05-2012 Press Releases

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£425K Queen’s study could lead to new treatments for reversing symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

A novel study at Queen’s University Belfast which could eventually lead to new treatments for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) has been awarded £425K by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Currently some 100,000 people in the United Kingdom have MS which affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and eye, to communicate with each other effectively.

The new study, based in Queen’s Centre for Infection and Immunity, will investigate how parts of the immune system can help repair the damage caused by MS attacks. 

The project is being led by Dr Denise Fitzgerald, who herself experienced a condition similar to MS, called Transverse Myelitis when she was 21. As a result of inflammation in her spinal cord, she was paralysed in less than two hours.

Dr Fitzgerald had to learn to walk again as the damage in her spinal cord repaired itself over the following months and years. It is this natural repair process that often becomes inefficient in MS, a chronic life-long condition, and this failure of repair can lead to permanent disability.
Boosting this natural repair process in the brain and spinal cord is the next frontier in treating MS, as currently there are no drugs that are proven to do so.

Speaking about the importance of the new study, Dr Fitzgerald said: “The central goal of our research is to identify new strategies to treat MS and other inflammatory and demyelinating disorders.

“Nerve cells communicate by sending signals along nerve fibres which are contained within a fatty, insulating, protective substance, known as Myelin. In MS, Myelin is attacked and damaged (demyelination) which can lead to either faulty signalling by nerves, or death of the nerve cells. As a result, patients experience loss of nerve function in the area of the brain/spinal cord that has been damaged. This research project centres around understanding Myelination, a process of insulating the nerve fibres with Myelin, and Remyelination, a natural regenerative process that replaces damaged Myelin.

“We already know that the immune system is implicated as a potential culprit in MS, as the damage is thought to be caused by inflammation in the central nervous system (CNS; brain, spinal cord and optic nerve). But in recent years we have learned a great deal about how the immune system also supports tissue repair in the CNS.

“In particular, there is a group of immune cells called T cells which have recently been shown to support remyelination. There are different subsets of T cells, however, and little is still known about which subsets are beneficial in this process. In our study we aim to discover if these different T cell subsets influence remyelination of the CNS, and if ageing of the T cells impairs remyelination in older individuals.

“The outcomes of this study will include new knowledge of how the immune system, and T cells in particular, influence remyelination in the Central Nervous System. We will also learn a great deal about how ageing affects the ability of T cells to help tissue repair.

“Given the profound neurological impairments that can accompany ageing, and our growing aged population, is it imperative that we understand how normal CNS  repair can become impaired with age.

“By understanding this process of CNS repair in detail. we will also gain an insight into other inflammatory and demyelinating disorders.”

Further information on Dr Fitzgerald’s research group within the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Queen’s University Belfast can be found online at http://go.qub.ac.uk/FitzgeraldGroup

Media inquiries to Lisa McElroy, Senior Communications Officer. Tel: +44(0)28 90 97 5384 or email lisa.mcelroy@qub.ac.uk

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National recognition for Queen's University
(l-r) Kevin Mulhern, Head of Communications and External Affairs; Internal Communications Officer, Claire Patterson; Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Academic Planning, Staffing and External Relations, Professor Tony Gallagher, and Jennifer Harrison, Public Affairs Officer.
(l-r) Kevin Mulhern, Head of Communications and External Affairs; Internal Communications Officer, Claire Patterson; Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Academic Planning, Staffing and External Relations, Professor Tony Gallagher, and Jennifer Harrison, Public Affairs Officer.

Queen’s University Belfast has won a national CIPR Excellence Award for its campaign to safeguard the future of higher education in Northern Ireland.

Recognised as the ultimate public relations accolade in the UK, the University’s Communications and External Affairs Office (CEAO) received the Excellence Award in the Integrated and Marcomms Campaigns category for its Higher Education Funding Campaign.

At the time of the campaign, the Higher Education sector in Northern Ireland was dealing with a loss of £28m through efficiency savings, with a further £40m cut also being considered. In light of this, Queen’s developed their campaign in early 2011 to demonstrate the value of higher education in Northern Ireland, and gain support for maintaining levels of government funding in the sector. In September of that year, The First and Deputy First Ministers announced that additional government funds have been secured to meet the Higher Education funding gap.

During the ceremony, which was held at the Hilton Park Lane Hotel in London, and attended by 900 PR professionals from across the UK, the judges praised Queen’s campaign as “A model cost-effective, integrated campaign”, adding “It was a seemingly impossible challenge: to overturn a political decision to slash Higher Education funding by £40m and safeguard the future of the knowledge economy in Northern Ireland. Yet, through a concerted blend of PR and public affairs, the team engaged with diverse stakeholders through multiple communications tactics to rally political representatives, staff, University alumni, business leaders, teachers and prospective students.”
Commenting on the award the University's Head of Communications and External Affairs Kevin Mulhern said: "This is a great honour for Queen's and in particular the Communications and External Affairs team who played an exceptional role in securing a national CIPR award. The strength of the entry was recognised by the judging panel who described it as a model, cost effective, integrated campaign.
"Staff, students, alumni and friends of Queen's should also be thanked for supporting the campaign, as without their valued contribution higher education in Northern Ireland would have been greatly weakened."  

Queen’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tony Gallagher, who oversaw the campaign, said: “Ensuring we have a sustainable higher education sector is of vital importance to everyone in Northern Ireland. This award is recognition of Queen’s efforts to demonstrate the positive impact the University has on all aspects of life in Northern Ireland, and also provides us with another opportunity to thank all of those who supported us in the course of our successful campaign.”

Compere for the event was British Olympic Medallist, Colin Jackson, CBE. The evening commenced with Lord Coe KBE being presented with the CIPR’s President’s Medal for his outstanding contribution to public relations surrounding the Olympics.

Queen’s Communications and External Affairs Office has also been shortlisted for a Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award in the Outstanding Marketing and Communications Team category to be announced in London next month.

Media inquiries to Lisa McElroy, Senior Communications Officer. Tel: 028 90 97 5384 or email lisa.mcelroy@qub.ac.uk

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Royal Irish Academy honours for leading Queen’s scholars

Four of Queen’s academic staff have been admitted as new Members of the Royal Irish Academy. Professors Liam Kennedy, Aaron Maule, John McGarvey and Stephen Smartt were among only 22 academics on the island of Ireland to achieve this highest academic distinction.
For 227 years, membership of the Royal Irish Academy has been keenly competed for, as it is the highest academic honour in Ireland and a public recognition of academic achievement.
Members of the Academy include: Seamus Heaney, Frances Ruane (ESRI), Mary Robinson, Patrick Cunningham (ESOF Dublin 2012), Maurice Manning (NUI Chancellor), Patrick Honohan (Central Bank), Mary Canning (HEA) and writer and cartographer Tim Robinson.
Liam Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Queen’s, with expertise in nineteenth - and twentieth-century Irish economic and social history.  In recent years he has published major work on long-run change in Irish history, reconstructing prices, wages and living standards from the later seventeenth century to the present, and he has re-examined the evolving ethno-religious composition of Irish regions since the 1660s.
Aaron Maule is Professor of Molecular Parasitology and Director of Research for Molecular Biosciences at Queen’s.  He is recognised internationally as a world-leading authority on neuropeptide systems as exploitable targets for parasite control.  Recent progress includes development of reverse genetic platforms in parasitic worms, facilitating drug/vaccine target validation.  He holds a number of prestigious awards/medals from learned societies in the UK and USA.
John McGarvey is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Queen’s. A physical chemist, he is renowned for his work in Raman and resonance - Raman spectroscopy applied to the spectroscopy and photophysics of metal complexes. Currently, he collaborates with colleagues in the Centre for Vision and Vascular Science at Queen’s in assessing the potential of Raman techniques for study of degenerative eye diseases.
Stephen Smartt is Professor of Astrophysics at Queen’s University Belfast, and Director of the Astrophysics Research Centre. He is a recognised world leader in supernova explosions and has directly discovered the progenitor stars that cause supernovae. A former EURYI award winner and Philip Leverhulme Prize winner, he now holds a European Research Centre Advanced Grant. He leads a large group at Queen’s, with highly cited research outputs.
There are now 466 members of the Academy, in disciplines from the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Those elected are entitled to use the designation ‘MRIA’ after their name.

For further information, please contact the Communications Office, 028 9097 3091, comms.office@qub.ac.uk

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New exhibition highlights change and diversity in the Union Flag
Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies
Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies

An exhibition showcasing almost 40 versions of the Union Flag will open in Belfast this evening (Thursday 24 May).

The Union Flag: Change and Diversity will run at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University until 10 June. The exhibition features 39 versions of the Union Flag, including how it could look if Scotland was ever to leave the UK. The flags were collected by the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s during the Flags Monitoring Project - an annual survey of the political symbols on display on the main roads and town centres in Northern Ireland in July each year between 2006 and 2010.

Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s, said: “This year has seen the Union Flag enjoy a revival across the UK as a result of the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee.

“Whether emblazoned on Jubilee merchandise or flying from lampposts during the marching season, most of us are familiar with the modern-day Union Jack. While its meaning may appear obvious and consistent, the variety of flags we have collected suggests otherwise. This exhibition shows how the flag has evolved through time, and how it may continue to change in the future.

“The current flag, which has been used since 1801, comprises elements of the flags of the three ‘kingdoms’ of the UK –the St George’s Cross, the St Andrew’s Cross, and the Cross of St Patrick. But what if Scotland was to leave the Union? As the debate over Scottish independence runs on, the exhibition explores how the flag would look without the St Andrew’s Cross.

“In Northern Ireland the Union Flag is primarily associated with the unionist or loyalist community, but the exhibition shows how it has also been used to represent diversity in our society. It includes a pink Union Jack, sometimes used at  gay pride events, and a black version created to reflect multicultural Britain and counter the argument  that ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

“The exhibition shows how the Union Flag has been re-imagined and reinvented to commemorate specific events, such as Royal weddings, the end of World War Two and the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant, and leaves us to ponder how it might continue to change in the future. We also have one of the many tattered Union lags left up on a lamppost over the winter months”

Dr Gordon Gillespie from the Institute of Irish Studies said: “The ability to manufacture flags so cheaply, most of which are imported from the Far East, has made it easier for groups to design and display a variety of flags in large quantities. The flags on lampposts in Northern Ireland are, in that sense, a product of globalisation.”

The Union Flag: Change and Diversity will run at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s until 10 June 2012 (Tuesday-Sunday, 11am-4pm). Admission is free. For more information visit www.naughtongallery.org

Media inquiries to the Communications Office at Queen's University Belfast Tel: 00 44 (0)28 9097 3091 or comms.office@qub.ac.uk

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Distress of child war and sex abuse victims halved by new trauma intervention

 A new psychological intervention has been shown to more than halve the trauma experienced by child victims of war, rape and sexual abuse.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast pioneered the intervention in conjunction with the international NGO, World Vision as part of a wider programme to treat psychological distress in child victims of war and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Eastern Congo has the world’s highest rate of sexual violence. Known as ‘the rape capital of the world’, it is estimated that girls and women in the eastern DRC are 134 times more likely to be raped than their counterparts in the West.

After only 15 sessions of the new group-based Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (TF-CBT), Queen’s researchers found reductions of:

  • 72 per cent in trauma symptoms in female victims of rape and sexual abuse
  • 81 per cent in feelings of depression and anxiety
  • 72 per cent decrease in conduct disorder
  • 64 per cent decrease in anti-social behaviour

In war-affected countries, such as the DRC, victims of rape and sexual violence often do not receive any psychological or even medical help.

In the Queen’s study, the children received sessions of trauma psycho-education, relaxation techniques, mental imagery techniques, and tips on how to identify and change particular inaccurate or unhelpful cognitions. The girls also drew pictures of their most traumatic events and were encouraged to talk about these events in individual sessions with Queen’s psychologists and a team of Congolese counsellors who were trained by the University’s lead researchers, Paul O’Callaghan and John McMullen.

Speaking about the implications of the results for treating child victims of war and sexual abuse worldwide, Paul O’Callaghan, from Queen’s School of Psychology said: “In war-affected areas, victims will often not seek, or receive help of any kind.  This is because wives fear that their husbands will reject them, and girls fear that they will be unable to marry if it is known that they have been violated. Stigma is also compounded by the fact that many of these rapes are carried out by undisciplined militias operating in remote and inaccessible parts of the country and the nearest hospital or clinic is many miles away.

 “It is not surprising that studies show sexual abuse to have a profoundly detrimental effect on the mental health of girls in war-affected countries, but what is surprising was just how successful the intervention was in reducing psychological distress.

"This is the first time that such a therapy has been used in this way. Although Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has the greatest evidence for its effectiveness in treating child victims of sexual violence in the West, to date no study has ever adapted it for use in developing countries affected by the twin evils of war and sexual violence.

“The dramatic reduction in trauma, depression and anxiety, conduct problems and anti-social behaviour shows that this kind of therapy is very effective in treating war-affected children who have been exposed to rape and sexual violence.  In addition to the statistical results of the therapy many of the girls attested to how the intervention helped reduced their terrible nightmares, disturbing flashbacks and suicidal thinking. For me, that was the most rewarding part of our work in the DRC.”

