Dr Owen Clarkin of DCU believes we are at the dawn of a new age of medtech, and Ireland could be in a position to lead it.
Ireland, and in particular the west coast, has established itself as something of a medtech hub. The nation employs 29,000 people in this industry, making it the second-largest employer of medtech professionals in Europe, according to the Irish Medtech Association.
But, away from the grander-scale companies such as Medtronic and Boston Scientific, a raft of research teams and start-ups are aiming to build the next generation of medical devices, which includes some science fiction-like technology.
One of those is Dr Owen Clarkin, chair of biomedical engineering at Dublin City University’s (DCU) School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in the University of Limerick a number of years ago, Clarkin went on to do a placement at medtech firm Stryker and, after completing a PhD, he worked with a number of multinationals in their R&D facilities.
This year, he was awarded the President’s Prize for Innovation by DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith for his product, EnduraGel.
What inspired you to become a researcher?
I was interested in biomaterials from early on in my career, but it was really during my work placement at Stryker that I realised I wanted to become a researcher.
What truly fascinated me was when I realised that by manipulating formulations and heat treatments, I could see the effect of this on a microscopic level and, equally, I could manipulate the microscopic level to have an effect on the large-scale properties (eg strength, degradation rate).
However, I think what really cemented my love of research was when I realised how little anyone knew about the true nature of things and how much was yet to be discovered and understood – this is still a fact that astounds me today.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?
I am currently working on a number of biomaterials-based technologies, but I am foremost developing the technology around EnduraGel.
This technology is an injectable hydrogel (composed of over 80pc water) for the treatment of brain aneurysms, an out-pouching of the blood vessels in the brain.
Approximately one in 50 people have a brain aneurysm and, if left untreated, they will continue to grow and eventually burst, bleeding into the brain tissue and often causing disability or death.
It is injected through very fine tubes (catheters), less than 1mm in diameter, into the aneurysm wherein it gels, forming a barrier to blood ingress and further aneurysm expansion.
The key to controlling these attributes lies in the inclusion of uniform amorphous microparticles, which have a very specific chemistry. These microparticles uniformly and predictably thicken the gel to allow controlled delivery of a highly biocompatible hydrogel into the aneurysm space.
It is hoped that this will lead to a reduction in aneurysm recurrence and improved outcomes for patients. We are also developing a chemotherapy drug-eluting formulation, EmboStasis, for treatment of liver tumours.
In your opinion, why is your research important?
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, accounting for 31pc of all deaths.
This is a little-appreciated fact. Though much valuable research is being carried out in a number of rarer diseases, relatively less merit is given to cardiovascular diseases.
I think that this is largely due to the slower or less symptomatic progressive nature of the diseases but also because of the treatments we have available, which, though relatively successful, have a number of shortcomings and limitations.
I believe that this is an area of research that is particularly fruitful and can provide widespread societal impact.
What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?
Both EnduraGel and EmboStasis have clear commercial and clinical applications, and we hope that both technologies will form part of a commercial collaboration or spin-out company, adding vital, indigenously developed medical devices to the Irish medtech sector, supporting jobs and technologies in that sector.
The growth of Irish-born industries is vital to the long-term stability of Irish industry, and the support of Irish funders such as Enterprise Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland is vital to that growth.
Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions in science and engineering is that it is not imaginative and that imaginative people should be restricted to the arts. Both science and engineering are highly imaginative disciplines.
The knowledge bestowed to scholars of science and engineering are only the ‘tools of the trade’; how that scientist or engineer applies those tools is a matter of imagination, and the sky is the limit.
What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?
I would like to see a new generation of medical devices being developed here in Ireland.
Theranostics and nanotechnology are fields that hold huge promise for delivering technologies that tackle many of these problems in a much more effective and less invasive way.
Today, we can produce a host of different nanoparticles that appear to be well tolerated by the body and can be functionalised (surface-treated) in order to target specific tissue types, such as collagen, inflammatory cells and cancer cells.
This may in the future allow us to target solutions to specific tissues, such as the degraded tissue of a cerebral aneurysm, by simply injecting these nanoparticles into the blood stream.
These therapies, if correctly adapted, could provide a low-risk solution, which may be provided (like a vaccine) before any symptoms arise and, if no ailment is present, would simply be removed from the body through the kidneys.
Updated, 5.07pm, 5 December 2017: This article was amended to correct the spelling of Dr Owen Clarkin’s name.