From bioweapons and yoghurt to baby wipes and beyond

A DONEGAL man has been providing expert support to the Department of Foreign Affairs on biological and toxin weapons for over twenty-five years.
Dr Ronnie Russell is Associate Professor of Microbiology at Trinity College. He had just finished a lengthy week of UN bioweapons talks in Geneva when he spoke to the Donegal News.
Bioweapons is a complex and rapidly advancing area of science where chemical and biological technologies can deliberately be used as weapons of mass destruction against not only humans but animals and environment.
Even though supposedly retired six years ago from the post at Trinity College, Dr Russell finds it very difficult to slow down and switch off from what has been a very full and varied career.
“There is so much yet to learn and so many interesting challenges out there where I might make some contribution. I have quite reduced lecturing and research involvement at TCD but have increased consultancy roles to Government and industry,” he said.
A ‘hands on’ problem solver, Dr Russell has lectured to upwards of 15,000 students and mentored many towards eventual careers in medicine, microbiology or immunology over the past forty years.
Many of those students have stayed in touch over the years and occasionally draw him into projects or problems that they encounter.
Dr Russell helped develop and run Blue Flag, Green Schools and Green Campus schemes. He also designed the first national bio-hazardous waste facility in 1999 to deal with waste originating from research labs, hospitals and the biotechnology industries. This is still the only such facility in Ireland.
On the Board of Dublin Zoo at a time when the space was doubled and provided a more natural environments for its animals, Dr Russell is also the President of the Irish Decontamination Institute.
And yet his career could so easily have taken on a different trajectory altogether.
“I had developed a keen interest in aircraft and I applied to BOAC as a trainee pilot on their Concorde intake. I went to the College of Air Training at Hamble, Southampton but my timing could not have been worse. Harold Wilson decided to end the Concorde programme and the training ended also. My fallback position was Trinity College,” he recalled.
Raised on small farm
Dr Russell was raised on a small farm at Glenkeen just a mile outside Milford.
“Life on our own farm focused on poultry, fruit and flowers. This had manic periods of activity but also quieter periods which I could put to good use reading, studying and listening to the BBC World service and Radio 4. I learned a lot from radio,” he said.
“My mother and father knew the benefit of a good education. They made sure that both I and my brother Ken could read and count well before going to school. My father was always bringing back boxes of unusual books from auctions while, at a practical level, he encouraged me to understand engineering principles using Meccano sets – my favourite toy,” he added.
He attended Milford National school while his secondary education continued at The Royal School in Raphoe with a daily commute from Milford via Lough Swilly and County Donegal Railways buses. This meant starting out at 8 am and getting home around 7pm.
“Every trip was an adventure, mixing with Convent girls and College boys going to Letterkenny, comparing our homework and swapping stories. Sometimes the bus to Raphoe wouldn’t start and we had to push it around Letterkenny Station Yard until it disappeared in a cloud of black smoke,” he said.
His father, James Russell was a talented craftsman with wood and most of their early toys were handmade by him. During his Leaving Cert years, Ronnie’s mother became very ill with encephalitis and he took over a lot of the housework and looked after the poultry.
“I still managed to do well in my Leaving Cert and even got a scholarship to Trinity College. After I got my degree I was then invited to do a Doctorate at the University of Glasgow to research how the body defended itself against infection – the relatively new science of Immunology.
“The timing was just right and Glasgow was among the leading centres of this science. What was more, the University had a very active Air Squadron equipped with the latest aerobatic training aircraft which I enjoyed flying over the next three years,” he laughed.
Blood cells
Dr Russell became expert in measuring the movement of white blood cells and was able to demonstrate that some of them (lymphocytes) crawled around the body in response to chemical signalling systems, homing in on targets and forming part of what is now understood as the immune response.
This was a major discovery and he had his first published paper in the journal Nature. Based on this, he was invited to help set up diagnostic testing in newly established NHS immunology labs and spent time in the Pasteur Institute in Paris and in the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Labs in London exchanging knowledge.
With further research he was able to develop a vaccine which could focus immune attacks on tumours by utilising signals from certain bacteria. By now armed with a Doctorate, he was invited to come back to Trinity College Dublin to set up applied research and teaching in immunology and microbiology.
He lives in Sandyford at the base of the Dublin Mountains (“It feels comfortingly like the Donegal scenery that I miss”) with his wife Lesa.
Lesa Thurman is a movie actor known for her work on The Secret Scripture and she provides quite a contrast to Ronnie’s world of science. Their family, David, Karen, Nicki and Kayla are spread between England, US and Ireland and their first grandchild, Holly, arrived almost a year ago.
Over the years, Dr Russell has helped a number of companies to design and bring new surgical instruments to market. He’s also busy troubleshooting in the biotech, pharma and food and drinks and healthcare industries.
“The correct microbes are essential to many of these industries like brewing and distilling, yoghurt, cheese and fermented foods, bread making and many pharmaceutical products,” he explained.
In his studies of the immune system, he always marvelled at the way our white blood cells protect us against the many infections which start in our bodies every day.
“I wanted to bring that system out of the body and into a test tube. I found a way of doing this based on Russian countermeasures against their own biological weapons,” he said.
“After 20 years this is now in fairly widespread use and together with a team in Dublin Dental Hospital we have developed systems that are in place in many EU, Middle Eastern and US dental hospitals protecting both staff and patients and cleaning and disinfecting the water in all of the dental chair units.
“We were also able to simplify the design of all of the water systems on dental chairs for a Finnish company which now has half of the European market.
“I have enjoyed inventing and innovating a range of products with a number of companies.
“One product that has brought me a lot of satisfaction is WaterWipes – simple in objective but technically complex. Standard market baby wipes a few years back, contained up to 17 different chemicals, caused rashes and irritation, left residues on the skin, caused allergies in some and cross-reactions in others and were not biodegradable,” he said.

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