Chronic Pain Treatment wins SFI Future Innovator Prize

Dr Alison Liddy
May 08 2020 Posted: 14:19 IST

Minister for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation, Heather Humphreys, TD, today announced the first winner of the SFI Future Innovator Prize, Dr Alison Liddy and her project team at NUI Galway. Dr Liddy and the project team have been awarded €1million for their project, Hydrobloc, a novel and transformative treatment for people suffering from chronic pain.

A special prize of €500,000 was also awarded to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his team at PEARlabs, University College Dublin (UCD), in recognition of the potential impact of their project to develop a novel, nanoscale biological imaging technology.

The SFI Future Innovator Prize, funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through Science Foundation Ireland, is part of an overall government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland. This prize challenges the country’s best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end-users.

Commenting on the awards Minister Humphreys, TD, said: “Congratulations to the Hydrobloc team on winning this prestigious award and leading the way with this much needed novel and innovative treatment for chronic pain. Such was the potential from this Challenge Funding programme, that a special award was received by the PEARlabs team for their pioneering research in nano-microscopy. At this time, as we battle an unprecedented pandemic we clearly need disruptive science and technology to help us find solutions. I am delighted to support the SFI Future Innovator Prize programme and wish the winning teams all the best as they continue their journey and further develop their concepts for the benefit of society.”

Minister for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development, John Halligan added:I extend my congratulations and look forward to seeing these innovative concepts come to fruition. In the current climate and this rapidly changing world, fast response and agility are required in order to tackle the enormous societal issues we face. The challenge funding model, in tandem with our traditional research models, gives us a greater chance of developing the tools to help us quickly address current crises with dynamic and transformative solutions.” 

The SFI Future Innovator Prize has a strong team focus with each member bringing necessary expertise to advance the project. Teams work to tight deadlines, with the necessary supports and flexibility, in order to accelerate progression towards their proposed solutions.

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland said: “The SFI Future Innovator Prize is part of an approach to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland to accelerate and validate excellent and innovative solutions to critical societal and global issues. The Hydrobloc team headed by Dr Alison Liddy proved to be worthy first winners, successfully completing all aspects of this demanding and disruptive programme with the potential to alleviate chronic neuropathic pain with a novel nanogel. I am delighted to say that the calibre of research supported has been so high that a special award was made to Prof Dominic Zerulla and his team for their novel imaging technology.”

Chronic neuropathic pain sufferers live with constant pain, which has a significant personal and societal impact. Neuropathic pain is caused by damage or disease affecting the sensory nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information).  It is estimated that 8% of the European population suffer from neuropathic pain, 300,000 in Ireland alone. The Hydrobloc nanogel (a nanogel is a tiny particle of submicroscopic size) provides long term pain relief which is drug free without the severe side effects of prescription medications.

On winning the Final Prize Dr Alison Liddy said:“The SFI Future Innovator Prize has been pivotal in allowing the Hydrobloc team at NUIG to significantly progress our research and realise its potential. We are honoured to win the final prize and have no doubt after being through the programme that there is a world class level of innovative talent in Ireland which will benefit our country in the future.”

The SFI Future Innovator Prize has enabled the Hydrobloc project to significantly progress along the patient pathway, further validate the clinical need among stakeholders, expand potential clinical indications, and develop and refine the core technology through extensive pre-clinical testing.

Asked about the experience of participating in the Future Innovator Prize programme, Dr Liddy added:A unique aspect of the challenge programme is the social impact element which emphasised the societal aspects of our solution with crucial input not just from clinicians, but also from patients. By incorporating this Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) paradigm we have integrated the voice of the patient into Hydrobloc and ensured that the core goal is the development of a treatment that will improve the lives of patients living with debilitating pain. The programme has also introduced us to an exciting network of brilliantly innovative scientists and importantly has opened the door to investors.”

The UCD PEARlabs team, led by Prof Dominic Zerulla, UCD School of Physics, developed a highly innovative imaging solution that enables super-fast real-time nanoscale optical microscopy. This aims to transform our understanding of processes such as cell signalling and cell proliferation in cancer. Their project was entitled, Enabling Next Generation Biological Imaging.

On receiving the Award, Prof Dominic Zerulla, founder PEARlabs said: “I am delighted to receive this award, which is verification that the transformative potential of our disruptive imaging method has been recognised. Our PEARlabs technology will allow life science researchers to understand bio-medically relevant mechanisms to enable an unparalleled in-depth understanding of life-threatening diseases such as cancer and pandemic viral infections, including the coronavirus. This will in turn facilitate the development of faster drug delivery and testing.”

The patented technology can therefore aid early diagnostics, precision medicine and the delivery of improved drug treatments. It also has the potential to be used as an add-on to conventional optical microscopes opening up access to ‘nm resolution imaging’ for many fields of science.

Asked about the experience of participating in the Future Innovator Prize challenge Prof Zerulla remarked: “Our journey to the SFI Future Innovator Prize was extremely exciting. Successfully getting through the rigorous evaluation process, consisting of three competitive rounds and being able to enthusiastically demonstrate our research to national and international expert panels was quite an experience. This external validation has been very important for PEARlabs (a UCD spin-out supported by NovaUCD) which is currently in negotiations with international investors and global companies.”

The awards will be used by the winning teams to further develop their solutions and enable them to progress their research toward having positive impacts for society.  More recently SFI launched two further challenge programmes, the Artificial Intelligence for Societal Good Challenge and the Zero Emissions Challenge in partnership with Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


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