August September 2014 Issue – Irish America Irish America Magazine Mon, 15 Jul 2019 20:00:35 +0000 en-US hourly 1 82361074 The Administrator Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:59:45 +0000 Read more..]]> Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, on why action on climate control is critical for our nation’s health.

Gina McCarthy was appointed Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in June 2013, after a 30-year career in the health and environmental sector. Many see her appointment as a strong message that President Obama is serious about climate change; serious about reducing U.S. carbon emissions and moving towards renewable energy sources.

Prior to her appointment, McCarthy held the position of assistant administrator, U.S. EPA from 2009. A longtime civil servant, she served as environmental advisor to five Massachusetts governors and helped develop a climate change action plan in the early 2000s. In 2004, she became commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and implemented a regional policy to trade carbon credits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants – the first cap and trade program in the United States.

McCarthy, a passionate and committed environmentalist, has called for all hands on deck in the climate fight. In recent months, she has been to California and Colorado and Texas, Missouri and China. She has appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, and other TV and radio shows. And she has taken to Facebook and Twitter to get the message out. “The changes that you can see, and the future changes; if we don’t pay attention, will be very dramatic and I think we’ve let it go long enough. It’s really time for us to embrace that challenge. It’s time for us to act now.”

If there is a sense of urgency to McCarthy’s mission, it’s because the National Climate Assessment released in June shows hotter and longer summers, wildfires that start earlier and more often, record heat waves and floods, and longer allergy seasons. And that’s just the broad strokes. The report also shows how climate change is causing increased illnesses such as asthma and heart attacks, and it also investigates the economic impact of severe weather patterns that result in damage to infrastructure and property, loss of production, and delayed harvests.

It’s safe to say that none of this is news to McCarthy, who has been active on health and environmental issues since she was a college student. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Anthropology. (One of her heroes is Margaret Mead, the famous U.S. anthropologist and scientist).

In 1981 she received a joint Master of Science in Environmental Health Engineering and Planning and Policy from Tufts University. Her first job was in public health, where she saw firsthand how the environment affects health. She became engaged in remediation of hazardous waste sites – a career path that has led her all the way to the top job at the EPA.

When I met with McCarthy at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., she struck me as a no-nonsense person. Her strong Boston accent is infused with attitude and resilience.

I came away thinking that if the climate fight is a tough one, and it is, McCarthy is the right one for the job.

Born in 1954, McCarthy (who is married to Kenneth McCarey, and has three children, Daniel, Maggie, and Julie), grew up in Canton, a Boston suburb largely populated with Irish.

Her family saw public service as an honorable profession, and that’s what she grew up wanting to do.

How did growing up in Boston influence who you are today?

Boston is so much a part of my identity, as is Dorchester and South East. Growing up, I was surrounded by really hard working Irish people. My parents grew up in the Dorchester area. There were 15 kids in my father’s family. I was the youngest of 50 first cousins on my father’s side. So we really had a fun, big family when I was growing up. My mother was both English and Irish; my father was all Irish with roots in County Clare. Most of Canton was Irish who moved from Dorchester after WWII because it had all those small cape houses that they funded for veterans, and that’s how my father ended up moving there as well. He was a schoolteacher in the Boston school systems for 40 years.

So why do you do what you do?

I come from a very much service-oriented family. We have firemen, policemen, post office, school teachers – my sister, Elaine, is a middle school history teacher – and it’s not like someone told you that was the thing you had to do, but public service was seen as very much an honorable thing to do. And that’s what I grew up wanting to do; my parents’ gift to me was two things, public service and hard work. I don’t know anybody I grew up with that didn’t teach their kids that there was a larger meaning in life.

What was your first job?

My first job was when I was 13 so probably we should get more specific. My first professional job was working for a community health center in Rhode Island. My interest in public health grew into an interest in the environment when I began to realize just how much the environment impacts people’s health.

When my mother became ill, I returned home and I took a job as the first Board of Health agent in the town of Canton. It was restaurant inspections, septic system inspections, housing inspections. It was when all the hazardous waste laws were coming out. I had to look at water quality issues and it was eye opening and enlightening. I got engaged in remediation of hazardous waste sites, which have all the volatile organic contaminants you see in water supplies. I became very active representing boards of health, and eventually I started working for the environmental agency.

Can you talk about the latest National Climate Assessment, which looks at the impact of climate change on the U.S.?

This latest report, which came out in May, covered different regions in the country and noted the kind of climate impacts that are already happening, as well as looking at how those could worsen over time if we don’t address the mitigation and reduce our carbon pollution. [The report] is very science based. It’s very analytic, and it’s very clear that climate impacts are already happening. And those range from increased sea level rise in the Northeast and rainfall, to the droughts in the West, to in the Midwest both floods and droughts in the same state at the same time.

And then further work has been going on both within the administration and outside to document the economic costs associated with all of these natural disasters. In 2012 alone, that cost ranged from 110 to 120 billion dollars. And so the costs for this are getting very extreme. Not just in terms of costs to lives and safety, but costs out of the pockets of American people.

Can you explain how climate impacts health?

Climate impacts public health very directly in a couple of different ways. Hotter weather creates ground level smog that is very damaging to people with lung diseases and kids and the elderly who have trouble breathing. Higher temperatures result in more ozone, as well as longer allergy seasons. It will trigger asthma attacks and make them more difficult to manage. It also has significant impact on the cardiac system as well as the overall pulmonary system. Right now one out of ten kids in the U.S. has chronic asthma.

And if you look at the projections that the scientists are giving us, we’re going to get 100-degree weather much more frequently. We all just have to face the fact that the environment has changed. It’s changed as a result of human influence that nobody intended. But now that we know, we can stop it from getting worse for our kids, and that’s really our moral obligation.

In terms of the Clean Power Plan, and reducing carbon emissions, do individual states take responsibility, and what sort of compliance is required?

Each state is required to achieve a particular standard. That standard is based on the tons of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity that’s generated. So you can get there any way you want, but it’s actually going to measure the carbon that is coming out of the fossil fuel power plants. And so you can divert and start using other facilities like renewables more effectively, you can count nuclear generation, you can look at other ways of generating that electricity, or you can make your efficiency much better so that you’re producing more megawatts for every carbon molecule that you’re emitting, or ton that you’re emitting. Or you can take a look to make sure that you’re driving down electricity demand so that those units don’t continue to have to pump out as much electricity as they did before. We set the goal based on what we think is achievable, on the basis of what kind of technology choices [the states] have, what their infrastructure looks like, and what their opportunities are. And we allowed every state to develop a plan that’s best for them. So if [the state] can get these reductions cheaper doing it one way versus another, go for it. If there’s a lot of economic job growth opportunities in one strategy versus another, you’re able to do that. Every state then has to propose their plan to us, after the rule is finalized. EPA has to sign off on that plan, and the plan needs to come with enough analysis to tell us they’re actually going to be, in the end, achieving the reductions we’re looking for in terms of reductions in carbon pollution from their fossil fuel power plants. This is the way that EPA has regulated for 40 years. So we know how to do this.

A number of states, such as California and Connecticut, have already been very effective in reducing carbon pollution from the power sector as well as generating revenues for energy efficiency programs, which will keep those levels down. Over 1,000 mayors have signed climate pledges and are looking at reducing carbon emissions at the city and town level. Universities have also been leading the way. So when the President called on the EPA to do a rule that lowered carbon pollution we had all the data on actions that would be effective, reasonable, and practical. We built the Clean Power Plan on the backs of all of those states [that have reduced carbon pollution], recognizing that while they have done great work, there’s work that every state can do that would benefit that state and benefit us nationally and globally.

Governor Malloy of Connecticut has just signed a moratorium on fracking waste. Do you think that’s a good move?

Governor Dannel Malloy came in after I left (as Connecticut’s EPA commissioner), although I did a lot of work with him when he was Mayor in Stanford. He’s a really capable person and we did a lot of work together. He had a lot of significant brownfields [areas that have been contaminated by industrial waste] that he was redeveloping along his waterfront. It was really fun to work with him on that.

So do you think the ban on fracking waste is a good move?

I think it’s pretty clear that the abundance of inexpensive natural gas has been a significant opportunity to try to make a shift to a cleaner energy supply system, which is essential for climate change. And that’s really what the president has been signaling to us is to actively reduce carbon pollution that fuels climate change, from our power sector. And that’s what EPA’s major emphasis is right now.

So you’ve been traveling the U.S. – what have you experienced?

We’ve begun to realize that when you get out of Washington, D.C. and you talk to real people, that they’re worried about the climate. I’ve been to numerous places that have been hit by floods, and places that have been hit by wildfires. I was in California on the drought issue. I’ve been in Utah on the basis of the work that’s going on in Salt Lake City with the mayor doing all kinds of great climate efforts. I’ve been in Iowa talking to farmers, I was in Missouri yesterday, basically trying to have a good conversation about concerns that the agriculture community has about the Waters of the U.S., which is a proposal to define what waters are significant enough that they need to be federally regulated to ensure appropriate and safe drinking water and protection of natural resources – basically establishing the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.

It’s work that’s long overdue, but we’re going to be able to get it done because everyone sees drinking water as a vital resource. And in the United States, one out of three people, about 117 million, rely on really small streams that run only intermittently to feed the drinking water supply systems. So it’s not just the big rivers and the groundwater that people rely on. It’s the series of even smaller streams that we need to protect, or we’re going to lose an opportunity for that water to be pristine and suitable for drinking.

What do you say to the skeptics on climate change?

You know, the climate deniers are getting fewer and fewer, or else they’re getting less vocal. Polling now indicates that 70 percent of the people understand not just that climate change is happening but that it’s time to take action on it. So I’m seeing less and less skeptics. But what we always see at EPA – and EPA’s been around for 44 years – is that every time we put out a big rule like the big Clean Power Plan, which we just put out to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, or the Waters of the U.S. rule, you will find people who say the economy’s going to shut down, manufacturing’s going to stop. There’s always been a strong lobby of special interests groups that will want to make sure that their interests are protected. But we’ve found that every time [the critics] have over-estimated the cost, they’ve over estimated the negative impacts. And they certainly haven’t proven their case that by improving the environment we’re doing anything to impact the economy other than in a positive way.

