‘As medtech researchers, we cannot simply focus on the technology’

14 Feb 2018

Dr Martin O’Halloran, director of the Translational Medical Device Lab. Image: NUI Galway

Dr Martin O’Halloran, one of the country’s leading medtech researchers, gives an insight into how he and his team aim to give life back to stroke victims.

The west coast of Ireland is a hotbed for medtech activity, both in terms of a well-catered-to industry involving many biopharma companies, and academic centres with the sole purpose of advancing new technologies.

One of the researchers making huge strides in this area is Dr Martin O’Halloran of NUI Galway, director of the Translational Medical Device Lab (TMD Lab).

After completing a degree in electronic and computer engineering in 2004, O’Halloran went on to complete a PhD in 2008, followed by two master’s degrees in academic practice and clinical research, respectively.

He has worked extensively within European research projects, including ‘MiMed’ to accelerate the clinical evaluation and commercialisation of new medical devices. His research involves analysing the electrical properties of human tissue as a platform for new medical device development, with funding from the European Research Council.

He now leads a team of 23 researchers within the TMD Lab, composed of engineers, physicists, veterinary surgeons and clinical doctors.

In December of last year, O’Halloran was named as the Irish Research Council’s Researcher of the Year.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Growing up on a small farm in the west of Ireland meant if something broke, you had to fix it yourself. Working alongside my father, every problem could be fixed with a hammer, a vice-grip and a lot of elbow grease! This experience forces you to be practical, self-reliant and excited about problem-solving. These are skills that are equally important in the life of a researcher.

Medical devices is an exciting and inspiring sector to work in. If successful, your ideas can have a real and tangible impact on people’s lives. We have an amazing team now in the TMD Lab who are really passionate about science and the impact that a new diagnostic or therapeutic can have in the healthcare system. Working alongside people who share your passion is very exciting.

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

One exciting problem we are working on is a new technology to diagnose stroke before the patient even comes to the hospital, to allow for earlier treatment.

The majority of strokes are caused by clots in the brain and the rest are caused by bleeds. There is an effective treatment for strokes caused by clots called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which is injected into the patient and effectively dissolves the clot.

If given in time, tPA can reduce mortality and morbidity. However, at present, tPA can only be given after a CT scan has been completed in the hospital.

If you’re living in a remote part of Ireland, it could take several hours to get to a hospital and have your CT scan. To address this problem, we’re investigating a new technology to diagnose the patient in the ambulance. If it works, it could really transform how strokes are treated and reduce the huge societal burden associated with strokes in Ireland.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Within our lab, we are creating new diagnostics to identify diseases earlier when treatment is more effective, and also developing a number of exciting therapeutic technologies that have the potential to improve patient outcomes.

We have to be realistic and say that developing a new medical device is very difficult, and there are so many ways to fail.

But if only one of our technologies ultimately gets to the clinic and saves lives or reduces disability, that is something I’d be extremely proud of.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The average cost of getting a medical device to the patient in the US is approximately $9m. That cost relates to basic research, clinical trials, securing regulatory approval and building your device within a quality system.

That level of funding isn’t normally available within academia so, if you really want your innovation to get to the patient, at some stage you will be required to partner with industry.

Luckily in Ireland, we have 350 medtech companies (72pc of which are indigenous), so we are in a unique position for partnership.

Those partnerships between academia and industry are key for research translation, and, with 38,000 Irish people working in medtech, it’s also a good way to further secure Irish jobs.

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

The technical breakthrough is only a small part of the medical device process. You then have to prepare the device for trials through a quality and regulatory affairs system, to ensure the device is safe for use on patients. You have to seek approval from the regulators and you have to bring your device through clinical trials that are slow and expensive.

At each and every stage of the translation process, there are clear opportunities to fail. Failure can take the form of a delayed or over-budgeted trial, a delay in getting regulatory approval, a key clinician backing a competing technology, or just a gap in funding.

As medtech researchers, we cannot simply focus on the technology; we need to learn about all aspects of medical device development, from clinical trials to quality and regulatory affairs. That is exactly what we’re trying to do in the TMD Lab.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? 

Success in medtech doesn’t come from superstar researchers; it is the result of a high-quality ecosystem. There are so many key stakeholders in medtech, ranging from clinicians to engineers, to funders and clinical trials experts, and many others.

To succeed, you need to draw on the expertise and support of all of those stakeholders, and that takes a unique environment. Thankfully in Galway, we have clear buy-in from all parties, driven primarily by good will and wanting to see good technologies getting to the clinic and market. That support is very inspiring!

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

We are currently exploring new technologies to tackle early-stage dementia. With an ever-ageing population, there is a growing number of people being diagnosed with the disease.

The disease is incredibly distressing to the patient and their family, but also has huge economic and societal costs. We are planning our first evaluation of the approach in 2018, and this is a project that the entire team is particularly excited about.