‘Like a science fiction novel’ – Irish scientist praised for project on restoring lost memories

A leading Irish scientist has been praised for trying to recover lost memories as part of an ambitious project that has been described as being a “science fiction novel”.

n event at Trinity College Dublin celebrated Dr Tomás Ryan, who was awarded the prestigious Lister Institute Research Prize, worth £ 250,000 (€ 287,000) in 2020 but saw the award ceremony delayed by two years due to the pandemic.

The science prize is unique in that it imposes no conditions or targets on its recipients. Dr Ryan said this meant the institute was truly promoting innovation and “blue sky research” where real-world applications may not be immediately apparent.

Dr. Ryan’s lab in Trinity’s biomedical science building is researching if and how it could be possible to retrieve memories lost before the age of three, otherwise known as infantile amnesia. If successful, the research could have major developments for the study of dementia and autism.

The project was described by the institute as evidence of “really remarkable things that can be done” through science.

“I am actually over the moon with the sheer quality and the sheer precociousness of Tomás’s science,” said Alex Markham, chairman of the Lister Institute, adding that it was one of the most exciting projects the institute had championed.

The Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine has been described as one of the cornerstones of medical research in Britain and Ireland.

Dr Ryan is the first Irish scientist at an Irish university to receive its award. This is despite the fact that the Lister Institute arguably owes its own existence to a famous Irish family with an unlikely link to science.

A significant donation from the Guinness family in the late 1800s allowed the freshly founded Lister Institute to pay for its building, staff and initial research grants.

Edward Cecil of Guinness, once the richest man in Ireland, was the owner of the Guinness brewery around the time the Lister Institute was being set up.

One morning in 1896, a rabbit dog bit Jim Jackson, one of Guinness’ stablemen at the family’s estate in Suffolk. Guinness was frustrated that Jackson had to go as far as Paris for a rabies vaccine, as there was no treatment on the islands of Ireland or Britain.

The Guinness empire was already interested in science, having become the first brewery in the world to hire a chemist. In 1896, Guinness had hired a scientist in experimental brewery prompted by anxieties the family had to protect and perfect the formula for its now stout. Around the same time, Guinness also bought its first microscope.

Guinness had already made a donation to an appeal run by the Lister Institute, but prompted by his shock at the lack of access to a rabies vaccine he sent a check in 1898 for the modern equivalent of € 35m from his personal fortune to the Lister Institute , which helped to get the fledgling project off the ground.

The only condition attached to the donation was that a Guinness family member would have a seat on the Lister’s board. Rory Guinness, the fifth of the Guinness generation to hold the position, said he believes his family’s investment in the Lister Institute was “one of the most inspired moves of corporate social responsibility that had never been heard of back in the 1800s”.

The Lister Institute, which has produced a number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, went on to have a long history of cutting-edge biomedical developments. Its scientists helped develop new ways to treat tetanus and gangrene in World War I soldiers, and it was at the forefront of researching safe blood transfusions.

It carried out pioneering immunology research and the institute’s breakthrough development on the smallpox vaccine directly led to near-global eradication of the disease. Its fellowship scheme, launched in 1982, helped discover DNA fingerprinting – a development that dramatically changed forensics for the better.

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