This NUI Galway researcher is working to keep your joints pain-free

3 Jul 2019

Barry McDermott. Image: NUI Galway

NUI Galway’s Barry McDermott is working to create computer models of patients’ joints to keep them going for as long as possible.

After receiving his degree in pharmaceutical medicine from Trinity College Dublin, PhD candidate Barry McDermott completed a degree in veterinary medicine at University College Dublin.

He then went on to study electronic and computer engineering at NUI Galway, where he was awarded the James Hardiman Research Scholarship to pursue PhD studies as part of the university’s medical device research group.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Some of my earliest memories are of science and engineering. As a child, our neighbour and family friend was a British engineer who introduced me to these areas though telescopes, radio and a love of nature. He had also lived through World War II and gave me a sense of the amazing technological achievements achieved in the early part of the 20th century, both for good and evil.

It was my time with him, I now believe, that instilled in me a voracious love and appetite for knowledge and understanding. I remember during the same period being enthralled by the US and Soviet space programmes including, for example, the Space Shuttle missions of the 1980s as well as the development of computing technology in the same era.

These formative experiences shaped in me a love of science and engineering of all types, from biological to chemical and physical and mathematical. It is what has resulted in me being uniquely trained as a scientist, medical professional and engineer, and ultimately now as a researcher in biomedical engineering.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I work on a number of projects related to medtech. One of the more recent ones that’s particularly exciting is related to osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Dobbin Atlantic Scholarship from the Ireland Canada University Foundation last spring.

This gave me the opportunity to start a collaboration between my home lab in NUI Galway (the Translational Medical Device Lab) and the Laboratory for Clinical Biomechanics and Rehabilitation in the School of Physiotherapy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

What’s exciting about this work is the cross-disciplinary nature of it – physiotherapy mixed with engineering, computer science and medicine. During my time there we started the development of a method to take MRI scans of knees of OA patients and generate accurate computer models of them. These models could then be used to simulate loading, movement and exercise with the expected stress and strain, as well as damage over time assessed.

Although this work has only really started in the last few months, the early results show good correlation between the computer models and real patients. We hope to develop a technology that will help preserve and keep affected knees as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

In the lab at NUI Galway, we try to target and work on projects that will have impact and meet a need. Taking the OA project as an example, this condition affects more than 250m people worldwide and approximately 15pc to 25pc of the population in Ireland.

Movement is something many people take for granted, particularly when we are younger. The reality is that, unfortunately, joints don’t tend to heal quickly or effectively when damaged. OA is a disease that can be simplified as ‘wear and tear’ of joints, particularly large joints such as the knee and hip. Western nations like Ireland, with challenges such as ageing populations and obesity, will see an increase in conditions like OA into the future.

The best treatment is achieved by early identification with intervention to minimise the cumulative damage most effective at early stages of the disease. This early intervention involves identifying telltale signs (biomarkers) that there is a problem in a joint. This is what this particular project aims to achieve through the development of powerful diagnostic tools that can interpret MRI of joints and effectively detect these biomarkers and identify at-risk patients, as well as identifying exercise regimens that would best suit them. The goal is to help people maintain the cartilage and joints they have, keeping them as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The OA project would ideally result in a software-based technology that can interpret MRI scans of patients and identify those at risk, thus allowing early clinical intervention. It could also recommend appropriate exercise and perhaps even pick out patients who would be candidates for surgery.

This technology would leverage computing power in terms of 3D modelling and artificial intelligence which could be accessed by clinicians. The ‘product’ would not be a physical object but rather a cloud-based service (or software-as-a-service as it’s sometimes called) that bodies such as the HSE and Health Canada would subscribe to.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

I’ll use the term ‘cross-disciplinary’ one last time. It can be hard to be an expert and be able to jump between areas such as medicine, software engineering and hardware design effectively. Notwithstanding that, I work with a great team of people with diverse but complementary skillsets.

While I have backgrounds in a fair few areas, it can still be challenging to keep up to speed with developments in all of these areas, which I think you need to do if you want to be an effective researcher.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think biomedical engineering is a relatively young field and one that is incredibly exciting. A misconception about the area, perhaps, is the idea that engineering and biology don’t mix. Traditionally, engineering was about designing and building things like bridges, aeroplanes and computers. It still is, of course, but all of those physics and mathematical techniques can be effectively applied to biological systems with amazing results.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Another area of research I’m involved in is biomedical engineering applied to the brain. I think the human brain – which is still the single most complex object in the known universe – is an area with huge potential for applied engineering. It is also an organ we know relatively little about due to this complexity.

In terms of disease, some of the most devastating conditions in urgent need of novel therapeutics and diagnostics are based on pathology of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. But also, some blue-sky ideas I read about, like brain-computer interfaces, while sounding like something out of science fiction, also have amazing potential if done right.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.