By Fergus Efe O’Donoghue
NUI Galway is set to host an all-Ireland Centre for Research Training in Genomics Data Science on its campus over the course of the next seven years.
The centre is one of six funded by the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the first to have an Ireland wide remit, bringing cross-border collaboration.
Up to 115 PhD students are going to be trained during the course of the project, which is likely going to be initially assigned a room on the Arts/Science Concourse ground floor.
All of the students are going to pass through NUI Galway, but partnerships across the island for the project include Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, and Royal College of Surgeons Ireland.
“What it brings to NUI Galway really is an opportunity to take leadership, in what is a really important area of science, that has great capacity for economic developments, but also to improve people’s lives, in terms of genomics and its healthcare applications,” said Professor Cathal Seoighe, director of the Centre and Professor of Bioinformatics in NUI Galway.
Bioinformatics, as a field, is simply defined as the analysis and interpretation of biological data and can involve a broad scope of disciplines, such as computer science, biology, and statistics.
“It does offer NUI Galway a chance to step up to the plate and to say ‘look, we can take on a leadership role here, we can try to make sure that genomics gets incorporated appropriately into healthcare…” said Professor Seoighe.
Academic research in Ireland is typically highly cooperative, with most competitors being international.
“They see that (Bioinformatics, ICT) as areas where there will be high-skilled employment in the future. You don’t want a workforce who are trained to do jobs that are no longer relevant… So basically, we’re training data scientists, and data scientists are the hot new thing of the career space.”
Genomics has impacts across a broad range of sectors, including human health, industrial biotechnology, food science and agriculture. In health, genomics is already beginning to be used to diagnose rare genetic disorders. For example, around 30% of children with early onset epilepsy can now receive a precision diagnosis through genomic sequencing. It can also predict the risk of common, complex disorders, such as obesity and Type II Diabetes, in which lifestyle plays a role, raising the possibility of interventions targeted towards at-risk individuals
On the importance of genomic research, Professor Seoighe added: “Cancer is essentially a disease of the genome… We can sequence the human genome and we can now do it fairly cheaply, but because cancer is a disease of the genome, we can also sequence the cancer. We can find: what are the specific mutations that would enable that cancer cell to go rogue? That’s really important, and that guides how you treat that cancer.”
New cancer therapies now target specific genomic mutations found in cancer cells, particularly in the case of lung, colorectal, skin, breast and some blood cancers. By sequencing the genome of the cancer cells, these treatments can be tailored to individual patients.
Genomic sequencing can also, therefore, be used to help treat illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis (MS), of which Ireland has the highest incidence of occurrence in Europe.
The SFI Centre was officially launched at a conference on the 3rd of September, attended by President of NUI Galway Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, in which the college obtained the funding, initially set aside for ICT in June 2018 – on the grounds that the bioinformatic research would pave the way for clearer insights into artificial intelligence.