I am fortunate to have a diverse, transAtlantic experience in biomedical engineering, which spans the fields of academia and industry. I’m a Galway girl and graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Biomedical) degree from NUI Galway in 2004. While in university, I did my work placement in Mednova Ltd, a Galway company that was since acquired by Abbott Vascular. On graduation, I was awarded a place on the IBEC Export Orientation Programme (now IBEC Global Graduates), which allowed me to work in Mednova in Galway for six months and then in Abbott Vascular in the Bay Area in California, where I remained until 2008. I worked as a research and development engineer on test-method development for embolic filters and drug-coated stents, and on the design team cell injection catheters. I then returned to academia and completed a part-time MSc in Bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin over two years while working for Medtronic, Galway from on bio-prosthetic valve replacement delivery systems. My master’s research involved the design of a kinematic computer-based design tool for a novel orthopaedic knee implant for osteoarthritis, and I was lucky enough to be able to collaborate with a company in California, and finite element experts in Dublin for this research. In 2011, I was awarded a Fulbright International Science and Technology Award to pursue a PhD in Bioengineering at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. At Harvard, I was advised by Professor David Mooney, a researcher in tissue and cellular engineering and biomaterials and director of the Mooney lab, and Professor Conor Walsh, also an Irish Engineer and Trinity graduate, who directs the Harvard Biodesign Lab whose research interests include soft and wearable robotics. Having co-advisors with such unique and distinct expertise allowed me to become competent in new research areas and my thesis work involved the design, fabrication and testing of a combination of mechanical and biological therapy for heart failure patients. On the mechanical side, I delved into the field of soft robotics and designed a flexible sleeve that surrounds the heart and is actuated in synchrony with the native heartbeat to assist the failing ventricles of the heart to beat without contacting blood, thus obviating the need for anti-coagulants. We tested this design in a pre-clinical porcine model and demonstrated that we could increase cardiac output in an acute heart failure model and in a fully arrested heart.

Light-reflecting balloon catheter

With a multi-disciplinary collaborative team, I worked on the design of a light-reflecting balloon catheter that could transmit UV light from a small flexible fibre optic and reflect it on to a biodegradable patch/adhesive system to close defects in tissue such as the septum of the heart, ulcers in the gastro-intestinal tract and hernias in the abdominal wall. Owing to the biodegradable nature of the patch/adhesive system there are no permanent implants remaining in the body, and the device design allows delivery of the entire system in a minimally invasive manner. I also investigated methods to improve cellular retention of stem cells in the heart by using biomaterials and a device that allows replenishments of cell therapy over time. This work was in collaboration with Professor Garry Duffy and the Tissue Engineering Research Group at Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland. I graduated from Harvard with my PhD in May 2015 and began my postdoctoral research. In order to further optimise the cell delivery device for drug delivery to tissue, I want to develop a computer simulation that will allow accurate predictions of diffusion of drug through a porous membrane, with and without mechanical actuation. Motivated by this desire to optimise the device design, I looked for a research group with expertise in computational-based modelling of cardiac devices and am delighted to be currently working in Professor Peter McHugh’s research group in my alma mater, NUI Galway. The university here in Galway is an ideal choice for this research due to the strong research profile and reputation of the Discipline of Biomedical Engineering. The new College of Engineering and Informatics building at NUI Galway is a world-class teaching and research facility and supports an emerging generation of engineers, innovators and researchers. Professor McHugh, the host, is the Director of the Biomechanics Research Centre (BMEC), based in the College of Engineering and Informatics. Under its Biomedical Science and Engineering priority research theme, NUI Galway brings together engineers, scientists, clinicians and industry experts to develop innovative diagnostic and therapeutic solutions to biomedical challenges through interdisciplinary and strategic research activities. Some of the extensive experimental resources available to me include: Instron, Zwick, Dartec and Enduratec mechanical test systems; nanoindenter and video-extensometer systems; Microscopy suite; Machining equipment for test rig manufacturing. Professor McHugh’s wide-ranging interests include computational methods in biomedical engineering, cardiovascular biomechanics, cell mechanics, biomaterials and tissue engineering and medical implant and device analysis and design, thus making him and his research group a very suitable host for my research.

Delivering drugs directly to the heart

My current work involves computer simulation of a new system for delivery of therapy to the heart for patients with heart disease. This work will be funded by the SFI/HRB/Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Science. At Harvard, I had worked on a device that is implanted in the body and allows multiple refills of therapy directly to the heart from a port just under the skin. The goal of the work in NUI Galway is to develop a computer-based model using mathematical techniques which will be able to predict how therapy will be dispersed from this device to the heart tissue. This will allow the device design to be improved and may reveal some more understanding of the rate of drug delivery to the tissue, and help to design the best treatment strategy. The key goals of the work will be to obtain the material properties of all the device components so they can be used as input for the model, to create and run the computer-based model and to compare it to pre-clinical results. The pre-clinical testing is ongoing in parallel to the computer simulations and is led by a Trinity AMBER PhD student William Whyte who is currently based at Harvard. Before I returned to Ireland to embarking on my current research, I was offered the fantastic opportunity to pursue an independent academic career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 2017. I will take up a joint position as Assistant Professor between the Department of Mechanical Engineering (MIT MechE) and the Institute of Medical Engineering Sciences (IMES) and start my own laboratory and research career with a focus on translation of novel cardiac therapeutic devices, specifically combining mechanical devices with therapy delivery. Ellen HeadshotI intend to collaborate and maintain strong links with Irish universities, and am actively writing grants to strengthen those links and seeking bright Irish students (engineers, scientists, biologists or pharmacists) to join me in growing my lab at MIT in the future. Author: Dr Ellen Roche, MIT Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Discipline of Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering and Informatics, NUI Galway