The study, which took place over five weeks in 2011, also treated the psychological distress of 50 war affected boys between the ages of 12 and 17. It was shown to dramatically reduce levels of trauma, depression and anxiety, conduct disorder and anti-social behaviour in male child soldiers and street children.

For media inquiries please contact Claire O’Callaghan on 00 44 (0) 28 9097 5391 / 07814 415 451 or c.ocallaghan@qub.ac.uk

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Sectors join forces to improve children's lives in Northern Ireland
Some of the organisers and delegates at the recent Living in a Society which Respects their Rights seminar.
Some of the organisers and delegates at the recent Living in a Society which Respects their Rights seminar.

Representatives from government, policy, integrated planning and academia have come together at Queen’s for the first of six training seminars  based on the Ten Year Strategy for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the training programme is to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and practice in Northern Ireland on integrated outcomes based planning for children and young people.

The programme was developed in response to delegate feedback from last year's ‘Improving Children’s Lives: Outcomes, Partnership and Planning conference which indicated the need for greater focus on outcomes-based planning in the context of the six high level outcomes of the Ten Year Strategy.

The first seminar focused on the sixth outcome ‘Living in a Society which Respects their Rights.’

Paul Connolly, Chair of Improving Children’s Lives, said: “The Improving Children’s Lives initiative at Queen’s  is delighted to have this series of events endorsed by OFMDFM. We feel the ongoing collaboration between the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership, Children in Northern Ireland, Health and Social Care Board, Public Health Agency and Improving Children’s Lives has significant potential to facilitate real improvements in children’s outcomes.

“We hope that this series of six events will build on previous work by ensuring that the key message of using children’s outcomes as the focus of planning and designing their services is translated into everyday practice in Northern Ireland and beyond. It is fitting that this first event focuses on children's rights as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provides the fundamental framework for how we should approach the planning, design and delivery of children's services across the board. In this first event we will hear from leading researchers, policy-makers and service providers regarding what a rights-based approach to children's services planning looks like in theory and in practice."

These seminars will also complement and support the work already being undertaken by the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership, through the Northern Ireland Children and Young People’s Plan, whose central role is taking forward integrated planning and commissioning to improve the lives of all children and young people in Northern Ireland.

The events are co-hosted by the Improving Children’s Lives initiative (ICL), an inter-disciplinary network of leading researchers within Queen's who work with children and young people; Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI); the Health and Social Care Board (HSC); the Public Health Agency (PHA), Office of First and Deputy First Minister and the Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership.

Media inquiries to Communications Office. Tel: 028 9097 5384 or email comms.office@qub.ac.uk

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First for Belfast as Cambridge compete in Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race 2012
Crew members from Cambridge & Queen’s help launch this year’s Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race on the River Lagan on Saturday 2 June.
Crew members from Cambridge & Queen’s help launch this year’s Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race on the River Lagan on Saturday 2 June.

In a first for Belfast, the University of Cambridge will be sending some of their best rowers on Saturday, 2 June, for the Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race 2012.

Due to its increasing popularity, the event is also moving to a new home this year, with the finish line on the river now situated opposite Queen’s PEC. Over 1,000 spectators will be accommodated in the new enclosure, with live entertainment, food and refreshments available until 10pm on the day.

In another first for the event, The Outlet Village in Banbridge, is sponsoring a Best Dressed competition on the day for both men and women.

Cambridge will race against Queen’s Senior Men’s and Women’s teams who have recently achieved medal wins in Belgium, Nottingham and Portadown. At the recent British Universities and Colleges Sports Rowing Championships, Queen’s had crews in 17 ‘A’ finals and took home six medals. Queen’s Ladies’ medal at the event was their first ever, evidence of the increasing skill within the club.

In its biggest line-up yet, the event will also feature crews from Trinity College Dublin; Methodist College Belfast (MCB); Bann RC; Blackrock College Dublin and University College Dublin. Lady Victoria Boat Club will help manage the event.

Helping launch this year’s event, Mick Desmond, Queen’s Rowing Coach, said: “The Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race has grown to become a key event in the rowing calendar across the UK and Ireland. Queen’s now has a reputation as a force to be reckoned with, and with the added spice of the Cambridge crew this year, we can expect to see some very competitive action on the Lagan. The new enclosure and entertainment on offer will also ensure spectators really get the chance to enjoy an authentic rowing regatta experience.”