We have decades of data that show every time we’ve moved forward environmentally we’ve seen commensurate improvement in the economy, and that we have not damaged anything. If you look at the Clean Air Act, over the past 44 years we’ve reduced air pollution by 70 percent, while the GDP has tripled. So there’s tremendous on-the-ground benefit as a result of protecting public health, and it keeps the United States as a place where people want to live and where you can breathe clean air.

Germany created half the power that they need based on solar panels last year. Do you think that Europe will help change attitudes here in the U.S. about solar energy?

Germany is doing amazing work. And I think the one message for us in the U.S. is that we have been moving in the right direction. A lot of people in a lot of states in a lot of cities and towns, and in the private sector, have been developing the technologies of the future. And the future is now!

You have renewables that are competitive – solar is competitive in the western U.S. These [renewables] are not “pie in the sky” anymore. So when you put out a rule that says you have to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector, it’s our hope that the states and the private sector will start investing heavily in these technologies of the future. We will be setting a standard that will be in place for 15 years. It will challenge people to think about whether they want to upgrade the technologies of the past, the 42 year old, 60-year old, 70-year old fossil fuel facilities and generators, or whether they want to invest in the technologies of the future. And we’re more than willing to bet, and I think this country has proven, that we’ll be looking forwards not backwards.

Will the recent announcement that the U.S. plans to cut back on carbon emissions help us internationally?

Yes. I just met with Edward Davey, the U.K. Secretary of State for Energy & Climate and he told me that the tone and tenor of the international discussions has changed, because of the U.S. proposal on clean power plants, and plan to cut back on carbon emissions. It shows a strong level commitment from [the U.S.] one of the largest greenhouse gases emitters, about making reductions that are necessary. And it’s sending the right international signal. As President Obama said when he put together this climate action plan, “We’ve got to reduce our carbon emissions. We’ve got to help our communities be more resilient, and we’ve got to influence the international community and be a leader there so we get the kind of global solution that this global challenge requires.”

What do you say to those who say you want to kill the coal mining industry?

We certainly will still have coal being mined, there’s no question about it. Even at the end of this 15-20 year period. But it will be cleaner, and we will be shifting to a significant amount of other power generation as well, in a way that’s going to reduce our carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005. And these are all not painful, these are investments, these are efficiencies, lowering waste. It’s going to be an economic benefit to move in this direction. Consumers will actually see their electricity bills go down at the end of this period. So we think everything about [Clean Power Proposal] sends the right signal for the U.S. both economically as well as environmentally. And we’ll be hopefully sending the right signal to our kids that we’re actually paying attention to their future.

Name some of the EPA achievements that you are proud of?

The president, during his first term, developed through the EPA, what is basically a greenhouse gas reduction target for the light duty vehicle rule, which is all of our cars and light trucks. And that’s going to double fuel economy by 2025. Also, our Energy Star program, which started as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy because we were driving manufacturers to make more efficient appliances. If you go to buy a dryer or a refrigerator you’ll see that blue Energy Star label. It provides consumers with information on how much they can save by spending a little more now, and it tells you how efficient that is. It’s been one of the most successful programs ever; 85 percent of the people in the U.S. recognize that label and they go to it.

Do you think that Climate Change should be part of the educational system?

Very much so. I think part of the challenge of explaining climate change is that it requires a level of science and a level of forward thinking and you’ve got to teach that to kids.

People didn’t have a sense of how dramatic climate change really is, and what it means for all of us. So that’s been a challenge. But what’s great about renewables is that when you put a solar panel on the roof of a school, you change the entire dynamic of education for the students. It’s hands-on.

When you wanted to get people active in the environmental world a while ago it was recycling, because you could do it yourself. Part of the challenge today is to make all of these things [affecting climate change] personal enough so that people can get engaged and get active, and feel like there are things we can do together. That’s the hump we need to cross in climate control and I think we’re doing that. I really do, I think people are getting active and engaged.

My sister the beekeeper says that bees are dying because we are using pesticides in the U.S. that are banned in Europe, and that one out of every three bites of food we eat requires pollination by bees.

The president just asked us to put together a task force on pollinators. It’s not as easy as saying it’s the result of a pesticide. We did take a look at what we call the neonicotinoid pesticides, which is the group that people are concerned about, and we did an entire re-look at how it should be used and we modified that just to make sure that it doesn’t have the direct impact [on bees]. But it’s way more than that. What we’re finding is that the bee population is facing a lot of stressors – one of which is loss of habitat – and the president has asked us to look at all of these stressors and to identify within the span of nine months to a year, what the United States can do to address the bee population. We’re taking it very seriously. It’s just that we’re not sure yet that the banning of this pesticide, as Europe has done, would be the appropriate response. It needs to be proven scientifically and it needs a more comprehensive look. So that’s what we’re involved in right now.

Does the EPA also oversee genetically modified foods (GMOs)?

There are a lot of genetically modified products on the market. Some states utilize them, some states develop their own rules around them, and we try to keep abreast of all of them. But there’s a lot going on. One of the biggest challenges that we have is just keeping up with the changing market and making sure that we’re doing the right kind of risk assessment in a timely way so we can make the decisions on it.

Europe has banned American apples because they are sprayed with diphenylamine (DPA), a substance that keeps them from turning brown. When was the last study done on DPA?

It’s something we are looking into. We have to approve any new pesticide that’s coming out, and the pesticides that are being used we have to take a look at their current use over a sequence and period of time, so that we can make sure they’re properly labeled and properly used.

Returning to the subject of natural habitats, I read an article in The New York Times about how in wildernesses, such as Joshua Tree National Park, the trees are gradually dying out because of climate change. Is that something that the EPA pays attention to?

Yes. That’s why the president has a cross agency office that gets together, so we understand what the challenges are and how we can impact those.

It’s clear that climate change is not only impacting public health, it’s impacting other species. It’s impacting trees, flora and fauna. It’s impacting the oceans. It has an impact on the jet stream. The changes that you can see, if we don’t pay attention, the changes that we will see, will be very dramatic. We’ve let it go long enough. It’s time for us to embrace the challenge. It’s time for us to act now.

How hard is it to be in public service in this era of social media? It seems to me a lot of politicians spend most of their time defending their positions or explaining quotes taken out of context?

I try to keep very positive about it, because I think I spoke earlier how honorable public service is. Every day I get up thinking that this is the best job ever, even when it’s difficult, because it’s an honor to do this job. And so while it is, no question, challenging, I’m not going to let these everyday challenges sway me from the vision and the job that I was put here to do. EPA is moving forward, we are under very close scrutiny but we’ll live up to that scrutiny and we’ll still make progress.

Thank you Administrator McCarthy.

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The First Word: Let’s Talk About the Climate Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:58:48 +0000 Read more..]]> I’m reminded as we go to press that in Ireland we always talk about the weather. “How about the weather now?” was an oft heard refrain of my childhood, one that brought the answer, “The weather is up.”

The weather is up! Or should we say, something is up with the weather. It’s too darn hot – with my pale Irish skin and light eye color, I’m constantly running for cover. And it’s getting hotter.

Growing up in the Irish countryside, you were always on the watch for rain (drying laundry on a line required special attention), and the winter of 2013/14 was the wettest on record in Ireland. Meanwhile, the U.S. is experiencing record heat waves, droughts, and torrential rainfall.

And wildfires. “The earth is on fire,” astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the space shuttle, told me when I interviewed her in 1995 about her observations from space. And so it is. As we go to press, wildfires are burning in five states.

With the weather in mind, I headed to Washington, D.C. in July to interview Gina McCarthy, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. I was seeking reassurance that someone was on top of climate change, and I came away from my meeting convinced McCarthy has a firm commitment to reducing the U.S.’s carbon emissions, one of the main causes of global warming.

Other topics that affect our health and wellness are covered in this issue. If you can’t have good health without a healthy climate, you certainly can’t have good health without good health care. And, with this in mind, we have profiled 50 Irish and Irish-Americans who are on the cutting edge of biomedical research and health care.

Over the course of medical history, it is interesting to note that many advances in science and medicine occurred following major conflicts.

The centenary of the Great War gave me reason to ferret out my grandfather’s photo albums to see if I could better understand his experiences as a battlefield doctor, which “from a medical standpoint was a miserable bloody affair,” as one historian wrote. Indeed, it was the first conflict to see the use of deadly gases as a weapon.

World War II brought advances in the use of penicillin, while the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have forced the medical world to push forward advances in prostatics and the treatment of brain trauma.

And while recent news coverage has exposed the inability of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to keep up with the medical needs of all the returning soldiers, we bring you an uplifting story from Adam Farley who traveled to the Irish enclave of Rockaway, Long Island, where for a decade now, every July wounded warriors from Walter Reed Medical Center are treated to a weekend of family fun and water sports. Meanwhile, Sarah Busher profiles two doctors, a father and daughter, about their service in the military from the Gulf War to the present day.

In this issue, we also have an enlightening personal-essay section on living with chronic diseases, with contributions from Mary Beth Keane, Darina Molloy, and Sharon Ní Chonchúir. Also, a story on RISE, an organization founded by Irish singer Frances Black to help families dealing with addictions. We learn that Frances has a special healing place – Ratlin Island – the very remoteness of which offers spiritual sustenance. There’s an abundance of these places in Ireland. As Rosari Kingston, writing in this issue, reminds us, our physical well-being can be greatly enhanced by enriching our spiritual health through visiting nature’s sacred places. Yet another reason to protect our environment from the damaging effects of pollution. To quote Gina McCarthy, if we act now, “we can stop it from getting worse for our kids, and that’s really our moral obligation.”

Mortas Cine.

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Healthcare and Life Sciences 50 Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:57:32 +0000 Read more..]]> The inaugural Irish America Healthcare and Life Sciences 50 list celebrates Irish innovators who are leading the way in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. The work of these Irish-American and Irish-born medical professionals contributes everyday to the health and wellness of our communities, from pharmaceuticals, medical devices and biotechnology to research and development and medical care.

