‘Everyone sees successes, but few realise you need to fail to have victories’

9 Oct 2019

Prof Derek O’Keeffe, NUI Galway, and the world’s first diabetes delivery drone. Image: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Prof Derek O’Keeffe recently led a world-first project to fly a drone with vital medical supplies to the Aran Islands and back again.

Prof Derek O’Keeffe holds a dual first-class honours degrees in engineering and medicine, as well as a master’s and a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Limerick and NUI Galway, respectively.

He has previously been a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University, a Green Templeton Scholar at the University of Oxford and a graduate of the endocrinology clinical fellowship at the Mayo Clinic in the US. He is currently a professor of medical device technology at NUI Galway and a consultant physician at University Hospital Galway.

He recently led the Diabetes Drone Project – in collaboration with Vodafone Ireland and a number of other partners – that successfully flew medication from the mainland to the Aran Islands and back using an autonomous drone.

‘Research is important for scientific truth. When you have an idea or hypothesis, the answer could be true or false’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been interested in understanding how things work. I remember as a child finding a bird with a broken wing, researching what to do and fixing it with a splint. I also remember being curious about how our TV set worked and when my family upgraded to a flat screen, I took apart the old colour CRT TV to see all the components.

The only problem was when I put it back together, it was black and white! So it was a natural choice for me to study engineering as a first degree to understand the electro-ICT-mechanical world. Then that evolved into medicine due to the clinical nature of my biomedical projects and my curiosity as to how the human body worked.

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

My research encompasses both medical technology and clinical medicine domains. I have worked on projects with NASA/ESA that put a biomedical technology experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) and have also done genetic studies on vitamin D metabolism.

Most recently we have been investigating the use of drones for delivery of critical medications (eg insulin) to geographically remote communities, especially in times following a sentinel weather event such as Storm Emma in 2018, when many patients were isolated for days due to large snow drifts.

This recent drone research project has taken more than a year and involved many different professionals with different skillsets to achieve aviation regulatory approval for the flight. It was a successful mission and in September 2019 we delivered insulin to the Aran Islands and returned a patient’s diabetes blood sample.

The project involved significant technical, regulatory and clinical challenges, and represented a world-first for autonomous BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight), VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) drone delivery and collection of prescription medications/biospecimen for the patient with diabetes.

My Health Innovation Via Engineering (HIVE) lab at NUI Galway is also working on a myriad of other medical device projects involving AI, augmented reality, robotics and wearable technology.

I am also interested in clinical research in diabetes and thyroid with regards to patient-centred care and evidence-based medicine practice.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Research is important for scientific truth. When you have an idea or hypothesis, the answer could be true or false. Research allows you to answer that question, which is very satisfying. Each answer is a little pebble in raising the floor of science that we all live on.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Some of the medical device technology we are developing in the HIVE lab will produce intellectual property which will lead to investment and jobs.

For example, we are developing an exciting point-of-care device to help people get optimal nutrition when fed by nasogastric tube in a hospital. We hope that this innovative research, which solves an important clinical problem, will ultimately become the standard of care worldwide.

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

Research funding is a constant challenge. For some of the bigger grant programmes, the success rate is approximately one in 10 submissions. Like everything in life, everyone sees your successes, but very few realise that you need to fail a lot in between to have those victories.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Most people underestimate the regulatory challenges in medical device research. Given that the projects ultimately are been developed to help people, there are a lot of clinical, technical and regulatory issues that must be addressed in order to do research involving humans.

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

I think there is a lot of scope to include AI in almost every area of medicine, from the obvious image-based cancer classification – such as lung x-rays – to the more subtle patient triage based on changes in quantitative physiological markers such as ward to high dependency unit transfer.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.