Med tech at the interface of nano and medical implants

22 Oct 2012

Prof Gil Lee, Stokes professor of physical chemistry at the UCD School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

With a major conference on biointerfaces taking place in Dublin this week, we find out more about how engineering surfaces at the nanoscale can offer a boost to implantable medical devices.

The human body knows its stuff. And if you implant something into it – like a medical device – it reacts accordingly. Recent years have seen a surge of interest on the interface between medical devices and the human body, and the BioInterface Conference 2012 being hosted by University College Dublin (UCD) this week is on the case.

Engineering those interfaces can have an impact on how the body responds to them, according to Prof Gil Lee, Stokes professor of physical chemistry at the UCD School of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. So what can nanotech – which works at the scale of nanometres – do for med tech?

“In the last 10 years, there has been a huge swell of research in the biological aspects of nanotechnology,” says Lee, who will present a workshop at the conference this week.

“People have realised that the applications of nanotechnology could be applied to medicine and that nanoparticles could be used to interface with biology and create really high-value products.”

In particular, there’s a huge interest in modifying interfaces at a nanometre scale because this can affect the reactions to the interface in the body. Those modifications might include creating tiny pores on the surface of a material such as titanium, or creating new ‘designer’ materials like three-dimensional scaffolds from biological materials, that changes how cells ‘stick’ or react to them, explains Lee.

“You can impart really important physical properties by engineering [interfaces] on the nanometre scale,” he says. “There’s a realisation that the body has got material properties that go from [jelly] all the way up to steel and this is a field that is moving extraordinarily quickly. And what you see through bionanotech is that you are getting rapid advances where people are creating designer materials that can be coatings or three-dimensional scaffolds that fundamentally change the way your body responds to them.”

Focus on reactions

At the Nanoremedies Centre in UCD, research is ongoing into how cells react with various surfaces in a mechanical sense.

“Cells respond to their environment, they test it mechanically and if it’s the wrong surface they will detect it very quickly,” says Lee. “If you put very hard materials in the wrong place, there will be an immune response to them. But if you have the right mechanical properties, cells will respond in a more positive manner. So there’s a lot of promise in engineering materials that either are created de novo or are that are modified from existing materials that are more biocompatible.”

In particular, the research in the UCD group is honing in on tiny ‘strain gauges’ within cells that can assess the hardness of materials, he explains.

“We are trying to understand at a molecular scale what is it that is causing cells to respond to their environment in a mechanical sense.

“The objective is to create materials that are not going to fight with our immune system and will immediately be recognised by our stem cells as something to colonise.”

One of the challenges of introducing nano-engineered materials into the body is safety – and again that is a focus of research, says Lee.

“This is something that the nano community has been looking at for the last decade, and the biomedical device community is very aware of it,” he says.

Industry interest

This week’s biointerface conference will bring together a host of people who have an interest in developing biocompatible and effective interfaces for medical devices and controlled drug delivery in the body.

“This is a really industry-led meeting and it’s bringing together some of the best people in industry and academia from this area,” says Lee.

“The next generation of biomedical devices that come down the line are going to be of this nature and hopefully encouraging people to think about this will create the ability in Ireland to respond to the companies who are going to want to have a place to produce these devices.”

Biointerface – a first for Ireland

This week, UCD is hosting a major, international medical device conference for the US-based Surfaces in Biomaterials Foundation. It’s the first time the annual biointerface conference is being held outside of the United States since it was established in 1990.

Topics to be covered include surface modification of devices, biomaterials, wound healing, drug delivery systems, plasma medicine and regulatory issues.

Representatives from companies such as DePuy, Medtronic, EnBio, Bausch & Lomb SurModics, BASF and Boston Scientific are due to attend or give presentations.

Academic researchers from universities such as University of Utah, University of Sydney, Utrecht University, University of Washington, University of Liverpool and Nanyang Technological University and researchers from UCD, University College Cork and NUI Galway will be presenting their latest research findings.

“We are delighted that the Surfaces in Biomaterials Foundation chose to host its first-ever conference outside of America at University College Dublin,”  says Dr Denis Dowling, UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, a member of the conference organising committee. “This helps to demonstrate the global recognition of the importance of the medical-device sector in Ireland.” 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