Co-presented by ICON, plc., on September 25th, Irish America will celebrate the honorees in New York city with Inaugural Keynote Speaker Dr. Garret FitzGerald, Director of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Congratulations to all our honorees. Click here for the complete 2014 list.

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Dr. Garret FitzGerald Wants to Build Bridges Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:56:47 +0000 Read more..]]> He works between the strands of basic discovery and clinical trial, national research and global connection, harnessing the power of diaspora. The inaugural Healthcare and Life Sciences 50 Keynote Speaker discusses the science of discovery. 

Dr. Garret FitzGerald, a.k.a. “Big G” as faculty and students sometimes call him according to a 2001 Penn Medicine article, is a humble man with a proclivity for speaking about his research in equal medical and metaphoric terms. He fell into medicine through “a series of accidents” he thinks, though his earnest quest for knowledge is anything but.

Born and bred in Graystones, Co. Wicklow, he went to high school at a time when specialization in either the arts or the sciences wasn’t required as it is now. His grandfather had been a professor of Greek, he says, “So I did Greek and Latin and French and German and English and Irish,” but also rounded out his linguistics with and math and physics. It’s clear his secondary school studies have stayed with him.

Now Dr. FitzGerald heads the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics (ITMAT) at the University of Pennsylvania. The institute, founded in 2004, is at the cutting edge of biomedical and public health research and aims to bridge the divide between basic science and what Dr. FitzGerald calls “the realization of clinical promise.”

Basic research is what is commonly called “blue skies” research, meaning “you study the sky because it’s there, not because you’re looking for a way to get to Mars,” FitzGerald says. “And of course most of our greatest discoveries that have affected human health or the way we live have come from that type of research. They haven’t come because somebody woke up in the night and said, ‘I’m going to develop a non-stick frying pan.’ They came because people went to the moon and a by-product was a non-stick frying pan.”

This, however, is highly problematic for Dr. FitzGerald and other researchers, because scientists can’t rely on serendipity alone to improve human life. What’s more is that scientists sometimes have trouble relying on each other to efficiently make the transition from discovery to practice. “As you can imagine, people are educated and tend to be trained in either basic science or clinical research. Very few people have the training that actually straddles what we call the translational divide.

“Our area focuses right where basic science abuts the earliest stages of clinical investigation. And that’s actually the biggest hurdle in drug development… so our focus has been on really trying to increase the number of people who have the expertise that bridges the two very different disciplines,” he says. “Objective number two is to identify and reduce the barriers to their science in that space between basic research and early clinical development.”

In its decade of existence, the institute has enjoyed relative prominence. More than 100 people have graduated from the ITMAT with master’s degrees in translational medicine, and in addition to its core faculty of about 40, the institute also has what Dr. FitzGerald calls a “virtual faculty membership” of collaborators from across the Penn campus. All together, ITMAT has about 2,000 members, has been at the cusp of new research initiatives, and would appear to have made translational medicine into something of a zeitgeist. There are now centers for translational medicine across the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Finland, Germany, and the U.K.

Despite these accomplishments, Dr. FitzGerald is hesitant to make any causal argument about the institute’s responsibility in the growth of translational medicine as a field. “It’s a cultural change,” he says. “Ours was the first institute of this sort in the world, and the institution undertook a commitment that this would take ten years or twenty years to change the culture.”

That cultural change has two parts, according to Dr. FitzGerald, one inside the academy, and one outside. In developing a drug, he says, “you need to harness the expertise of chemists, of pharmacologists, of informaticists, of experts in animal models, of clinicians, of trial design people, people of very different disciplines. Traditionally all those people act in distinct and often times competing departments within an academic medical center, and one of the things that we’ve really provoked is a much more interdisciplinary interaction between investigators within the institution.”

The second change he’d like to see, and is just starting to notice, comes from collaborations with outside private sector companies. “The traditional approach has been that large, vertically integrated companies like Pfizer or Merck would do everything from basic discovery all the way through to clinical trials and marketing for a new drug,” Dr. FitzGerald explains.

“Now that system is progressively breaking down so that the multiple modules along the way, the very different types of expertise that you need along the way, can be drawn not just from within a large, vertically integrated, company, but at various stages in the process from academic centers, from biotech companies, from other large, vertically integrated companies, from different geographies. We’re moving to a sort of modular approach to drug discovery and development. Our objective is to enhance the ability of our investigators to play in that space.”

In the years since the institute was founded, its members have become far more interconnected as researchers than those who did not elect to join and translational medicine has become one of the most bourgeoning fields in the medical industry. Ever humble, and thinking like a scientist, Dr. FitzGerald cautions that this correlation doesn’t mean causation.

“Now the problem always is whether this is just a coincidence over the time course of the existence of this institute, or if this is a result of the institute. And that’s a difficult one because we don’t have a control group.” But, he says, “I would say success has many fathers, and we can claim that we were one of them. We don’t aspire to be anything more than that.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny presenting FitzGerald with the Inaugural Science Foundation Ireland Award this past March.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny presenting FitzGerald with the Inaugural Science Foundation Ireland Award this past March.

However success is defined for the ITMAT though, for Dr. FitzGerald himself, it is easily measured. Over the course of his 35-year career, he has published scores of research papers, worked in Ireland, England, and the U.S., and has received numerous awards, including most recently the inaugural Science Foundation Ireland Award this past March. In fact, he was instrumental in the process that gave birth to Science Foundation Ireland in the early 2000s. Moreover, in the previous 15-20 years, he has acted as an advisor to both Ireland and the U.K. and it is partly to his credit that Ireland now spends billions of government money on medical research. To put this in perspective, when Dr. FitzGerald returned to Ireland in 1991 for the first time in more than a decade, his lab’s research budget was roughly six million pounds he estimates, from a mix of private investors and external sources like the NIH and EU, while the entire national research budget for medical science for the whole country “was five-something,” he says.

Recognizing that Ireland could do more with public money, he attempted to replicate the system that had worked so well in the United States, but was quickly met with resistance. He and colleague Desmond Fitzgerald (small “g,” no relation) managed to found the Centre for Cardiovascular Science at UCD and the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, before it moved to the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. But trying to increase the amount of public funding in a way that mirrored the American system quickly entrenched the two of them in a political mire which Garret FitzGerald calls “a brief and bruising experience,” after which he left for Penn.

“But,” he concedes, “it turns out that one of the more constructive things I did for Irish science was leave, because shortly after that the government decided they might invest in science and I think the role that I could play was – I was very familiar with the realities and constraints of the system on the ground in Ireland and yet because I left I didn’t have a dog in the race.”

Now though, the science research budget is thriving, and was largely maintained during the recession, signifying a public change in perception about scientific research. That preservation, Dr. FitzGerald notes, “was almost counter-cultural” in a country where the popular icons were of literature, poets, and music, ignoring centuries of what he sees as a “grand tradition of science.”

Dr. FitzGerald hypothesizes that the Republican state, perhaps unintentionally, excluded that history of science “because it was mostly the Anglo-Irish Protestants who had the resources to indulge in science. So although we have many figures of considerable stature in our history of science, the Irish State, when it was founded, largely ignored them.”

Even Éamon De Valera, himself a mathematician, was contradictory, FitzGerald notes. “Despite the fact that he gave [Erwin] Schrödinger a home during the Second World War – Schrödinger stayed in his house – and he developed an institute for him, the Institute for Applied Physics, which still exists, the state he led never made an investment up until the early 1990s.”

And while this has certainly been a boon for the economy and for medical education in the years since, Dr. FitzGerald still, like any good researcher, sees room for improvement. Ireland, he thinks, is making a “classic mistake of government” by, perhaps counter-intuitively coming from FitzGerald, prioritizing translational research and shifting focus away from basic research.

“In other words, they wanted near-term gain and they wanted to introduce into their funding decisions the likelihood of commercial realization [as a form of] payback for the state investment,” he explains. While he admits this is a natural reflex of many investors, particularly national governments, he would like to see a readjustment of balance between funding for basic research and clinical research.

“A classical, small-village argument against investment in science in the past was, ‘Oh we’re a small country, we’re not going to make any big discoveries. We should let the Americans and the Germans make them themselves and then we’ll apply them.’ That’s nonsense. We’ve seen it in other domains of our activity. We can play on the international stage. And you don’t have to build MIT in Dublin to do it. You just need to enable people to realize their own potential.

“Will there be individuals who do amazing things? Yes there will, but increasingly science is a team sport and we want our guys to be able to play on Manchester United or Bayern Munich or whatever team you want to choose for science. If you take the players on those teams they’re drawn from everywhere. Barcelona has Messi and Neymar. So we want Irish players on those teams. That’s what’s realistic.

“What Ireland has absolutely got the capability to do is to invest and develop investigators who have the resource, the education and the infrastructure to play in this global game. To be partners with people in Switzerland or the United States or New Zealand in pursuing big questions in science. We can and we should!”

The soccer analogy is an apt one. At the time we spoke, the World Cup quarterfinals were just beginning and national pride was in full swing. But, as Dr. FitzGerald observed, Messi, the star striker for Argentina, and Neymar, Brazil’s striking jewel, both play abroad between national tournaments.

“That’s where our traditions of people emigrating is actually our biggest strength,” the avid sports fan says, tying it together. “Because we emigrate, some of us go back, some of us don’t. It doesn’t matter. You’re creating a scientific diaspora which enhances the ability to develop the capital at home.”

“An ironic twist of fate is that that very paucity of resource propelled me out to train with world-leading figures. In a sense, the availability of resource to train within Ireland now reduces that creative insecurity that prompted people to go. And I think it’s very important in training to widen the perspectives and to go, particularly from a small country, to train at least part of the time, if not all of the time, abroad.”

In fact, he says, he thinks it’s a mistake to try to force people into the decision of whether to remain abroad or return. “What you do is you create the opportunity for them to return, and for those who don’t, you try to harness their goodwill to create the sorts of opportunities that I afford in my own lab.” Dr. FitzGerald is referring to his training program, in which he takes four high school students from Dublin and two students from UCD, his alma mater, to join twenty other students from around the globe to participate in a rotational research project for 6-7 weeks each summer.

FitzGerald stands (far right) in the ITMAT building with his research group.

FitzGerald stands (far right) in the ITMAT building with his research group.

It is interesting to think that one of the leading Irish figures in cardiovascular science and translational medicine almost wasn’t. When he’d told his grandmother he’d been accepted to medical school, she told him flatly, “Garret, any fool can be a doctor,” so he thought he would be a dentist, also in part because he was impressed with “a guy who had taken a tooth out.” That guy, however, told him not to pursue pre-dent and go into pre-med. FitzGerald says that advice made a huge impact, “so two weeks before I had to sign up for one or the other I signed up for pre-med. It wasn’t very strategic.” Then, he almost dropped out, but his future wife would persuade him to remain enrolled.

Finally, he had an instructor who made everything click. The teacher emphasized “that we didn’t know the answers and that medicine and science were a series of asking questions,” says Dr. FitzGerald, who has built his entire career around challenging common knowledge about existing drugs and systemic practices in the medical industry.

“You should be inquisitive and you shouldn’t accept dogma; you should question dogma. And that really stayed with me,” He pauses.

“I was always inquisitive, I guess.”

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A Decade of No Smoking Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:55:39 +0000 Read more..]]> This past March 29 marked the 10-year anniversary of the smoking ban in Ireland, a milestone that few thought they would see. In 2004, a law banned smoking in the workplace that extended to pubs and restaurants. At the time the Vintners Federation of Ireland said the law was “unnecessary, unworkable, and unjustified.” Since then, the image of an Ireland filled with pints, music, and smoke is no more thanks to the success of the law.

Health ministry studies show 97% adherence to the ban. The law has also been a boon to the tourism and hotel markets in Ireland. Stephen McNally, president of the Irish Hotels Federation, recently told The New York Times that the “ban was a spectacular success,” adding “we used to come home at night and your clothes would have this horrible stench. Now our restaurants, hallways, and bedrooms smell fresh.”

Not only are tourists flocking to a newly oxidized Ireland, but the ban has greatly improved the health of the Irish people. The Tobacco Free Research Institute Ireland conducted studies in 2013 that saw a 26% post-ban reduction in heart disease and a 32% decline in strokes, suggesting that over the decade 3,700 lives were saved.

The news is not all good, however. Ireland’s Health Service Executive findings show the number of occasional and light smokers increased with the largest group of smokers coming from the 18-24 age group, beating out the 25-34 year olds who dominated before the ban. Still, most everyone agrees that the smoking ban has been a resounding success. It has created a domino effect around the world with countries such as Norway, New Zealand, Italy, Britain, Greece, Brazil, and most recently Russia this past July, all passing similar smoking bans.

Stanton Glantz, Director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, commented on the anniversary, saying, “Ireland did everything right. Because of Ireland almost all of Europe is smoke-free today. They all figured, if Ireland can do it, any country can.”

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Innovation Award for Bubble-less Aeration System Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:54:16 +0000 Read more..]]> OxyMem Ltd, was recently declared winner of the overall “Innovation of the Year” Award at the 2014 Irish Times InterTradeIreland Innovation Awards. The company, which has developed a breakthrough technology for wastewater aeration, was co-founded in 2013 by Professor Eoin Casey and Dr. Eoin Syron as spin-out from UCD’s School of Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering. The company’s ‘bubbleless’ aeration system is typically four times more energy efficient than best in class solutions available today. OxyMem currently employs 12 people and is in the process of closing a €2 million funding round and plans to increase staff numbers to 35 by the end of the year. Wayne Byrne CEO, OxyMem Ltd said, “Looking to the future, we have major plans to revolutionize the wastewater treatment market globally. We have a turnover of €50 million within five years in our sights and receiving the overall ‘Innovation of the Year Award’ strengthens our position as pioneers in the wastewater industry and in the attainment of an energy and carbon neutral wastewater treatment plant.”

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Irish Pregnancy App Nominated for Webby Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:53:29 +0000 Read more..]]> A groundbreaking and exciting new web application, Life in the Womb from University College Dublin staff and graduates, was nominated for a Webby Award. Developed by The Science Picture Company, the application visually charts the process from conception to birth. It was originally conceived as a tool for prospective parents, but further innovations will make it an indispensable app for medical educators. The narrative of the app was written by UCD graduate and medical journalist Dr. Claire O’Connell. Dr. Rhona Mahony, Master at the National Maternity hospital praised the application saying,“Life in the womb is beautifully captured in this extraordinary app which depicts fetal development week by week. Stunning interactive imagery illustrates life’s most amazing journey. It is astonishing and anybody interested in pregnancy will love it.”

Life in the Womb was the only Irish application nominated, and beat out other rivals such as Disney Interactive and Scholastic Learning to secure itself a place in the top five finalists. It has been a favorite throughout the technology circuit having been nominated for the People’s Voice Award and winning best educational app, best overall tablet app, and the Grand Prix Winner’s prize at the Irish web application awards ‘The Appys’ last November.

