Focus on research: Prof Louise Kenny, Infant

Louise Kenny, Infant
Louise Kenny, Infant

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24 January 2017 | 0

Louise Kenny is  Professor of Obstetrics at University College Cork, a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital, and co-founder of Infant, the Science Foundation Ireland-backed centre for fetal and neonatal translational research. In this interview she talks to TechCentral.ie about setting up the centre, the effect Brexit will have on the research community and why Infant’s work transcends the gender divide.

Infant is Ireland’s first dedicated perinatal research centre. How did it come together?
I moved back to Ireland in 2006, just before the new maternity hospital in Cork (CUMH) opened, specifically to build up a centre for pregnancy research. Geraldine Boylan [Professor of Neonatal Physiology at UCC and Co-Director of Infant] had moved back from the UK about six months before me. We first met in September 2006 over the incubator of a very sick baby I had just delivered and who was being monitored on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) by Ger.

The little baby boy had had a very difficult birth and Ger and I started chatting about our common interests in perinatal health and how we were both committed to making pregnancy, birth and the first few weeks of life safer for mums and babies.

Over the following years, Ger was very much a mentor to me. We became close friends and colleagues and as we each built up our individual research groups, we worked on many collaborative projects.

Sometime in 2012 we realised that we could likely achieve much more together than separately. We began to pitch for funding to establish Ireland’s first dedicated perinatal translational research centre and when the call for the Science Foundation Ireland research centres was announced that year we decided to throw our hat into the ring.

Against our expectations, but to our absolute delight, we were successful and Infant formally launched in July 2013.

Having trained in the UK, how would you compare the research climate there to Ireland’s?
Ireland, as a small country, has some advantages over the UK. Small countries have a degree of flexibility and agility, as reflected by the speed with which we restructured our economy – that is missing from larger countries.

In a similar fashion, our smaller size means that national science policy can adapt and evolve at a faster pace to maximally exploit international trends and opportunities. Stakeholder engagement, particularly with the public, is also more immediate. An excellent example of this is the Science Foundation Ireland outreach programme, which for the last few years has supported Infant’s attendance at the National Ploughing Championships. Over 283,000 people attend The Ploughing – more than 15% of the population of Ireland. It would be simply impossible for a single research centre to achieve this level of exposure in the UK.

However, one of most striking differences concerns health research funding. I left the UK in 2006, just as NIHR launched. With an annual budget of over £1 billion, the NIHR has transformed both health research and clinical academic training in England.

From the outset, the NIHR was deliberately and very closely interfaced into the NHS and this has resulted in a cultural change within the health system. Research is both accepted and respected as being central to improving patient care. The Academic Health Science Centre model, supported by the NIHR, has further advanced the philosophy that research and innovation translates into clinical excellence.

The health research budget in Ireland per capita is miniscule in comparison with the NIHR and the HSE and research centres like INFANT work at best in parallel with little interaction. In addition, we need to invest more thought and resources into clinical academic training. Clinical academic training in the NIHR structure is seamless and well-resourced. We are some considerable distance behind the UK in this regard.

When thinking of the physical space for a research centre you think of lecture theatres and cramped offices. Infant has child-friendly assessment rooms. What kind of considerations informed the design of the Brookfield facility?
Infant grew very quickly and like most research centres and institutions, physical infrastructure very quickly became a rate-limiting concern.
We were really lucky to have the support of the College of Medicine and Health at UCC, who gave us significant space in the Watson Building at Brookfield and Science Foundation Ireland, who supported the commissioning of the clinical assessment rooms.

When we were looking at the design of the rooms, it was important to us that they would be suitable for research and clinical assessments, but also that they would be welcoming and child- and parent-friendly.

Many of the studies we conduct are longitudinal cohort studies, which involve repeated contact with parents and children over many years at varying time points. It’s therefore important that the rooms have a high tech function with a low tech appearance, so children and their parents are relaxed and feel comfortable. I think we have achieved this.

The state-of-the-art equipment we use for neurodevelopment assessment and other studies is cleverly housed and disguised and the rooms have a relaxed ‘home from home’ feel. The children certainly seem to like the space and their parents appreciate access to parking which can often be limited on the hospital campus.

Biomarker detection forms a substantial part of the research at Infant in the form of the pregnancy screening project Before Birth. What kind of technologies are being used in these studies?
In our biomarker programme we use metabolomic technology allied to advance machine learning to interrogate a variety of biological samples such as blood and urine to discover and validate predictive and diagnostic biomarkers.

Metabolomic technologies focus on low molecular weight (<1 kDa) molecules which are the products of cellular and environmental interaction (metabolites).

Depending on the biosample used, metabolite profiling provides a snapshot in time, of the functional phenotype.

The development of high-throughput mass spectral data acquisition technologies for metabolomic analysis has facilitated major progress in biomarker discovery, quantification and validation when coupled with access to large cohort sample biobanks.

We have previously used this technology with some significant success to develop biomarkers for the prediction of pre-eclampsia. This technology has been licenced to start-up (Metabolomic Diagnostics) and is currently in a phase IIa clinical trial (IMPROvED).

Looking at research budgets across the EU, will Brexit be good news for centres like Infant?
Like most scientists in the UK, I am a Remainer and it is difficult to see a silver lining associated with any aspect of Brexit.

In Infant, many of our key programmes are funded by the EU and involve partners in UK institutions, who bring highly specialised, and sometimes unique, skill sets to our collaborative endeavours. Their exclusion from future programmes will help no one- least of all the patient groups we serve.

The UK is a large contributor to the EU budget but they also have a strong track record of success in winning back research funding. Overall, its absence from the EU research community will have a negligible effect on the budget available, and a large negative effect because of the other associated issues, such as freedom of movement. It’s early days and there is no clarity yet on what will result from the Brexit negotiations and what status, if any, the UK will retain in the EU scientific community.

I know that the majority of my former colleagues and our current collaborators are extremely concerned and the uncertainty in some ways is equally damaging.

The SFI-backed research centres all have strong outreach programmes. Do you think Infant has an edge in making a STEM career more appealing to girls?
Infant’s outreach programme puts young people in direct contact with scientists. If our young people are to pursue these careers, they need to know about the work going on in their own country and city and see how they too can contribute.

Infant has an appealing edge because it is so universal, we can relate as we all have mothers; we all know someone who has had a baby, and we want them all to be safe and healthy. It grounds STEM in the real world.

When young girls, students and the general public meet our scientists, we can break down preconceived ideas about what work in STEM has to be. We have male and female electrical engineers, obstetricians, mathematicians, lab scientists, neurophysiologists, to name a few, and they are all using STEM to improve care for women and their babies around the globe.

I hope that Infant has the edge on making STEM careers more appealing, if they aren’t already, to young people. We need these bright young minds to continue with our mission of making things better.

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