‘It’s only in recent years that medical devices have really gotten exciting’

6 Jun 2018

Dr Emily Porter of the Translational Medical Device Lab at NUI Galway. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Emily Porter of NUI Galway describes how she and her fellow researchers are working on a device that could improve the lives of 200m people worldwide.

The west coast of Ireland is a hotbed of medtech research and the Translational Medical Device Lab at the Lambe Institute of Translational Research, NUI Galway is among those leading the charge.

One of those working there is Dr Emily Porter who, since 2015, has been a postdoctoral researcher with the lab and whose current research interests include novel electromagnetic-based technologies for therapeutics and diagnostics.

She received her bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in electrical engineering from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 2009, 2010 and 2015, respectively.

Her PhD research involved bringing a breast health monitoring device through inception to the first clinical trials in the world for such a device.

Since 2010, Porter has published almost 70 papers, garnering her more than 400 citations and has been involved in a number of industrial and academic collaborations, including partnerships with the multinational Keysight Technologies.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

As a young child in Canada, I remember my dad – an engineering physicist – always working to fix or improve things. When I got older, we ‘invented’ things together, such as one time designing and building a special heater especially for warming up your mittens during the winter!

At the same time, my mum was a nurse in the technology-rich specialty of haemodialysis, a treatment which helps to clean the blood when the kidneys fail in this function.

From hearing about stories from the hospital, combined with my hands-on experimenting hobby, I thought the perfect field for me would merge both of these areas of expertise!

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

One of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a multi-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, medicine and psychology.

Our fantastic team includes Dr Geraldine Leader (psychology), Dr Martin O’Halloran (engineering and medicine), Dr Adam Santorelli (postdoc in engineering), and Eoghan Dunne (PhD student in engineering) at NUI Galway.

Together, we are working on developing a discreet wearable bladder monitor that can provide an alert when the bladder is approaching full.

In this way, people with urinary incontinence – such as those with spinal injuries, the elderly or children with bedwetting difficulties – can proactively void their bladder before accidents occur.

This condition affects an incredible 200m people worldwide.

Funded by the charity Respect and the EU, this technology will significantly support and facilitate toilet training for children with autism and intellectual disabilities.

The bladder monitor that we are working on today will allow children to become independent faster, while maintaining their dignity and improving their self-confidence.

While most of the medical devices I’ve worked on would be used in a hospital or clinic, this one is unique as it could be used widely at home.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

In the Translational Medical Device Lab, we try to focus on doing research on devices that have clear-cut clinical needs, while simultaneously meeting the requirements for commercialisation of the device, including a good-sized market, a strong demonstration of technical functionality, reasonable clinical burden of proof, and so on.

In order for medical devices to reach patients, we need them to be commercialised by industry. Therefore, it is important that we consider commercialisation needs early in the medical device development process. This ensures that we spend our time working on devices that have the most potential to reach patients.

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

Working as a researcher in the medical device field, one of the biggest challenges is the multi-disciplinary nature of the task.

To identify a good idea for a medical device, we often need to work with doctors, clinicians, nurses, and patients. Then, in order to develop the device, we may need to work with electrical and mechanical engineers, along with experts in anatomy, biology, and physiology.

Bringing together experts from all of the right areas is a challenge, but it is also very needed and worthwhile – the more people who have input on the device, the more likely it is to succeed.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think most people don’t realise how new widespread research into medical devices really is.

Throughout the 21st century, research on pharmaceuticals and drugs was exceedingly more common than research on medical devices. For example, the most recent imaging technique to be introduced in hospitals is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) from the late 1970s!

It’s only in recent years that the field of medical devices has really gotten exciting. That being said, I think medical device research is here to stay.

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

I am interested in ‘theranostic’ technologies, ie technologies that could diagnose and treat disease at the same time, or with the same device.

Today, if a patient sees a doctor and is told that they have cancer, it can be many weeks before treatment starts, creating an undue amount of stress for the patient.

Imagine if at the moment the cancer is diagnosed, the patient could be given an initial treatment using the same equipment as that which was used in the diagnosis. This would be a huge saving in terms of hospital costs, with fewer patient visits needed and therefore less doctor time spent, but it could also lead to better treatment outcomes and a boost in morale for patients.