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A University of Ulster researcher has been honoured with a prestigious award recognising her work in the field of immunology.

Dr Victoria McGilligan, a Research Fellow at the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute, has been awarded the 2011 Cora Verhagen Immunology Award given to the best presentation of research at the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

At the conference Dr McGilligan presented research findings from the transatlantic partnership that was the first to discover a protein at the front of the eye that is key to inflammation and a serious threat to vision.

She is currently undertaking a research sabbatical at the Schepens Eye Research Institute at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. This places her working alongside world-renowned ocular surface researchers Dr Darlene Dartt, Dr Meredith Gregory-Ksander, Dr Bruce Ksander and Dr Mike Gilmore in Harvard. Combined efforts with the Ulster team will attempt to develop treatments for difficulties emanating from this protein in patients.

“I am delighted to have received this award and it is a privilege to work with world renowned scientists in the areas of immunology and ophthalmology. I am very excited to be involved in research that may lead to the development of therapies for potentially blinding conditions,” Dr McGilligan said.

The research sabbatical places Victoria working in the laboratory of Dr Darlene Dartt at the Schepens Eye Research Institute. Dr Dartt’s laboratory was the first to develop a technique to culture specialised cells in the front of the eye, called goblet cells.

Dr McGilligan began her career by obtaining both her undergraduate degree and PhD at the University of Ulster. Since then she has been a member of Dr Tara Moore’s ocular research group, which is currently involved in developing therapies for sight-threatening conditions.

Professor Johnny Moore at Cathedral Eye Clinic in Belfast, who sponsors Vicky during her secondment to Boston said: “Ocular surface inflammation is one of the most commonly recognised reasons to attend eye clinics. In some of these patients, ongoing progressive inflammation can result in scarring and virtually untreatable blindness. The recently identified presence of 'the inflammasome protein complex' on the ocular surface offers the potential of a new therapeutic target to manage some of these otherwise difficult conditions.”