Rajesh Rana from race sponsors the Ramada Plaza Belfast Hotel added: “Events like the Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race are vital to Northern Ireland, both in terms of helping community spirit and as a magnet for attracting visitors to Belfast, so we are delighted to sponsor it. On a Bank Holiday weekend, it will be a tremendous family day out.”

Encouraging people to don their finery for the day, Siobhan McKeown, Marketing Manager of style sponsors The OUTLET Village Banbridge, said: “We are delighted to be involved with Queen’s University and the Boat Race. Everyone loves an opportunity to get dressed up for a great day out and this is the perfect event.  The OUTLET is the first stop for boat race-goers searching for a stylish look at great value.”

Racing starts on the day at 12.30pm with the Schools Race (Girls) between MCB and Bann RC. The Senior Women’s Race between Queen’s and Cambridge begins at 4.00pm and the Men’s Race begins at 4.30pm.

Further information on the Ramada Plaza Belfast University Boat Race, including the new course, is available online at  http://www.queenssport.com/NewsandEvents/

In addition to the Ramada Plaza Belfast Hotel, other sponsors of this year’s event include: The Outlet Village, Banbridge; the Department for Social Development (DSD); Belfast City Council and Northern Ireland Tourism.

For further information please contact: Lisa McElroy, Senior Communications Officer.Tel: 028 9097 5384, M: 0781 44 22 572 Email: lisa.mcelroy@qub.ac.uk

The race schedule on the day is listed below:
12pm:                   Enclosures open
12.30pm:              Schools Race (Girls) MCB v Bann RC
1.00pm:                Schools Race (Boys – J16) MCB v Blackrock College
1.30pm:                Toss for stations
2.00pm:                Masters Race – Queen’s v tbc
2.30pm:                Fresher Women’s Race – Queen’s v MCB
3.00pm:                Fresher Men’s Race – Queen’s v Trinity College
3.30pm:                Schools Race (Boys) - MCB v Blackrock College
4.00pm:                Senior Women’s Race – Queen’s V Cambridge
4.30pm:                Senior Men’s Race – Queen’s v Cambridge
5.00pm:                Presentation of medals and trophies
6.00pm:                Evening enclosure with entertainment and hospitality at PEC

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Award winning Mechanical Engineering students

Queen’s University Mechanical Engineering students Sam Marsden from Islandmagee, Julie Coulter from Carryduff and Vincent McKenna from Magherafelt, have each received a prestigious Engineering Leadership Advanced Award from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The esteemed awards are made to around 30 university students per year from all engineering disciplines in the UK. The awards are made only to the most outstanding undergraduates who have the desire and capability to reach the top of the engineering industry.

The £5,000 awards allow ambitious engineering undergraduates to undertake an accelerated personal development programme, helping them become leadership role models for the next generation of engineers.

Pictured L-R: Award-winning students Sam Marsden, Julie Coulter, Vincent McKenna and Dr Tony McNally, their Mentor from Queen’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

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Increase in cross-community friendships among Northern Ireland teens

An increasing number of 16 year olds in Northern Ireland have contact across both religious and ethnic divides. That’s according to new research published by Queen’s University and the University of Ulster today (Wednesday 16 May) as part of Community Relations Week.

According to the 2011 Young Life and Times Survey (YLT), which features the first set of YLT respondents born after the 1994 ceasefires, only a minority of young people report having no friends from other religious or ethnic backgrounds.

1,434 teenagers across Northern Ireland completed the YLT survey, undertaken by ARK, a joint initiative by Queen’s and the University of Ulster. The survey gives an insight into the lives of 16-year olds across Northern Ireland and has been monitoring cross-community contact and attitudes towards community relations since 2003.

Key findings published today in a report entitled No More ‘us and them’ for 16 year olds? include:

  • Cross-community friendship is more common in 2011 than in 2003. In 2011, 22 per cent of YLT respondents had no friends from the other main religious community, compared to 33 per cent in 2003.
  • In 2011, 26 per cent said that all their friends were of the same race or ethnic group, compared to 48 per cent in 2006. This suggests that young people are mixing more with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
  • Around four in 10 respondents feel favourable towards people from other religious communities or ethnic backgrounds, and around one half feel neither favourable nor unfavourable. There has been little change in these overall attitudes in recent years.
  • 66 per cent of young people very often, or sometimes, socialise or play sport with people from a different religious community, while 55 per cent do so with people from a different ethnic background.

Dr Paula Devine from the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen’s University, and co-author of the report said: “The YLT survey found that friendship patterns among 16 year olds are wider than ever before, encompassing both religious and ethnic diversity.

