Medical researcher’s work on respiratory illnesses reduces need for animal testing

A major research project into respiratory illness, which reduces the need for animal testing, has been recognised internationally.

Leading the pioneering study, Rebecca Clarke from Queen’s Centre for Infection and Immunity, was awarded a €50,000 grant from herbal-medicine producer Bionorica to continue her research into respiratory illness, using human stem cells rather than traditional testing on mice, rats and guinea pigs.

The research grant will allow Rebecca to undertake further study of common ailments such as coughs and asthma within the Queen’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences.

She explained: “My PhD project was about establishing an alternative model for drug screening rather than using animal testing. It’s the first in-vitro model of its kind and it will be very exciting to work alongside Bionorica in applying it to plant-based therapies.

“What I did was to isolate cells from human dental pulp and differentiate them into neuronal cells. Using this model, I was able to demonstrate that they looked and behaved like nerves, particularly in their expression of channels that sense environmental irritants. That opened the door to me being able to explore the behaviour of sensory nerves in the airways of the human body – their response to stimuli such as cold air or cigarette smoke and whether these responses could be mitigated by plant-based medicines.”

Ms Clarke is due to complete her PhD in September but will use her prize money to fund a year’s post-doctoral research, using her neuronal model, at Queen’s. Her PhD was funded by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. Although she acknowledges that animal testing has its place in medical research, she believes it’s important to develop models that will accurately predict human responses.

She said: “In this particular area of research, it has been noted that there are marked differences between species, so I wanted to develop a human model that would deliver more representative results. Human airway nerves are extremely difficult to study, making it hard to come up with cures for common respiratory ailments, so that was another reason for wanting to develop a new model.”

Ms Clarke was one of only 20 recipients worldwide of the Bionorica Global Research Initiative 2014 award and the only winner from the island of Ireland. Consultant Physician and Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at Queen’s, Dr Lorcan McGarvey said: “Rebecca has worked extremely hard and we are delighted with her award. She has helped develop an important model that will help us better understand the role of sensory nerves in chronic pain and cough.” Pharmacist and CEO of Bionorica, Dr Michael Popp said: “Such a large and high-quality response to the first-time call for submissions proves that herbal medicine is gaining further relevance among the scientific community.”

For more information on Queen’s Centre for Infection and Immunity see

For media inquiries please contact Michelle Cassidy on 028 9097 5310 (Thurs-Fri) or Una Bradley on 028 9097 5320 (Mon-Wed) at Queen’s Communications Office or email

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Queen’s scientist to help find new options to treat aggressive breast cancers

A Queen’s University scientist has been awarded a grant worth around £100,000 by research charity Breast Cancer Campaign to investigate if the protein ‘PIN1’ could be used to provide new options to treat patients with more aggressive forms of breast cancer.

50,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year on average and 12,000 women sadly die from the disease each year on average. Around 15 per cent of breast cancers are found to be ‘triple-negative’- a type of breast cancer that tends to be more aggressive and has limited treatment options. 

In some cases of triple-negative breast cancer (and the related ‘basal-like’ breast cancer), a protein called BRCA1 does not work normally. Dr Niamh O’Brien, from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s University Belfast, says: “Currently, there are drugs in development which could treat breast cancers that lack a working BRCA1 protein, but it is difficult to identify which patients would benefit from these drugs. Identifying the right treatment for a particular patient will greatly improve their chances of survival and help stop more people dying from breast cancer.”

“At Queen’s University we are committed to world leading research which advances knowledge and changes lives and thanks to the funding from Breast Cancer Campaign we are able to continue this.”

Dr O’Brien has previously identified that the production of the PIN1 protein is increased in breast cancer cells which have faulty BRCA1 genes. She believes that PIN1 might therefore be used as the basis of a test to indicate which patients would benefit from these drugs. Using lab-grown breast cancer cells, Dr O’Brien will find the link between the faulty BRCA1 genes and the increase in PIN1 protein production.

