‘I felt I could do much more than just give lectures, I could save lives’

7 Dec 2017

Dr Isma Liza Mohd Isa, postdoctoral researcher at Cúram, NUI Galway. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Isma Liza Mohd Isa aims to eradicate chronic back pain forever.

A report last year found that in Ireland, back pain was the most commonly reported chronic condition, with one in five respondents to a survey saying they suffer from it.

While a multitude of different reasons could be behind back pain, ranging from diet factors to deeper bone issues, a research team is aiming to stop the problem at its source with a new hydrogel.

One such researcher is Dr Isma Liza Mohd Isa, who is based at the Cúram medical device research centre at NUI Galway.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from the National University of Malaysia in 2006, Isa worked with the National Poison Centre in Malaysia and as a lecturer with the country’s ministry of health.

This year, she completed a PhD in anatomy from NUI Galway and now works as a researcher focused on modulation of inflammatory pain in intervertebral disc degeneration using biomaterials strategy.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I always wanted to save people’s lives, and I think the best way to do this is through a career as a medical scientist.

During my academic career, apart from administrative activities, my job was solely to give lectures and practical classes of pre-clinical subjects to the students. This cycle was repeated over five years without significant input from my side.

I felt I could do better than this and I believe that there is huge potential to improve people’s lives through the advancement of technology and developing interventional strategies for chronic diseases.

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

I’m currently working on an intervertebral disc project under the supervision of Prof Abhay Pandit.

In Cúram, the Science Foundation Ireland centre for research in medical devices based at NUI Galway, we are developing an interventional technology using therapeutic biomaterials.

The material we are using is known as hyaluronic acid hydrogel (a gel-like structure) and we hope to develop a way to inject this biomaterial into the spine where intervertebral discs (pads of cartilage between our back bones) have been damaged. The material has therapeutic properties to combat inflammation and pain.

This has been a truly multidisciplinary project. We have expanded our research to collaborate with fellow investigators at Cúram, including Prof David Finn at the Centre for Pain Research in NUI Galway, to establish our own pre-clinical model of pain in intervertebral disc injury.

Already, we have seen significant evidence for successful biomaterial treatment to alleviate pain and promote tissue healing in the intervertebral disc, and increased our knowledge of the possible mechanisms underlying disc disease and tissue repair.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Statistics estimate that lower back pain causes the highest amount of disability worldwide, and approximately 42pc of patients with lower back pain suffer from degenerative disc disease.

Current treatment is either conservative treatments or surgical procedures that aim to alleviate pain – however, none of these treatments can facilitate disc repair.

We aim to help surgeons to find better solutions to alleviate chronic pain in patients, while promoting disc repair and its mechanical functions using biomaterials without removing damaged discs.

This approach would have significant benefits for patients, allowing them to avoid repeated surgery – and potential complications, such as adjacent disc degeneration – to treat their conditions.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Biomaterials can be injected alone at early or middle stages of disease, and biomaterials combined with other biologic molecules could be used for late stage of disease to assist with tissue repair.

An advanced prototype for spine intervention would possibly help patients who show susceptibility to particular disease mechanisms, allowing us in the future to customise biomaterials for tissue repair for specific patients.

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

The only way to know the efficacy and safety of our technology is by testing it in humans. However, strict regulations require extensive lab-based research before we can get to that stage.

A concern would be that while we might see greater tissue repair using biomaterials treatment in a laboratory setting, we can’t guarantee that this would be replicated in humans.

We also need a better understanding of pain behaviour in humans –therefore, our multidisciplinary and collaborative process in this research is very beneficial.

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

Everyone has their own genetic code, which functions to express different levels of disease mechanisms and manifestations. I would like to map disease mechanisms that are specific to the severity of disc disease in individual patients at genome level. This would facilitate the design of specific target technology tailored to individual patients, and this approach would prevent further disease progression and complications, and also improve the healing process.

This technology would be less invasive and prove cost-effective for patients worldwide. That is the overall goal of our research at Cúram: to develop affordable transformative solutions to improve quality of life for patients suffering from chronic illness.