“While we found that 12 per cent of young people never socialise with people from a different religious community, and 16 per cent never do so with people from a different ethnic background, the comments made by young people in the survey suggest a blurring of the traditional ‘us and them’ categories - whether someone is like ‘us’ or ‘them’ is not purely based on their religious or ethnic background, but on other factors such as personality.”

Professor Gillian Robinson, Director of ARK at the University of Ulster and co-author of the report added: “ARK’s YLT survey has annually monitored community relations among young people since 2003. Changes in the political landscape in Northern Ireland have been significant during this time and the change in attitudes over time among 16-year olds reflect this.

“Participants in the 2011 YLT survey are the first YLT respondents born after the 1994 ceasefires. While the survey shows that an ‘us and them’ mentality is still evident to some degree, the main finding is that Northern Ireland today is a much more diverse society and 16-year olds’ experiences and views reflect this.”

Of the young people who completed the survey, around four out of 10 said that they felt part of the Protestant community, while a slightly higher proportion felt part of the Catholic community. One in five said that they felt part of neither community. 12 per cent of respondents considered themselves to be a member of a minority ethnic community.

This report is the first in a series of publications coming out of the 2011 YLT survey which will be made available in the coming three months. More information and results tables on the 2011 YLT survey are available from the Young Life and Times website at www.ark.ac.uk/ylt

For media enquiries please contact Anne-Marie Clarke on 00 44 (0) 28 9097 5320 or anne-marie.clarke@qub.ac.uk

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Leading cancer specialist gets top UK award

One of the UK’s leading medical researchers has been recognised for excellence in medical science. Professor Patrick Johnston, Dean of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast has been elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Professor Johnston has been honoured for outstanding contributions to the advancement of medical science and, in particular, his work on cancer research and treatment of patients.

Commenting on the prestigious accolade, Professor Johnston said: “I am delighted to have been elected a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. It is an honour and privilege to have had my contribution to medical science, in particular my contribution to cancer research and cancer patients recognised in this way.”

Welcoming the announcement, Queen’s University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Peter Gregson said: “This is a tremendous personal accolade for one of the UK’s finest cancer researchers. Professor Johnston’s award is further recognition of the outstanding work he is doing at Queen’s University as he continues to build an internationally recognised School and Institute of Health Sciences that will have both a local and global impact.

The Academy’s Fellows are the United Kingdom’s leading medical scientists and are elected for outstanding contribution to the advancement of medical science, for innovative application of scientific knowledge or for their conspicuous service to healthcare. Professor Johnston will be formally admitted to the Academy at a ceremony in London on Wednesday 27 June 2012.

Media inquiries to Kevin Mulhern, Head of Communications and External Affairs, Queen’s University Belfast, 028 9097 3259 or email k.mulhern@qub.ac.uk

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Study shows Avastin has similar effect to Lucentis in treating most common cause of blindness in the developed world

The one year results from a study into whether two drug treatments (Lucentis and Avastin), are equally effective in treating neovascular or wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD), have been reported today at an international research meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.* The findings will also appear online shortly in the leading journal Ophthalmology.

Wet AMD is a common cause of loss of vision in older people. In the UK, around 70 per cent of people will experience severe loss of sight within two years of being diagnosed.

For four years, a team of scientists and eye specialists from 23 hospitals and UK universities, including Queen’s University Belfast, University of Bristol, University of Liverpool, University of Southampton and University of Oxford, have worked to investigate whether Lucentis and Avastin are equally effective. 

610 people with wet AMD entered a trial, known as IVAN, which is one of the largest ever carried out in the field of eye disease in the UK.

The IVAN study’s one year results show there was no functional difference in the effects of both drugs and that the effects of Lucentis and Avastin on preventing vision loss were similar.

The study also indicates that in the UK, the NHS could save £84.5 million annually, based on injecting 17,295 eyes each year, by switching from Lucentis to Avastin, and administering the treatment on an as-needed basis.

Patients received injections of the drug into the affected eye every month for the first three. Groups were then subdivided to receive either injections at every visit thereafter or only if the specialist decided there was persistent disease.

The study also investigated whether treatment as needed is as effective as monthly treatment, and revealed that giving the drugs as needed, compared to regularly every month, resulted in almost identical levels of vision. The ‘as needed’ group received on average seven injections over the first year compared to 12 for the monthly treatment group.

Professor Usha Chakravarthy of Queen’s University Belfast’s Centre for Vision and Vascular Science, who led the research study team said: “The IVAN results at the end of the first year show that Lucentis and Avastin have similar effectiveness. Regardless of the drug received, or treating monthly or as needed, sight in the affected eye improved by between one and two lines on a standard eye test.”

The one year results from the IVAN study complement the one year findings of a sister study, CATT, performed in the United States which reported last year. In addition, people in IVAN had their ability to read small print and their reading speed tested, and these tests also showed no difference between drugs or methods of treatment.

With respect to possible adverse effects of the drugs, in IVAN a slightly higher rate of arteriothromboembolic events (mainly heart attacks and strokes) or heart failure was observed among people treated with Lucentis compared with Avastin, which was not observed in CATT.  When the results of the two trials were combined no difference in heart attacks or strokes was observed between the two drugs. 

Both IVAN and CATT have consistently shown no difference in mortality between the groups receiving different drugs in the elderly study populations, but both found a slightly higher rate of other serious adverse events in those who received Avastin. This evidence became stronger when the results were combined.

The researchers state that the findings in relation to adverse events may not be attributed to Avastin directly due to a number of reasons, including that events were more common in patients treated less frequently, and that they arose mainly from hospitalisations for a wide variety of causes not previously associated with either drug.

The IVAN study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Technology Assessment (NIHR HTA) programme. Funding was also provided by the Health and Social Care Research and Development Division (HSC R&D), Public Health Agency (PHA).

Belfast Health and Social Care Trust sponsored the study. Professor Ian Young, Director of Research and Development at the Trust said: “Clinical trials of this standard and breadth are of vital importance to the NHS, and our clinicians, in enabling us to provide optimal patient care. I congratulate the research team in reaching this milestone in such a challenging study.”

Dr Michael Neely, Assistant Director, HSC R&D Division, PHA, said: “We are delighted that a trial of such international significance was led from Belfast Health and Social Care Trust. It is hoped that the support of the Northern Ireland Clinical Research Network will allow further trials of this kind to be instigated and led by Northern Ireland-based researchers.”

The IVAN study is continuing to follow participants to two years. A more detailed analysis will be presented when the two year time point is reached.

The hospitals and universities involved in the trial include: Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge; Aintree University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; Aston University Day Hospital, Birmingham; Blackburn Royal Infirmary; Blackpool Victoria Hospital; Bradford Royal Infirmary; Brighton and Sussex University Hospital; Bristol Eye Hospital; Frimley Park Hospital, Surrey; Maidstone Hospital; Manchester Royal Eye Hospital; New Cross Hospital, Wolverhampton; Oxford Eye Hospital at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust; Queen Elisabeth Hospital, King’s Lynn; Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham; Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast; Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle; Southampton General Hospital; Southend Hospital; St Paul’s Eye Unit, Royal Liverpool University Hospital; Sunderland Eye Hospital; The Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre; The Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield  and Torbay Hospital.

Media inquiries to Lisa McElroy, Senior Communications Officer, Queen’s University Belfast. Tel: +44 (0)781 44 22 572 or email lisa.mcelroy@qub.ac.uk

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Queen’s scientists discover black hole ripping apart star
Simulation of Black Hole Flare
Simulation of Black Hole Flare

Astronomers from Queen’s University Belfast have gathered the most direct evidence yet of a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. The Queen’s astronomers are part of the Pan-STARRS international team, whose discovery has been published in the journal Nature today (Wed, 2 May).

Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the Sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These hefty monsters lie quietly until an unsuspecting ‘victim’, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches.

Using a slew of ground and space-based telescopes, a team of astronomers led by Suvi Gezari of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has identified the victim in this case as a star rich in helium gas. The star resides in a galaxy 2.7 billion light-years away.

The observation yields insights about the harsh environment around black holes and the types of stars swirling around them.

Speaking about the discovery Professor Stephen Smartt of Queen’s Astrophysics Research Centre in the School of Maths and Physics said:  “Astronomers have spotted these stellar ‘murders’ before, but this is the first time they can identify the victim.

“What we’re seeing is a star being shredded by a monster black-hole in the centre of this distant galaxy. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way has a black hole at its centre, about a million times the mass of the sun. We can see stars whizzing around our Milky Way black hole, but they are too far away from it to be captured.

“In this case a star got too close to the black hole and was sucked right in. We’re seeing the star being shredded, heated and destroyed and as it swirls around the black hole. Suvi Gezari, team leader from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, alerted us to something unusual caught by the NASA spacecraft called GALEX, and as our computers sifted through terabytes of Pan-STARRS data, we found the tell-tale signature of the event. We knew it was something weird then.”

To find this one event, the team monitored hundreds of thousands of galaxies in ultraviolet light with the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), a space-based observatory, and in visible light with the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala, in Hawaii. Pan-STARRS, short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, scans the entire night sky for all kinds of transient phenomena, including supernovae.

The team was looking for a bright flare in ultraviolet light from the nucleus of a galaxy with a previously dormant black hole. They found one in June 2010, which was spotted with both telescopes. Both telescopes continued to monitor the flare as it reached peak brightness a month later, and then slowly began to fade over the next 12 months. The brightening event was similar to that of a supernova, but the rise to the peak was much slower, taking nearly one and a half months.

Team leader, Suvi Gezari from The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md. said: “This is the first time where we have so many pieces of evidence, and now we can put them all together to weigh the perpetrator (the black hole) and determine the identity of the unlucky star that fell victim to it. These observations also give us clues to what evidence to look for in the future to find this type of event.”

For media enquiries please contact Claire O’Callaghan on +44 (0) 28  9097 5391 / (0) 781 441 5451 or at c.ocallaghan@qub.ac.uk

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Clinical Trial Targets Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome with Cholesterol Drug

Queen’s University and NUI Galway and are leading a clinical trial to investigate the possibility that statins, a drug commonly used to combat cholesterol, might help patients with acute severe respiratory failure.

150 patients have been recruited into the trial, which is being run in collaboration with the Irish Critical Care Trials Group, across multiple intensive care units on the island of Ireland, and in England and Scotland, with a target number of 540 patients.

The research is being funded by the Health Research Board, and the Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation programme which is funded by the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, NISCHR in Wales and the HSC R&D, Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, and is managed by the NIHR.

When people become critically ill, for various reasons including major surgery or following injury in a road traffic accident, or infections such as H1N1 influenza, their lungs often fail, which is termed ‘Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome’. This condition, which is primarily caused by the body’s immune system response to the injury, is common, can affect any age group, and is often fatal. Furthermore, even after recovery from lung injury, patients subsequently experience a poorer quality of life. Many survivors of this condition are unable to return to work or look after themselves.

“Unfortunately, to date there is no effective treatment for this lung injury”, said Professor John Laffey who is Professor of Anaesthesia at NUI Galway and Consultant Anaesthetist at Galway University Hospitals. “We are investigating if the drug simvastatin, commonly used to treat high cholesterol, is safe and effective in the treatment of this lung injury. A unique feature of this study is that it is a study generated from Irish research efforts, and is an Irish-led multi-national study, being conducted across the island of Ireland, and also in intensive care units in England and Scotland.”

Professor Laffey continued: “This study builds on a series of studies using simvastatin, including a smaller clinical trial funded by the Health and Social Care Research and Development Division, Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland and REVIVE, carried out by Professor Danny McAuley and his team in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, who are our partners in this study. These studies offer considerable hope that simvastatin might help sufferers from this devastating disease. The study may take up to five years to complete, but if simvastatin is effective, it would help save the lives of these sufferers, improving the quality of life of survivors and potentially reduce costs, by reducing time spent in intensive care units.”

The study team comprises experts in study design based at the HRB Galway Clinical Research Facility and at the Clinical Research Support Centre in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, as well as senior doctors who work in critical care units, and experts in acute lung injury.

Professor Danny McAuley, who is Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast and Consultant Intensivist at the Royal Victoria Hospital, explained: “We will also take blood samples to measure markers of inflammation which will allow us to determine if simvastatin can reduce the immune response which causes the lung injury. In addition, we will determine how severe the damage to the patients’ lungs is, and how fast they recover.”

People will be randomly divided into two groups; one group will be given the active drug and the other a placebo. This design means that any difference in the experience of patients will be due to whether or not they received simvastatin and not to any other difference that could influence the outcome of treatment.

Frank Giles, who is Professor of Cancer Therapeutics at NUI Galway, is also Director of the HRB Clinical Research Facility at NUI Galway, which is helping co-ordinate the clinical trial in Ireland: “Participants in this trial are helping address a vital and difficult medical problem. This study is typical of an increasing number of multi-center trials that are possible because of increasing collaboration between Ireland’s HRB-funded Clinical Research Facilities. The studies involve patients with a very broad spectrum of health challenges. The conduct of these studies, which involve our patients and their families, community health-care staff, hospitals, research institutes and industry partners, improves health care and ensures that Ireland continues to make a significant increasing contribution to global medical progress.”

For further information, please contact the Press and PR Unit, 028 9097 3091.

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