‘Bioengineering will make it possible to regenerate tissues and organs’

24 Jan 2018

Nicholas Dunne, full professor and chair of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing at Dublin City University. Image: Queen’s University Belfast

Prof Nicholas Dunne of DCU explains how he and his team are attempting to build next-generation medical devices.

As life expectancy increases on average, so too does our requirement for ‘cyborg’ parts that can help the human body carry on when natural parts fail.

This has led to the merging of many fields of science – engineering, biology and materials science – to help create these artificial parts and give a new lease of life to those who need it.

Among them is Dublin City University’s (DCU) Nicholas Dunne, the current full professor and chair of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing, and director of the university’s Centre for Medical Engineering Research.

His academic career began in 1993 with the completion of his bachelor’s degree in polymer science and technology from Athlone Regional Technology College (now Athlone IT) before going on to complete a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

Following a stint as a biomaterials engineer in Leeds, he returned to academia to lecture at Cork Institute of Technology, DCU and back again at QUB before reaching his current position.


What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have many memories that potentially set off the spark to becoming a researcher. For example, helping my dad replace the carbon brushes in a washing machine while in primary school and listening to him explain how the brushes transfer electricity to the armature of the motor.

Other early memories are centred on going to science lab classes in secondary school and doing really cool ‘hands-on’ experiments, which were akin to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures due to our amazing and inspiring science teacher, Dermot Bennett, at St Joseph’s Secondary School in Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath.

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

Over the years, I have developed a research programme that lies at the interface of materials science, engineering and biology. Currently, my interdisciplinary team develops stratified approaches for the design, manufacture and characterisation of drug-biomaterial combination medical devices for tissue repair and regeneration.

I lead and manage a highly multidisciplinary group of engineers, scientists, biologists, pharmacists and clinicians working at the host/biomaterial interface that have played an important role in the development of biomaterials to simulate efficacious drug delivery or therapeutic response.

Our work spans fundamental mechanisms at the host/material interface as well as translational research to target non-union bone defects, bone metastases and chronic wounds.

This highly collaborative research programme is currently built on a strong research team of 10 PhD students, two MSc students and three postdoctoral research fellows. Over the last five years, it has been funded through significant research income from various Irish and UK funding organisations and industrial partners.

In your opinion, why is research important?

There are many reasons why research is important but, for me, I believe it provides a systematic means of understanding, which can be translated into building knowledge and developing a more efficient way of learning how to tackle societal issues as well as global challenges.

Research is also critical for new technological innovation and advancement as it can be used to find, quantify and leverage new opportunities that can be used to assist commercial success and provide a competitive advantage.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Over the years, I have been fortunate to see some of my research and know-how reach a commercial end point. Specifically, I have contributed to the development of technology relating to bone cement-mixing systems for total joint replacement surgery, and the design of an injectable bioactive cement for bone repair.

Currently, we have two research areas that are generating a certain level of commercial interest: the development of nanomedicine-based drug-biomaterial combinations for effective intercellular delivery for targeted hard-bone repair; and building of pre-operative-planning surgical platforms for accurate implant placement during joint replacement surgery.

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

The biggest challenges that face me as a researcher also face many others.

To do any kind of university-based research, academics need money, to conduct research programmes, to subside lab equipment and to pay research staff. Securing and sustaining funding is a perennial global challenge for all researchers, irrespective of their discipline.

Life as a researcher working in the area of biomaterials and medical devices systems is extremely fast-moving, and, to try and stay ahead of the curve – in terms of research innovation, dissemination of high-quality, impactful outputs – and hopefully strive towards commercial translation is another big challenge.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

I think one of the main public misconceptions about biomaterials and medical device-based research is that everything manages to make its way to the clinic or hospital to be used in the treatment of injuries or diseases.

Depending on the medical device classification and its development stage, it can be more than 10 years for a prototype developed in the lab to make its way into the clinic.

I think we can address this misconception through encouraging more public engagement initiatives that are linked with national societies and charities. This would not only highlight the excellent work that is being conducted in Irish universities within the space of biomaterials and medical device research, but also help explain the difficulties involved in translating this research to a clinically approved solution.

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

There are many areas of research that I would like to see advanced over the coming years, and bioengineers and biomaterials scientists can definitely play a key role in helping achieve these advancements.

Take, for example, personalised medicine. Engineers can help by developing better systems to rapidly assess a patient’s genetic profile.

Others include collecting and managing big data on individual patients; and creating inexpensive and rapid diagnostic devices, such as a lab-on-a-chip able to detect small levels of chemicals in the blood or biological fluids. Improved delivery systems are also necessary to allow for the effective, safe and patient-specific release of therapeutics.

In the emerging research field of synthetic biology, which I work in, new biomaterials are being engineered to replace or help in the repair of damaged or diseased tissues.

Adopting a multidisciplinary synthetic tissue engineering approach involving bioengineers and biomaterials scientists will make it possible to regenerate tissues and organs.