How materials science is forging a new path in medicine

15 Nov 2016

Sinéad Kenny, co-founder of DiaNia Technologies. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

At Inspirefest 2016 during the summer, Sinéad Kenny, co-founder of DiaNia Technologies, discussed the importance of materials science – medicine will never be the same again.

When Sinéad Kenny first told people she would be working in materials science, many were confused. “I remember having to tell my mum’s friend, ‘I won’t be the next Coco Chanel; it’s not about fashion’,” she explained.

Instead, it’s all about nature for Kenny. The way nature takes in its surroundings, applies its environment and adapts for the future is something she sees replicated, in what has become one of the most cutting edge areas of science and medicine in recent years.

materials science

“If we were to believe Charles Darwin,” she said,  “we developed from apes. We took what nature had available to us, we took the materials around us to progress.”

This, she feels, is materials science. And it has dominated our historical impact on the planet. The stone, bronze, and iron ages were all down to materials picked up and adapted, which is feeding into the current digital age.

“When I think about materials I think of science, technology, engineering and maths,” said Kenny, highlighting the relationship between material microstructures and how they can be transformed, via engineering, into macrostructures we can benefit from.

An example of how this works is looking at traditional sufferers from back pain having to undergo invasive surgery. Surgeons cut open patients’ backs and installed metal frames to help support bones, allowing them to heal.

However, now scientists have, through working in medicine and engineering, developed a process called ‘vertebroplasty’.

For this, patients have a stent implanted, with a catheter delivering a material into their back. The material the stent is made out of is called nitinol, which Kenny finds fascinating.

“It changes shape depending on its temperature,” she said. “We wouldn’t have known that unless we studied the microstructure and applied it to a macrostructural area.

“Into this nitinol stent, we deliver a bone cement; it’s got polymers and ceramics in it, and loads of types of material.

“The bone cement is interesting because first of all, [it] cures at body temperature, and doesn’t damage all the bone cells around it. Then it has a microstructure that reflects cancellous bone, the spongey bone, a nice bed for the bone cells.

“Then it starts feeding the bone cells with calcium and phosphorous. So it’s integrated into the body and not rejected.”

No major surgery required, reduced risk to patients and improved treatment and end results. All of this is achieved thanks to materials science, something Kenny and DiaNia Technologies are pioneering.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get half-price Super Early Bird tickets before prices go up on 15 December.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic