Dr Owen Clarkin, DCU
Dr Owen Clarkin, Dublin City University. Image: DCU

The new gold standard: How will the latest research prevent aneurysms?

30 May 2017

Research forms the building blocks of our society and our world. Understanding those building blocks allows us to get a glimpse of the future.

Research is an integral cog in humankind’s advancement, driving our survival and prolonging our lives.

Here, Dr Owen Clarkin, a lecturer at Dublin City University (DCU), gives us an in-depth look at his work on a new biomedical technology that could prevent brain aneurysm ruptures.

What is your role within this company/organisation?

I am a lecturer within the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and principle investigator of the Biomaterials Research Group at DCU.

What steps led you to the role you have now?

I did my undergraduate in materials science in University of Limerick (UL). I chose this course primarily because I wanted one that provided a mix of the different sciences – chemistry, physics and biology – rather than one that was solely linked to any one discipline.

I also had an interest in materials science from a young age because of my interest in sailing. Sailing boats, sails, even wetsuits all have material science at the core of their technology.

During my undergraduate course at UL, I was very lucky to get a work placement at Stryker Orthopaedics in Limerick. Though already interested in medical device technology and biomaterials, the placement really cemented that interest. I was lucky enough at this stage to get heavily involved in the development of a new bone cement, HydroSet. Following completion of my placement at Stryker, I was introduced to Prof Mark Towler, under whom I carried out my final year project (FYP). During my FYP, I continued to work on HydroSet, solving a number of critical processing issues.

After my undergraduate degree, I was offered a contract with Stryker Development, where I got the opportunity to work with a number of high-profile scientists and engineers. Shortly after this, I was offered a PhD studentship in Prof Towler’s research group at the Materials and Surface Science Institute in UL. For the following three years, I researched alternatives to the current bone cement technology, and developed an alternative bone cement for the treatment of compression fractures of the spine. This technology ultimately spun out into Bearna Medical Ltd.

Following completion of my PhD in 2009, I began work at Waterford Institute of Technology’s South Eastern Applied Materials Research Centre. During this period, I worked with many multinational medical device companies to improve their products and to supplement their R&D facilities.

In 2012, I was awarded an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at DCU, in collaboration with Prof Caitríona Lally. During the following two years, I worked on the basic research for the development of a number of new materials with vascular applications.

Following on from this fellowship, I was awarded an Enterprise Ireland Commercialisation Fund to develop a device, EnduraGel, for the treatment of cerebral aneurysms.

In 2015, I accepted a lectureship role within the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at DCU, where I currently act as chair of biomedical engineering. This year, I was delighted to be awarded the President’s Prize for Innovation.

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

I am currently working on a number of biomaterials-based technologies, but foremost among these is the technology around EnduraGel, an injectable hydrogel (composed of more than 80pc water) for the treatment of brain aneurysms.

A brain aneurysm is 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.

The current gold standard for the treatment of brain aneurysms involves either open brain surgery or placing fine platinum coils through the blood vessels and into the aneurysm. Due to the risks associated with open surgery, the majority of treatments these days involve placing fine platinum coils into the aneurysm to inhibit blood from entering the aneurysm and causing further expansion. Unfortunately, these coils commonly compress due to blood pressure and, as a result, the aneurysm can continue to grow.

The technology being developed at the Biomaterials Research Group in DCU can be injected through very fine tubes (catheters) – less than 1mm in diameter – and into the aneurysm. It then gels, forming a barrier to blood ingress and further aneurysm expansion.

‘The funny thing about research is that people think that ideas come in quiet places like libraries, where everyone is quiet and contemplative. I don’t think so’

The difficulty with developing a hydrogel for this application is producing a gel thin enough that it can be injected through these very fine catheters and yet thicken in a controllable manner. This ensures that it will be relatively thick when delivered into the aneurysm space, such that it does not flow away in the high blood flow environment.

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.

What first stirred your interest in this area?

I was interested in biomaterials from early on in my career. Then, my wife’s grandmother suffered a bleed in the brain due to rupture of a silent aneurysm. This caused her severe disability for many years. Within a month of this happening, my wife’s aunt was operated on for two large aneurysms, which were clipped successfully. Due to the hereditary nature of brain aneurysms, particularly along the female lineage, I was very concerned and began to research the various treatment options.

My background in biomaterial science, injectable biomaterials and, particularly, dental cements aided me in finding the technology surrounding EnduraGel. Dental cement chemistry relies on use of amorphous materials to control the setting rate of the cements, however, these materials are hard and stiff and not suitable as soft tissue biomaterials. Additionally, the chemistry of the materials would cause serious issues when in contact with blood. My colleagues at the Biomaterials Research Group and I remodelled the chemistry and components of these materials to produce a material that is tough and resilient, yet flexible, biocompatible and suitable for the treatment of aneurysms.

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day for you?

Well, to be honest, there isn’t really a typical day, which is what I love about my work. It is always new and exciting. A ‘typical’ day depends very much on the time of year.

During semester, I am heavily involved in teaching, and a typical day would be largely taken up by teaching activities: preparing lectures and tutorials, correcting assignments, running or organising practical sessions. The thing that I love most about my job is that I am continually learning. No matter how much I think I know a subject, it is not until I have to teach it that I really get to know it in-depth. Even then, when I think I’ve fully mastered it, I still get a question that stumps me. This is the key to innovation in my opinion – until we understand a topic really, really well, then we can’t possibly look beyond it.

Outside semester, when I get a chance, I love being in the lab and gathering data; finding out new techniques, discovering unexpected results and, ultimately, finding that last piece of the puzzle that make the final picture almost obvious.

Of course, none of this can happen without funding and background research, so I try to earmark some time to nestle away in a quiet corner and catch up on reading the latest research and writing proposals.

What skills and tools do you use on a daily basis?

Organisation and time management are probably the skills that I use most often day-to-day. When you know that you are never going to get everything on your list done, then time management is key to achieving goals.

‘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’

Where I can, I try to focus on doing the things that are predominantly ‘important’ more often than doing the things that are predominantly ‘urgent’. I find this a very useful tool for time management. Sometimes, funding deadlines or deliverables are far away in the distance and don’t seem to be as urgent as the small, less important things that surround us, but if we don’t prioritise these important items, then they never get achieved.

What applications do you foresee for this research?

The funny thing about research is that people think that ideas come in quiet places like libraries, where everyone is quiet and contemplative. I don’t think so. At least not for me. I find that ideas come when you’re doing research or talking to people; when you’re in a hospital watching a procedure or when you’re trying to piece data together.

As a result, the more research you do, the more excited that you get about new possibilities. The world is full of new ideas and new research, we just have to find the time and the money to investigate their potential.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

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.

When you first started work as a researcher, what were you most surprised to learn was important in the role?

I was surprised to learn the indispensable importance of openness and collegiality in research.

In the past, there were too many scientists working away in their own small corners of research, which, of course, individually, may have great merit. But when researchers work together and help one another, the potential of the collaborative research far outweighs the sum of the parts.

However, initiation of collaborative relationships are not always straightforward, and it usually requires some degree of rapport with the potential collaborator and an awareness of their field of expertise to decipher how your areas of research can successfully combine.

It is for this reason that, today, most researchers are very open to helping in any way that they can. That is how they can build up relationships with like-minded researchers and become aware of their work, no matter how different or niche it seems.

What do you enjoy most about your career in research?

I love the diversity of the research environment. Everything from the diversity of the people in research to the diversity of the work, particularly in a multidisciplinary field such as biomedical engineering, where you can be involved in anything from thermodynamics to cell biology. I could be involved in designing a new piece of equipment one day or analysing cell cultures the next. There is no limit to the scope or breadth of the field.

A university is a really special place to work. It can be a large university and yet quite a small community. Here in DCU, we have more than 16,000 students, from first-year students who are very excited to be embarking on a new course, to PhD researchers who are well seasoned and dedicated. Then, every four years, the majority of those students are gone and the university begins afresh. Yet during the summer months, when the students migrate to homes, jobs and travel, the university once again turns into a small village where everything is familiar. It is a very refreshing environment to be part of.

Calling all researchers! Showcase your research in front of an international audience at Researchfest 2017. Find out how to enter here.

Updated, 2.20pm, 9 November 2017: This article has been updated to correct a line that mistakenly referenced the prevention of brain aneurysms rather than brain aneurysm ruptures.

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