the scale of research and clinical trials carried out here in Ireland.

What impact do you hope your research will have on patients / society?

Almost 400,000 Irish people suffer from osteoarthritis, but there is no cure – most people employ a range of self-management services that help them cope with their disease and pain on a day to day basis or else have to resort to joint replacement. My hope would be that our work would form the basis of next generation therapies for patients with Osteoarthritis and other chronic illnesses that will transform their quality of life for the better.