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RCSI researcher awarded ERC Starting Grant to develop cure for lethal lung disease Innovative research uses ‘lung-in-a-dish’ drug testing platform

RCSI researcher, Professor Killian Hurley, has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant to conduct innovative research into treatments for the lethal lung condition, pulmonary fibrosis.

The project, called STAR-TEL, is one of 408 projects chosen out of almost 3,000 applications to receive ERC funding. A total value of €636 million has been awarded across all ERC Starting Grant projects.

Pulmonary fibrosis occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. While existing medications can slow the progression of the disease, currently there is no known cure, with many patients dying within three years of diagnosis as a result.

STAR-TEL will seek new personalised treatments for patients with pulmonary fibrosis by first investigating how the disease develops, and then generating new mRNA medications specifically designed for individual patients. The treatments will be tested in innovative stem cell models, known as ‘lung-in-a-dish’ models, to ensure their effectiveness and understand potential side effects prior to administering them to patients.

The drugs will be targeted at the lungs specifically, so that patients only get the treatment where they need it. It is hoped this will result in life-changing personalised treatments for patients with this devastating lung disease.

Professor Hurley, who is a Principal Investigator in RCSI’s Department of Medicine and Tissue Engineering Research Group and Consultant Respiratory Physician at Beaumont Hospital, commented on the award: “I am delighted to receive an ERC Starting Grant to help STAR-TEL find new personalised treatments for patients with pulmonary fibrosis. By developing the ‘lung-in-a-dish’ models in the lab using adult stem cells, we can learn if medications work for individual patients and about the side effects or toxicity of drugs before ever giving them to real-life patients. Our overall aim is to better understand how pulmonary fibrosis happens and to provide improved medications to patients, allowing them to live normal and healthy lives.”

RCSI’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor Fergal O’Brien, welcomed the announcement, saying: “I congratulate Professor Hurley on this prestigious award from the European Research Council, which is testament to the high-quality health sciences research taking place at RCSI. We are very proud to be hosting another ERC award in RCSI and it’s a real testament to the quality of Professor Hurley’s own research and his developing international reputation. The STAR-TEL project will do important work to deepen our understanding of pulmonary fibrosis and how it can be treated, and ultimately help to improve the lives of those who suffer from it.”

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe.

ERC Starting Grants are designed to support excellent Principal Investigators (PIs) who are starting their own independent research team or programme. The PIs must demonstrate the ground-breaking nature, ambition and feasibility of their scientific proposal.

President of the European Research Council Professor Maria Leptin said: “It is a pleasure to see this new group of bright minds at the start of their careers, set to take their research to new heights. I cannot emphasise enough that Europe as a whole – both at national and at EU level – has to continue to back and empower its promising talent. We must encourage young researchers who are led by sheer curiosity to go after their most ambitious scientific ideas. Investing in them and their frontier research is investing in our future.”

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