Clinical innovation: paving the way for healthcare solutions

8 Oct 2012

(From left) Dr Niall Davis, specialist registrar in urology; Richard Bruton, TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Dr Keith O'Neill, director, life sciences, Enterprise Ireland; Chris Coburn, executive director, Cleveland Clinic Innovations

The deadline for applying to the Clinical Innovation Award is approaching. We talk to last year’s winner, Dr Niall Davis, about the idea to help catheter placement that won the inaugural award, and about going to Cleveland Clinic to showcase the invention.

Necessity is the mother of invention. So if you spot an obvious clinical need and come up with a potential solution, it’s a great start. And that’s what Dr Niall Davis did to win the inaugural Clinical Innovation Award last year, with the concept of a safety device for inserting urinary catheters.

The award, sponsored by Enterprise Ireland in association with Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, is aimed at clinicians and healthcare professionals in Ireland. It offers the winner €15,000 and the opportunity to work with Cleveland Clinic and Enterprise Ireland to develop the commercial feasibility of their innovative idea.

Clinical need

So what was that first winning idea? Davis, now a urology specialist registrar at Beaumont Hospital, spotted a clinical need while he was working at the Mid-Western Regional Hospital in Limerick.

Many patients who spend time in hospital have a urinary catheter in place to monitor their urine output, he explains.

“If people come in with bad hearts or chests or they are very sick, a good sign of how they are progressing is how much urine is being made by the kidneys. To get an accurate measurement, the catheter drains urine into a bag and you can monitor the output.”

Inserting the catheter in through the urethra, or water passage that leads to the bladder, can be an issue in males, however, in that the catheter may not go in far enough.

“It’s a blind procedure when you pass the catheter into the water passage and when you think it is in the bladder, you inflate a balloon to anchor it in place,” explains Davis. “But sometimes the catheter isn’t pushed in far enough and people are inflating the balloon in the water passage instead of the bladder.”

This could cause inflammation or narrowing of the urethra, which in turn could affect its function. However, Davis had an idea for a solution, which takes advantage of the pressure difference between the bladder and the urethra.

“It’s a safety valve,” he says. “The pressure in the bladder is very low compared to the urethra, which is high pressure because it is a narrow tube. So the concept is that if the balloon is blown up in the urethra the pressure valve is activated. Then, instead of the urine going down through the catheter, it empties out the side of the valve.

You see it trickling out and you know the balloon is in the wrong place. And if you push it in a little further and you are at the pressure of the bladder, then the urine won’t come out the side of the valve, it will go into the catheter.”

An idea takes hold

At the time, Davis was also working on a PhD at the Centre for Applied Biomedical Engineering Research at the University of Limerick. So he teamed up with Dr Michael Walsh and Rory Mooney there to optimise the concept of the valve, and worked with Eoghan Cunnane to build prototypes that could be used on artificial urethras.

Meanwhile, Davis also applied to the Clinical Innovation Award and won. “That was a big surprise, I wasn’t expecting it,” he recalls.

The award provided funding and also the opportunity to travel to Cleveland Clinic, where the team presented to nurses, urologists, emergency room doctors, and medical-technology companies.

Encouraged by the positive feedback from experts in both the US and around Ireland, the team behind the safety valve has been building links with clinics and manufacturers and the plan is to move towards a clinical trial.

The award has raised plenty of interest in the project, according to Davis. “It does make a difference,” he says. “The Cleveland Clinic is very well respected among the medical community – it is a prestigious place and one of the top medical centres in the US.”

Who will be next?

The closing date for entries to the Clinical Innovation Award is 31 October, and the winner will be announced on 6 December 2012. Clinicians in hospitals, third-level institutions and non-profit research organisations can apply.

“We want to work with clinicians who have ideas for new medical innovations,” says Dr Keith O’Neill, director of life science and food commercialisation at Enterprise Ireland. “The Clinical Innovation Award provides the funding, along with the support of Enterprise Ireland and the Cleveland Clinic, to help develop those ideas further.” is hosting Med Tech Focus, an initiative which over coming months will cover news, reports, interviews and videos documenting Ireland’s leading role in one of the hottest sectors in technology.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication