University of Limerick scientist honoured for developing Alzheimer’s screening device

Aine Fitzgerald

Reporter:

Aine Fitzgerald

THE lead scientist on a €5.4m project to develop a screening device which will allow for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease has been named the Limerick Person of the Month.

THE lead scientist on a €5.4m project to develop a screening device which will allow for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease has been named the Limerick Person of the Month.

At present there is no test to screen for the disease. Dr Syed Tofail of the University of Limerick’s Materials and Surface Science Institute and his colleagues are hoping to change all that with their “ground-breaking technology” - a nanoscope.

“It is in the early stages. We are hoping that we will have the first nanoscope made in Limerick in about 24 months time. Then we will have a technical prototype in Limerick by 40 to 42 months from now, so we are talking about 2015 when we will have something fully developed,” explained Dr Tofail.

When developed, the nanoscope will enable experts to carry out microscopic tests on biopsy samples taken from the brain of patients to identify the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. While Dr Tofail said the screening device will not be a way of curing Alzheimer’s it will be “an important step forward.”

“If you are developing a drug that will treat Alzheimer’s and if you know how this drug is working with the neurons and certain proteins of the neurons, that is a huge amount of knowledge that the drug developers and doctors would like to know, so we would be able to do that,” he explained.

Dr Tofail completed his undergraduate and Masters in his native Bangladesh before undertaking a PhD at the University of Limerick. He has been based at the university for the past 13 years and lives in the city.

The project, he said, came about as a result of “a lot of brainstorming” since 2010. “I wanted to do something on the biology side and I had a couple of ideas. My colleague Dr Christophe Silien - he is also in the physics department - he brought in his ideas so it was a melting pot but it was initiated in Limerick,” explained Dr Tofail who is a member of UL’s Materials and Surface Science Institute and lectures in the physics department.

UL is leading the 11 member European team, LANIR (Label Free Nanoscopy Using Infra-Red) which is undertaking this research. The team includes six SME’s from across Europe including Limerick-based company, NT-MDT Ireland based at the National Technological Park, who will provide key input into implementing a commercial table-top prototype.

“It is a big challenge and it is great that Limerick is leading this. The idea was conceived here and it is great for the university and the MSSI as well,” continued Dr Tofail, who paid tribute to his colleagues and his family for their support. Dr Tofail is married to Dr Sanjida Siraj and has two daughters Yasna and Iman Tofail.

“I have to say that Limerick has always been so welcoming to me. I’m grateful to my friends and peers in Limerick because without their support it (the project) would never have happened.”

“Of course I am very grateful to my wife for all her sacrifices, personal sacrifices,” he added.

John Mulcahy, the project manager who is from Castlemahon said he hoped the nanoscope would “improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s.

“It will be designed to provide an earlier diagnosis, with earlier treatments you can delay the progress of the disease, and in future, maybe even stop it. The project will be challenging but the potential rewards are huge”.