Soft robotics is fundamentally changing biomedical engineering, and Dr Eimear Dolan of NUI Galway is one of its strongest advocates.
There’s a soft robotics revolution underway, which has implications for a whole host of different applications including infrastructure, manufacturing and even space exploration.
Yet, for Dr Eimear Dolan in NUI Galway – and colleagues both in Ireland and in the US – her focus is the world of medicine.
Last August, Dolan was first author of a new research paper documenting a breakthrough with major implications for those requiring medical implants such as pacemakers. When this type of implant is inserted into the human body, its natural reflex is to fight what it sees as an invading object that could cause harm.
However, Dolan and her fellow researchers – including former Inspirefest speaker Prof Ellen Roche, who is now over at MIT – revealed a soft robotic device that helps overcome one such response called fibrosis. This natural process results in a dense fibrous capsule surrounding the implant over time, rendering it unusable.
Dolan’s device significantly reduces the build-up of the fibrous capsule by manipulating the environment at the point where the body and device meet. Dolan recently chatted with Siliconrepublic.com about her latest research.
What led to you getting into biomedical engineering and soft robotics?
When I was in school, I was interested in maths, science and problem-solving, which meant that I was suited to engineering. Biomedical engineering takes engineering principles and design concepts and combines them with medicine and biology to innovate advances that improve human health and healthcare at all levels.
It is a really interesting field that is quickly evolving and it’s nice that you can have a positive impact on healthcare. Galway is a hub of biomedical engineering activity and as a graduate of NUI Galway, I am delighted to be back now as a lecturer training the next generation of biomedical engineers.
Soft robotics is a new area of robotics and I have only recently started researching. A couple of years ago, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Prof Ellen Roche at MIT. She has been leading the way in soft robotics innovation for cardiovascular applications.
We saw the potential of soft robotic technology to modulate the foreign body response, which is halting innovation of many implantable medical devices. We were the first to show that this approach reduced fibrotic encapsulation and I am excited to continue this work in my own research group at NUI Galway.
Is soft robotics a major area of interest right now?
It is an area that is getting a lot of attention as it has enormous potential. Soft robots are made from soft, elastic materials and offer unique opportunities in areas where conventional rigid robots are not ideal, such as implantable medical devices.
For example, the soft robotic cardiac assist device developed by Roche took inspiration from native heart muscle, and was designed to augment cardiac function by closely replicating it.
What was it like to partner with the likes of MIT and Harvard?
It was an amazing experience to work at MIT and also at NUI Galway with Prof Garry Duffy. It is a privilege to work with such a talented multi-disciplinary team.
Duffy and I are working together on multiple ongoing research projects and continuing our partnership with MIT. I am sending my first postdoctoral researcher, Dr Joanne O’Dwyer, to Roche’s lab for the next couple of months. O’Dwyer is designing a novel active implant to treat ovarian cancer as part of a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Technology Innovation Development Award.
How challenging was your latest soft robotic breakthrough?
There were technical challenges that had to be overcome, and I think the most important aspect of the recent breakthrough is that we approached the problem of fibrotic encapsulation of medical devices in a unique way.
We used the principals of soft robotics to manipulate the environment at the interface between the device and the body, which has never been done before. The device uses mechanical actuation to modulate how cells respond around the implant and we showed that this resulted in a significant reduction in the build-up of the fibrous capsule around the device. This approach has vast potential for a range of clinical applications.
What’s next for your research?
My goal is to develop new medical devices and advanced cell-based therapies to treat chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
I have recently been awarded an SFI Royal Society University Research Fellowship to bring this technology forward with a focus on type 1 diabetes, which is an area where innovative medical implants have been particularly affected by the foreign body response.
This fellowship also provides me with time and funding to grow my independent research group at NUI Galway.
We are very excited to develop this technology for other applications and to partner with companies or researchers interested in the potential of soft robotics to better integrate devices for longer use and better patient outcomes. We have an exciting road ahead with lots of work to do!
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