Think lab-grown organs are already here? Think again

29 Aug 2018

Oran Kennedy, research lecturer at RCSI. Image: SFI

Oran Kennedy of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is trying to better understand the science behind knee injury and disease.

After receiving close to half-a-million euro in Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funding earlier this year, biomechanical engineer Oran Kennedy of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) is trying to develop breakthrough treatments for disease in damaged knee joints.

Once he completed his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering at Trinity College Dublin and a short stint in industry, Kennedy went on to undertake a PhD in biomedical engineering at his alma mater.

He followed this up with a Fulbright postdoctoral scholarship from the City College of New York and later became a faculty member of orthopaedic surgery at the New York University Medical Center.

He is now a research lecturer at RCSI and runs a multidisciplinary musculoskeletal mechanobiology research group.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My father was a chemistry researcher. I remember him telling me about one of his projects when I was young. I asked him, how did he know it would work? He said he didn’t and laughed. I thought that was great!

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

I’m a mechanical engineer by training. Early in my career, I worked on the skeleton, purely as a mechanical structure – how strong it is, how/why does it break sometimes etc.

Since it obviously has a lot of biological functions, too, I gradually introduced ‘bio’ in front of that title, so that I’m now a biomechanical or biomedical engineer. This is a relatively young, fast-growing and exciting new discipline to work in.

My current focus is on the knee joint, and why a mechanical injury to it – such as ligament rupture that lots of sportspeople get – causes it to become diseased.

So, there’s a link between mechanics and disease. This is really interesting and understanding this link can – and has, in other cases – result in breakthroughs in treatments.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

My research is important because it addresses an injury and disease that we see all the time, but do not understand and cannot treat.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

There is potential to analyse and predict if an athlete, for example, is at high risk of a knee injury and should thus stay on the sidelines a while.

In addition, there is the possibility of early intervention and treatment in the case that the injury does occur. This could prevent or slow down the onset of disease.

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

Funding is always the big challenge, but that’s not big or interesting news.

I think my area of research – and many others – is becoming more and more multidisciplinary quite quickly.

Technology is racing ahead; big data and data science methods are becoming standard. So, keeping up, staying abreast of all the advances and at the same time maintaining a strong focus on the research can be challenging.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I think there are always misconceptions about everything! With more and more information available, and people having less and less time to stay informed, I think that situation won’t change any time soon.

The main misconception in my area is that things are more advanced than they actually are, for example: ‘Sure, we’ll be growing new organs soon, so [there’s] no need for prosthetics.’ Although everyone now has quick access to information, in the case of research science/data, that information still takes a long time to generate.

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

Preventative therapies for musculoskeletal conditions in young people.

Who is your unsung hero of science and why?

Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley. As a teenager, he used a battered microscope to look at and draw snowflakes during the winters on his farm in Vermont. Eventually, he took the first ever picture of one and determined that no two are the same.

No tools (apart from the scope) and no grants – just curiosity and tenacity determined something that most people on the street could tell you today.