An eye to scientific research developments in 2024

As we draw to the end of 2023 we ask researchers from various disciplines about what we can expect next year

A year is a long time in research. And recent years have shown us how events such as the emergence of a new global pathogen or an easy-to-use form of artificial intelligence (AI) can suddenly burst the status quo. But if 2024 is on any sort of an even keel, what can we expect?

Who better to ask than some of the award winners at the Research Summit 2023, where Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council (IRC) celebrated researchers ahead of the funding bodies amalgamating to form Taighde Éireann – Research Ireland.

From tackling the bodily roots of obesity to building up our microbiomes, from strengthening sustainability on Earth to deploying technology in space, this is what the researchers have to say.

More options to treat obesity


Recently, medications that affect the body’s appetite control systems have offered new treatments for people living with diabetes and obesity.

2024 will likely see more such medications undergoing large trials, according to Prof Carel Le Roux, professor of experimental pathology at the Diabetes Complications Research Centre in University College Dublin.

But Le Roux, who is 2023′s IRC researcher of the year, sees the medicines just one part of the rapidly changing options for people living with obesity.

“What we are really starting to understand is that obesity is a disease – just like we know arthritis is a disease – and the new drugs tackle the underlying cause of the obesity, this is a game-changer for some people,” he says.

Le Roux’s research at UCD has focused on various approaches to treating obesity – including bariatric surgery – and how these interventions interact with the body’s hormones and gut microbes.

“We used to say eat less and move more, but in the context of obesity, this really doesn’t address the underlying disease,” he explains. “Instead what we are seeing is that people can do well with different dietary approaches, or surgery or new drugs that blunt the desire to eat.”

Le Roux welcomes the changing paradigm, as it can help to tackle stigma and open up more personalised treatments for people living with the condition.

“Over the next couple of years more medicines will likely be approved to tackle obesity, and they won’t work for everyone, but those who benefit will probably need to take them for life to avoid a relapse,” he says. “It will be a revolution, but these drugs can be expensive, so we need to ensure that the people who need them can access them equitably.”

Getting precise on antimicrobial resistance

Meanwhile, the jostling for resources inside our guts could hold important clues about how to tackle antimicrobial resistance.

“The billions of bacteria that are in your gut are all living together in the one space and they are competing with each other,” says University College Cork’s Prof Paul Ross, who directs the APC Microbiome Ireland research centre.

“Some of these bacteria have evolved sophisticated weaponry to kill other bacteria. These weapons are molecules called bacteriocins, and the fact that they are so targeted could make them very useful as antibiotics.”

This move towards precision bacteriocins could help to avoid the damage caused by broad-spectrum antibiotics, which can breed antibiotic resistance, where microbes develop ways to avoid being killed by the medication.

“Bacteriocins are like sharpshooters that can take out a particular microbe and not affect others,” says Ross, who is SFI researcher of the year. “In theory this could result in less antimicrobial resistance developing, and hopefully fewer people suffering and dying from resistant infections.”

Ross predicts that in 2024 we will continue to learn more about how to protect the microbes that live in and on our body, with a focus on dietary fibre and probiotics, and there’s plenty yet to discover. “At APC we are isolating thousands of new strains of bacteria and analysing them for the potential benefits they can bring.”

Crystal ball for sustainability

Sustainability is the name of the game for Dr Sarah Guerin and Prof Anna Davies, who won the 2023 SFI early career researcher of the year award and the IRC impact award.

Guerin’s focus is on piezoelectric crystals that lie inside gadgets as diverse as microwaves, musical birthday cards and medical devices. These crystals generate electricity when they are put under physical pressure, but many contain lead, and Guerin’s group at the University of Limerick is looking for safer, organic alternatives.

“We want to make sustainable materials and sensors that can be used in devices and pharmaceutical products,” she explains. “We particularly want to create sustainable materials for use in communities, like pressure-sensitive tiles in playgrounds that people can step on to generate energy to charge phones.”

Guerin uses machine learning to explore the potentials of crystal structures, and she expects the computational approach to continue to shape innovations in 2024.

Davies also sees AI playing an increasing role in sustainability, this time in cities. There are pros and cons, she notes. “I think we will see increasing use of digital technologies and AI within the space of sustainable cities, which will affect lots of aspects of how people live in cities, from potentially greater accessibility to issues with privacy and biased algorithms.”

Davies, who is professor of geography, environment and society at Trinity College Dublin, works on projects to help people live more sustainably in urban areas. They include Cultivate, which uses technology to support food sharing, and Climate Smart, which helps secondary-school students to learn about adaptations to climate change in cities.

Reaching for skies

As many grapple with sustainability on planet Earth, some are increasingly looking to the skies.

Low-Earth orbit has become more accessible in recent years, according to Dr Niall Smith, director of MTU Blackrock Castle Observatory, which won the SFI outstanding contribution to Stem communication award.

“The cost per kilo of getting spacecraft into low-Earth orbit has fallen, and this has transformed the opportunities for industry and research,” says Smith, who is working with colleagues in Munster Technological University endeavouring to connect more businesses in the region with the space sector.

“In low-Earth orbit you are not in the extremes of space, you have some protection thanks to the Earth’s magnetic field, you can use lower power, you don’t have to build big.”

Further out in space, Smith anticipates plenty of moon-related events in 2024. Early in the year, the company Intuitive Machines will likely send a lander to the lunar surface, and separately the Chinese Chang’e 6 mission will look to send a robotic craft to collect a sample from the far side of the moon. There will be humans too – Nasa’s Artemis 2 mission plans to send a crew of four astronauts to fly around the moon.

On Earth we should expect three ‘supermoon’ events in 2024, though Smith is not fond of siloing the wonder. “I think everyone should be out looking at the moon every night,” he says.

I see you, 2024

PhD student Elin Strachan scooped the SFI Research Image of the Year 2023 with a close-up view of a fish eye that she stained to highlight nuclei in blue and mitochondria in green in the optic nerve.

“In our lab, we use fish to better understand inherited diseases of the eye, because of how well developed the visual system is in such early stages of fish development, and how closely their eyes resemble our own,” explains Strachan, who is carrying out her research at the UCD Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research.

The recent explosion in gene-based tools means that scientists can edit genes more precisely and efficiently, notes Strachan. “This allows us to replicate more closely the genetic variants seen in people with rare diseases.”

She works closely with people living with retinal diseases, discussing the research and developments in the field: “This has brought important perspective to my work, and is something I am eager to continue going forward in my career.”

And for 2024? “It will finally be time for me to submit my PhD thesis,” she says.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation