How a few cups of coffee led to cutting-edge medical device research

21 Feb 2018

Associate Prof Bruce Murphy, investigator at AMBER. Image: AMBER

Associate Prof Bruce Murphy of AMBER is using the amazing properties of additive manufacturing to develop the next generation of medical devices, starting with the heart.

3D printing has promised a lot over the past few years, but nowhere has it promised to excel more than in the medtech industry, where being able to print an object of any shape has its benefits in the human body.

One of the researchers working on this is associate Prof Bruce Murphy of the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research (AMBER) centre based in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). He is part of a team developing an intricate device to repair heart valves represented by start-up CroíValve.

After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree in 1997 from TCD, Murphy stayed at the college to complete a PhD in bioengineering before moving on to NUI Galway in 2001 as part of a research team.

During this time, he set up a medical device design group funded by Enterprise Ireland’s commercialisation fund to develop new medical devices to treat cardiovascular diseases.

Returning to TCD, this time as a lecturer, Murphy went on to set up a medical device group and incubator lab. He has been an investigator at AMBER since its launch in 2013.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As an undergraduate, I really enjoyed research-led teaching, and a number of lecturers in mechanical engineering in TCD blended the ‘standard’ course material with topics from their research programmes.

I found this inspiring, because of the passion they displayed and the fact that world-leading research could be performed locally and accessed so easily.

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

One of the projects I am currently the academic lead on involves developing a device to repair the heart valve between the right atrium and right ventricle, known as the tricuspid valve.

The project kicked off via an email from cardiologist Martin Quinn of St Vincent’s Hospital regarding some concepts he had developed for tricuspid valve repair.

We had a number of meetings in 2015 and I evaluated the opportunity, intellectual property, technical feasibility and the ease-of-use characteristics of the device.

The proposed concept ticked these boxes and we jointly applied to Enterprise Ireland’s Commercialisation Fund for funding to develop a concept through a phase-zero R&D programme.

Enterprise Ireland agreed to fund the research programme, contingent on me attracting a strong R&D team.

In the summer of 2016, I drank a good few cups of coffee with a number of individuals to determine project-skills match.

At the end of this process, two team members with the relevant experience were brought on board: Lucy O’Keeffe, ex-Medtronic and with more than 15 years of bioengineering research experience, and Paul Heneghan, who has more than 10 years working in mechanical engineering design.

The project officially kicked off in October 2016 and we are now in pre-clinical trials of the device, and the proposed plan is that Lucy will become the CEO of the spin-out CroíValve.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Because the results have the ability to quickly get to a patient.

For example, the urology spin-out from the lab, ProVerum, plans to be in human use during 2018, while we expect the CroíValve implant to enter clinical trials in 2020.

Other devices being developed in the lab that do not leave behind a permanent implant can potentially reach the patient sooner, such as the Selio device, in the respiratory space.

Also, we are codeveloping a device with Bard PV in the peripheral vascular space that will aid a physician to open a completely blocked artery.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The research is important on an economic front, as many of the projects that we work on have the potential to be translated to patients either via Irish-based spin-out companies or by partnering with medical device companies that already have a base in Ireland

The device projects that we are involved in are generally focused on markets that have a market opportunity of more than $1bn per annum.

For example, the tricuspid repair/replacement market is estimated to be worth more than $3bn annually.

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

Time. Time is always against you. It takes many, many years to translate new material knowledge to medical devices, or, typically, the timeline to full commercial ramp-up for a new class III medical device is more than eight years.

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

The use of additive manufacturing has the potential to add significantly to advance medical device development, as geometries will no longer be constrained to the base stock that components are machined from.

This means restrictions about machining from tubes or flat sheets will disappear.

There are cost and material performance issues that still need to be resolved here. However, I believe the additive manufacturing will open many doors for medical device researchers in the future.