How a Galway researcher is looking to ‘change the trajectory of stroke’


5 May 2022

Image: Gillian Gunning

As part of the Cerenovus R&D team, Gillian Gunning is looking to understand the mechanics of what causes stroke and develop devices for quick and effective treatment.

After studying mechanical engineering at Trinity College Dublin, Gillian Gunning completed a PhD at the university. She focused on the mechanical properties of the heart’s mitral valve, with a view to informing the replacement of the valve and its chordae tendineae – thread-like bands of fibrous tissue that anchor the valve – in particular.

After her PhD, she looked for a position in industry where she could use her research experience. She began working as a clinical R&D engineer with Cerenovus in Galway, where it has a growing base. As part of Johnson & Johnson, the company develops medical devices to treat patients who have had a stroke.

Future Human

From her initial role, Gunning transition into a senior R&D engineering position in product development, and then to her current job as a project manager.

‘As a researcher in industry, I face different challenges to what I had seen previously in my time in the university’
– GILLIAN GUNNING

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

As part of the R&D product development team in Cerenovus, I work to deliver new products for the treatment of ischemic stroke. When I first joined the company, we had a single product – the Embotrap stent retriever – which was the primary focus of the entire team.

Since then, the company has grown considerably and we now have a much broader portfolio of devices for the treatment of ischemic stroke. As part of the Johnson & Johnson medical devices unit, Cerenovus Galway is a world-leading research site for ischemic stroke and at the forefront of developing a portfolio of innovative devices.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

An ischemic stroke is a debilitating, if not deadly, event that requires quick and effective treatment. At Cerenovus, we are changing the trajectory of stroke. Stroke is one of the devastating diseases, robbing people of their independence and their quality of life. One in six people worldwide will have a stroke in their lifetime.

Understanding the mechanics of what causes the stroke, as well as the challenges faced by physicians during treatment, provides invaluable information into the design of effective devices for treatment.

We hope, through the research and development conducted at Cerenovus, to provide valuable tools for physicians to treat stroke patients quickly and effectively and give them the best possible chance to make a full recovery.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The research conducted at Cerenovus feeds directly into the product development, and as such gives a solid scientific basis for the devices we develop to meet an unmet need.

The research is the foundation on which we develop new devices. It is a way to gain new insights into the underlying diseases that lead to a stroke. It inspires our ideas, guides our decision making, and informs how we train physicians in using our devices. It is central to everything we do.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been interested in problem solving and how things work. And I’ve always liked getting my hands dirty!

When I was in college studying mechanical engineering, we did a module in bioengineering. I had never really heard much about it before. I remember learning about stenting and prosthetic joints, and I just thought it was amazing what could be done to repair and replace parts of the human body that had stopped functioning properly.

I started my project as an undergraduate designing a solution for chronic total occlusions [a blockage of one or more coronary arteries]. I loved getting into the lab and trying things out, assembling prototypes and testing them. I also loved the marriage of medicine and mechanical engineering that came about in the research of medical devices, and found I had a passion for both. This really motivated me when I became a research assistant and then a PhD student.

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

As a researcher in industry, I face different challenges to what I had seen previously in my time in the university. It is a competitive landscape where it’s important to deliver creative and innovative solutions as quickly as possible.

Thrombectomy [the removal of a blood clot] for the treatment of ischemic stroke is still a relatively new field in medicine, and the landscape is evolving very quickly. It is important to keep up to date with new data and shifting trends in the treatment. 

Are there any common misconceptions about your area of research?

I think biomedical engineering is still a relatively new discipline, and maybe not that well known or understood to a broader audience. My specific area – cardiovascular and stroke devices – requires a deep understanding of the medical state, as well as a strong engineering background in order to design and develop solutions.

What makes our research group strong at Cerenovus is the diverse backgrounds of the engineers and researchers who contribute to the development of the devices – from chemical engineers to doctors to mechanical and aeronautical engineers.

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

As my primary area of interest is stroke, I’d like to see further research into stroke prevention. Across industry and medical organisations there has been great progress over the last few years in the systems and tools for the treatment of ischemic stroke, and the outcomes for stroke patients are improving dramatically as a result.

However, this is still an emergency procedure, and the outcomes for the patient are linked to the speed with which the stroke can be identified and the treatment administered. A deep understanding of the underlying causes of stroke and how they can be identified early is crucial in the treatment of susceptible patients.

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