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Irish Business for Mayo Clinic Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:52:05 +0000 Read more..]]> A collaboration between Ireland and the Mayo Clinic that could significantly impact the future of medical technology was recently announced.

Enterprise Ireland, the government agency in Ireland responsible for supporting Irish businesses in the manufacturing and internationally traded service, will see the commercialization of up to 20 novel medical technologies in Ireland over the next five years with the aim of creating several high-value medical technology spin-out companies.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was on hand to witness the signing of the agreement between Jeff Bolton, Vice President Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Keith O’Neill, Director Life-Sciences Commercialization, Enterprise Ireland in Dublin.

The Irish Government will provide up to $16.5 million for the co-development and licensing of novel medical technologies at the Mayo Clinic headquartered in Minnesota. These technologies will then be brought to Ireland where they will be further developed and validated by research teams in Irish Higher Education Institutes, and where they will be introduced to investors to bring the technologies to market.

The first project under way is at NUI Galway, internationally recognized for its expertise in Biomedical Science and Engineering. The device patented by the Mayo Clinic is for the treatment of acute pancreatitis.

A team led by Dr. Mark Bruzzi of NUI Galway aims to design and develop a prototype device for human clinical use, build on animal studies conducted thus far, and advance the therapeutic technology towards a “first in man” clinical investigation.

On the commercial side, NUI Galway will validate the market and reimbursement model for the device and support the exploitation of the commercial potential of the technology in Ireland.

Investors Aisling Capital, New York and ACT Venture Capital are currently advising the team at NUI Galway on the establishment of a spin-out company around this technology.

Signing the agreement between Enterprise Ireland and Mayo Clinic, Dr. Keith O’Neill, Enterprise Ireland said, “this deal is a win-win as it will seed as many as 10 spin-out companies in Ireland whilst bringing advanced medical technologies to patients and providing a revenue stream back to Mayo Clinic to enhance its mission. We look forward to working with Mayo Clinic to create new companies around these world-class technologies some of which may, in time, establish a presence in Minnesota, close to Mayo Clinic, benefiting the local economy there as well as in Ireland.”

Enterprise Ireland’s aim is to create 10 spin-out companies in addition to licensing/commercialization relationships in Ireland for each medical technology.

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Irish Could Be Europe’s Fattest People by 2030 Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:51:36 +0000 Read more..]]> Anew study conducted by the World Health Organization and the UK Health Forum has issued a dire prediction of the obesity rates in Europe, with Ireland predicted to become the fattest country in Europe by 2030.

The study found that 90 percent of Irish men and 84 percent of Irish women would be classified as overweight or obese by then. A lack of exercise and a diet high in sugar and fats are mainly to blame.

UK Health Forum’s Dr. Laura Webber said after the study was released, “There is no silver bullet for tackling this. We need a comprehensive package of approaches to support healthy eating and more physical activity in daily life.”

While these statistics are shocking, Webber believes the figures are underestimated as they do not include child obesity statistics.

This news comes after a global study conducted by the World Health Organization and University of Ulster gave Northern Ireland a D minus in physical activity levels for school children.

Of the 419 primary schools surveyed only 17 percent said their students were getting two or more hours of physical activity per week. Ireland itself rested in the middle of the pack, but Chair of the World Health Organization Health Enhancing Physical Activity Working Group Dr. Catherine Woods said, “this report will set a benchmark for the island of Ireland from which to work to further improve the opportunities offered to children to be active.”

If the answer to the obesity epidemic is to provide information about healthy ways of living, the Irish are fighting back with an ongoing Safefood campaign to spread awareness of childhood obesity by limiting treats, increasing activity, getting sufficient sleep, and monitoring sugary drinks. And while initial research showed that 54 percent of parents with overweight children believed their weight was fine, the campaign seems to be working, as follow up statistics found 82 percent of the 400 people polled said that they were motivated to think about the food they were giving their children.

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New Education Research Building for Limerick Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:50:40 +0000 Read more..]]> The president of the University of Limerick (UL) Don Barry said that the school’s €224 million Capital Development Plan would aim to deliver 12 major infrastructural development projects including a new Clinical Education Research building at University Hospital Limerick, and a city center campus that would include an academic building and student residences.

The plans were announced at the UL President’s Dinner at Adare Manor recently. Niall FitzGerald addressed more than 200 key philanthropic and business leaders who attended the dinner. FitzGerald, the former Chairman and CEO of Unilever, emphasized the interdependence of commercial and societal needs, saying, “I believe more and more companies understand that attending to their own business means also attending to the needs of society. The two cannot be separated. We live in communities of citizens who are the consumers of our goods and service. If we betray their trust as citizens, we forfeit the loyalty of consumers.”

Guests were treated to a solo flute performance by Michael Flatley, and UL Foundation Chairman Loretta Brennan Glucksman presented a check on behalf of the foundation to Mary Davis, Worldwide CEO of Special Olympics.

UL Foundation CEO David Cronin said that friends of the university, such as Brennan Glucksman, FitzGerald and Flatley, ensure that the university will continue to distinguish itself on the education and philanthropic front.

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