Using samples from breast tumours donated by patients, Dr O’Brien will also find out whether PIN1 could be used to predict the likelihood of a patient’s breast cancer spreading, and whether they will respond to existing treatments.

Katherine Woods, Research Communication Manager at Breast Cancer Campaign, said: “Triple-negative and basal-like breast cancer tend to be more aggressive types of the disease, but sadly there are currently no targeted treatments available.

“Dr O’Brien’s research could greatly improve the chances of survival for people with more aggressive forms of the disease and bring us one step closer to our goal that by 2025 more improved and personalised treatments for breast cancer will reduce mortality from the disease by half.”

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Bats use polarised light to navigate

Queen’s University scientists have discovered that greater mouse-eared bats use polarisation patterns in the sky to navigate, making it the first mammal that is known to do this.

The bats use the way the sun’s light is scattered in the atmosphere at sunset to calibrate their internal magnetic compass, which helps them to fly in the right direction, according to a study published in Nature Communications.

Despite this breakthrough, researchers have no idea how they manage to detect polarised light.

Dr Richard Holland, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, co-author of the study, said: “We know that other animals use polarisation patterns in the sky, and we have at least some idea how they do it: bees have specially-adapted photoreceptors in their eyes, and birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles all have cone cell structures in their eyes which may help them to detect polarisation.  But we don’t know which structure these bats might be using.”

Polarisation patterns depend on where the sun is in the sky. They are clearest in a strip across the sky 90 degrees from the position of the sun at sunset or sunrise.

But animals can still see the patterns long after sunset. This means they can orient themselves even when they cannot see the sun, including when it is cloudy. Scientists have even shown that dung beetles use the polarisation pattern of moonlight for orientation.

A hugely diverse range of creatures – including bees, anchovies, birds, reptiles and amphibians – use the patterns as a compass to work out which way is north, south, east and west.

Stefan Greif, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, lead author of the study, said: “Every night through the spring, summer and autumn, bats leave their roosts in caves, trees and buildings to search for insect prey. They might range hundreds of kilometres in a night, but return to their roosts before sunrise to avoid predators. But, until now, how they achieved such feats of navigation was not clear.”

Even so, previous studies suggested that bats might detect polarisation patterns when they emerge from their caves at dusk.

He said: “Most people are familiar with bats using echolocation to get around. But that only works up to about 50 metres, so we knew they had to be using another of their senses for longer range navigation.”

In a bid to shed light on the matter the team at Queen’s University and colleagues from Tel Aviv University showed 70 adult, female mouse-eared bats one of two different types of polarisation patterns at sunset.

They then took them to one of two release sites in Bulgaria about 20 to 25 kilometres from their home roost. They released the bats at 01:00am – when no polarisation is visible – and followed the direction they set off in using small radio transmitters attached to their backs.

They found the bats that had been shown a shifted pattern of polarised light headed off in a direction shifted at right angles from the controls released at the same time.

Bats probably use a suite of senses, including the position of the sun or the stars, the earth’s magnetic field, smells, sight, and of course, echolocation to navigate.

Many bat species are declining across Europe, despite being protected. Ironically, wind turbines are seriously harming their populations.

Dr Holland, said: “We know that bats must be ‘seeing’ the turbines, but it seems that the air pressure patterns around working turbines give the bats what’s akin to the bends.  It is most common in migratory species, with around 300,000 bats affected every year in Europe alone. You just find bats dead at the bottom of these turbines. One option is to reduce turbine activity during times of peak migration.

Bats provide a vital service that tends to be overlooked – they are natural pest controllers. It is estimated that they save us millions of pounds in pesticides by eating insects.  Anything we can do to understand how they get about, how they move and navigate will be a step forward in helping to protect them.”

The study was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council grant to Dr Richard Holland and by the Max Planck Society.

Media inquiries to Claire O’Callaghan, Queen’s University Communications Office, Tel: +44 (0)28 9097 3087 email:

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