Meet the bioengineer developing 3D-printed stents for children

29 Nov 2023

Prof Tríona Lally and Trinity College Dublin provost Dr Linda Doyle. Image: Paul Sharp

Trinity’s Tríona Lally explains why her heart lies in the world of biomedical engineering and why academic metrics need to change.

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How healthcare will be handled in the future is likely to be determined by the innovations that are developed from research done in the here and now. One element of this research is the area of bioengineering.

In the context of health and medicine, bioengineering applies engineering principles to biological systems and biomedical technologies. Examples of this in action include medical implants for drug delivery, robotic and laser assistive tools for surgery and prosthetics, and exoskeletons.

For bioengineering professor Tríona Lally, her interest started with how the body worked. “I considered medicine as a career option but at the time I thought a five- or six-year degree was too much of a commitment and I’d be in college too long. Ironically, I ended up never really leaving college!”

Lally studied mechanical engineering in University of Limerick and during that time, she got a work placement at the medical device company now known as Stryker, which makes prosthetic hips and knees. “It was during this work placement that I saw how I could integrate my interest in human biology and my engineering skills to design medical devices and I was hooked.”

The heart of the matter

Now working at Trinity College Dublin, Lally was named as one to watch at the 2022 Trinity Innovation Awards. She works with a number of companies that are developing new technologies using research to answer unmet clinical needs.

“At the moment, one technology we are specifically looking at advancing is a novel magnetic resonance imaging modality to identify the blockages in the carotid artery that are most vulnerable to rupture – as this could result in a stroke,” she said. “Imaging techniques such as this offer opportunities to non-invasively screen patients at risk and reduce unnecessary and risky surgeries and/or prevent unforeseen clinical events, like a stroke.”

A particular passion she’s working on at the moment is developing 3D-printed stents for children – tubular mesh structures used to open up blocked or narrow vessels. These stents can be compressed down to a very small size to enable delivery into the body through a small opening in the leg and can then expand in blood vessels.

While stents are commonly used on adults with heart disease, the number of children that need them is relatively low, meaning they are not typically designed specifically for children who have a blocked or narrowed aorta.

“In my lab, we are working to design stents which can be 3D-printed and are designed for a specific child and their specific anatomy. These stents can be printed using metal powders which are welded together at a very high resolution and result in stent designs that can provide the best long-term outcomes for children suffering with this condition,” said Lally. “We work closely with a paediatric cardiologist on this work and we hope that long-term we can improve the quality of care for children with these congenital vascular defects.”

Bioengineering a better future

The world of medical devices, healthcare and bioengineering has seen plenty of changes in recent years and while there may not have been a specific bioengineering degree when Lally was studying, this too has changed, giving the biomedical engineers of today a much more structured education.

“When I was starting out, a biomedical engineer would typically have learned in more of an apprenticeship model in a medical device company following a degree in mechanical or electrical engineering,” said Lally.

“I think the dedicated training courses and increasing numbers of PhD graduates in biomedical engineering have helped Ireland to grow its capacity to innovate and develop research and development skills in Ireland.”

However, while the training has undoubtedly changed for the better, Lally points out that the world of academia still suffers from an overt focus on metrics such as citations or number of journal papers.

“It is difficult to remove quantitative metrics, like citations, for evaluating success but it is important that we do so or we risk commoditising research to the extent that academics with the most funding get published the most simply because they can pay for it, and are then seen to be the most successful and continue to get funding,” she said.

“Rather than use these metrics to establish who should be funded, many of the best universities have found that providing some non-competitive basic funding for all early-career academics can give researchers more time and space for creative, innovative and ground-breaking research.”

She added that Ireland needs to increase its funding for research on the whole in order to bring it more in line with other EU member states.

Barriers to entry still remain

Reflecting on her own career, Lally said her greatest challenge has been managing her time, which is divided between developing ideas, writing grants, conducting and supervising research, and disseminating that research. This is all on top of the fact that she is a mother to four children.

“It is important to link with others in the field and travel to conferences and meetings to incubate and advance new ideas and I think this can be particularly challenging when you have young children, and not just for women,” she said.

“Making childcare more available and affordable at conferences, providing support for continuing research during maternity leave, and on return from leave, are critical supports which could be provided to enable women to thrive and succeed in academia, and ultimately to take up more leadership positions in universities in the longer term.”

While there is still a way to go when it comes to reducing barriers to progression, Lally did still implore the younger generation to come into the industry.

“It is a really exciting and rewarding area with a lot of diversity and opportunities. It is also great to think you may have an impact on improving the quality of life of those around you.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic