Researchers receive €2.35 million to examine disease pathways of viruses

Two University College Dublin (UCD) researchers and SiriusXT, a UCD spin-out company, have been awarded a total of €2.35 million in funding for a disruptive photonics technology project, through Horizon 2020, the EU's research and innovation program, to examine the disease pathways of viruses.

The company and the UCD researchers, Assistant Professor Nicola Fletcher, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine and Fellow, UCD Conway Institute and Professor Dimitri Scholz, Director of Biological Imaging, UCD Conway Institute, are partners in an international project, CoCID, which has received a total of €5.67 million in funding.

The aim of the 4-year CoCID (Compact Cell-Imaging Device) project, which is being led by SiriusXT, is to provide insights into the cellular origins of viral diseases including; hepatitis C, hepatitis E, herpesvirus and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and to aid in the development of novel therapeutics using the company's novel soft x-ray microscope.

Changes in a cell's shape and in the shape of its internal organelle, are important influencers on the cell signalling mechanisms that underpin disease causation.

For this reason, 3D imaging of the internal structure of whole and intact cells is playing an increasingly important role in helping scientists to understand diseases. The only technology that can image through the whole substructure of an intact cell, is low energy (or 'soft') x-ray microscopy.

Based on research carried out at the UCD School of Physics over many years, SiriusXT has developed and patented a miniaturised soft x-ray source, allowing it to build the first commercial, lab-scale, soft x-ray microscope.

This breakthrough is revolutionising the cell imaging market by opening up access for a proven imaging modality to thousands of disease researchers worldwide including those partnering in the CoCID project.

Tony McEnroe, CEO and co-founder, SiriusXT, saidL

This project award not only helps fund the advancement of our SXT-100 microscope, it also allows SiriusXT to collaborate closely with European leaders in virology research to demonstrate the benefits of soft x-ray microscopy in progressing their understanding of pathogen infection pathways."

Stephen O'Reilly, National Contact Point for the Horizon 2020 ICT programme in Enterprise Ireland, said, "CoCID is a great win for Ireland and continues the excellent performance of Irish researchers and innovators who punch well above their weight when it comes to photonics in Horizon 2020 as €2.35m of this €5.67m project is going to SiriusXT and UCD. SiriusXT is an excellent example of an Enterprise Ireland HPSU spin-out that is engaging with the national and European research systems to support their scaling strategy."

The CoCID project will enable UCD researchers gain early access to the SiriusXT soft x-ray microscope as part of the core imaging facility at the UCD Conway Institute. In addition Assistant Professor Nicola Fletcher will use the soft x-ray microscopy as one of the four CoCID use cases to accelerate research studies into understanding cross-species transmission mechanisms of the hepatitis E virus.

Assistant Professor Nicola Fletcher, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine, said, "Soft x-ray microscopy is an extremely exciting, potentially game changing technique that will allow us to visualise virally infected cells in exquisite detail. We will investigate the mechanisms by which hepatitis E virus, an emerging infectious disease that is transmitted to humans from infected animals, infects cells from different species. The ultimate aim is to explore new treatment options for this important viral infection."

Professor William Gallagher, Director, UCD Conway Institute said:

The addition of this innovative imaging modality to the existing suite of instruments in the core imaging facility is very welcome. Not only does it provide researchers internationally with unique insights to disease pathways, particularly in relation to virus-host interactions, but allows correlation of these images with fluorescence and electron microscopes available in the facility."

In addition to SiriusXT and UCD the other CoCID project partners are; Heidelberg University Hospital Molecular Virology and Heidelberg University Centre for Organismal Studies in Germany, University of Jyväskylä, Finland; Centro Nacional de Biotecnologia and Alba Synchrotron - Mistral Beamline in Spain.

SiriusXT supported by NovaUCD, the University's Centre for New Ventures and Entrepreneurs, was co-founded by Dr Kenneth Fahy, Dr Paul Sheridan, Dr Fergal O'Reilly and Tony McEnroe in 2015 as a spin-out from the UCD School of Physics. The award-winning company, which is also an Enterprise Ireland high potential start-up, has now raised over €12 million in grant and equity funding.

Dr Fergal O'Reilly, UCD School of Physics said, "The Atomic, Molecular and Plasma Physics Group is delighted to see technology, which was developed in the UCD School of Physics, being deployed in this important international interdisciplinary research project.The Group continues to collaborate with SiriusXT in many aspects of microscopy development."

Enterprise Ireland leads the national support network for Horizon 2020, working to increase participation by Irish companies and academic institutions in the EU's main instrument for funding research in Europe.

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