Prof Fergal O’Brien is an engineer who spends his days teaching human anatomy to medical students and postgraduate surgeons. Throughout his career, he has continually bridged the fields of engineering, medicine and science. A mechanical engineering graduate who conducted his PhD research in the area of bone mechanobiology, Prof O’Brien went on to carry out postdoctoral research in orthopaedic tissue engineering, working with the engineering school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in collaboration with Harvard Medical School. Upon returning in 2003 to set up one of Ireland’s first tissue-regeneration laboratories, his broad educational background made him one of the few Irish experts in tissue engineering. [caption id="attachment_18880" align="alignright" width="196"]FergalOB Feature Image Professor Fergal O'Brien[/caption] Tissue engineering has grown considerably since 2003 and Prof O’Brien now heads one the largest regenerative medicine research groups in Ireland. The Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG) at Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) is developing ways to repair damaged tissues by employing advanced biomaterial and stem cell therapies to promote tissue regeneration. They received €2 million in funding from the European Research Council (ERC) in 2009 and a further €150,000 earlier this year. The project, 'miRNA-activated Scaffold Technologies for Cartilage Regeneration', is focused on developing an advanced therapeutic for cartilage repair. Damage to the cartilage on joints can result in osteoarthritis, which affects millions of people worldwide. Prof O’Brien spoke to about how the initial tranche of ERC funding came about. “Using the basis of the collagen biomaterial work I’d been doing in the States, we started to apply this knowledge to new applications here in Ireland. That work developed a product for bone repair and, after that, a product for cartilage repair. Those two technologies have been pretty successful and led to the formation of a spin-out campus company in 2011, called SurgaCell Technologies which has raised significant private investment since. If all goes well, we’ll have those technologies in patients in 2015. The company is working very hard to try to get regulatory approval over the next couple of months,” he explained. This work led to Prof O’Brien’s first ERC award in 2009, which was a grant of a €2 million. At the time, his researchers were taking some of the biomaterials that they had been developing and functionalising them to deliver drugs. “They serve as platforms for tissue regeneration, or what we call scaffolds. When they’re implanted into the body, they allow cells to produce tissue around them before they degrade. By also using them to deliver drugs means that their therapeutic potential could be greatly enhanced.” A big focus of the research is on pro-angiogenic therapy, ensuring the biomaterials have the potential to facilitate blood vessel ingrowth. That has been a challenge in the field of regenerative medicine: it is one thing to develop the biomaterial in the laboratory, or develop a tissue in the laboratory, but it is a completely different challenge to make sure that it becomes vascularised when it goes into the body. If it does not become vascularised, it fails. “Our focus was to try and make sure that the materials could deliver signals or drugs, or whatever was needed, to recruit blood vessels. That has worked quite well and that’s how we ended up developing the latest platform of technology that was funded by the ERC, over the last few weeks.”

Grants, funding and AMBER success

Early last month, Prof O’Brien was awarded an ERC ‘Proof of Concept’ grant, an award only available to researchers or groups that have already been awarded an ERC grant. The purpose of the grant is to establish the innovation potential of ideas arising from ERC-funded frontier research projects. Some 260 applicants from across Europe had applied for the first round of funding through the grant. The further funding will provide Prof O’Brien with up to €150,000 over 18 months to help bridge the gap between his existing frontier research and its commercial applications. “We’re very pleased with the grant, because it’s only ERC recipients who are eligible to apply for this award so the competition is fierce. We propose to use some of the biomaterial scaffolds we’ve developed in the past and functionalise them for the delivery of a specific type of biomolecule called micro-ribonucleic acids (microRNA), an RNA interference technology alternative to gene therapy. Not only will they promote tissue regeneration in a damaged area, but they’ll also switch on the genes associated with repair, and potentially switch off the ones associated with disease.” Earlier this year, the group published a paper in the Journal of Controlled Release to prove that it was capable of modifying its biomaterials to deliver these microRNAs. In simple terms, scientifically, the idea of using scaffolds to activate genes associated with repair, while switching off genes associated with disease, is a big step. The next stage for the group is to apply this technology for cartilage repair. [caption id="attachment_18822" align="alignleft" width="224"]Minister Damien English, Prof Fergal O'Brien and Laurence Mulvany, owner of Annagh Haven Minister Damien English, Prof Fergal O'Brien and Laurence Mulvany, owner of Annagh Haven[/caption] As well as heading the TERG and having a role in senior RCSI administration as deputy director for research, Prof O’Brien is also a deputy director in the €58 million Science Foundation Ireland Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research (AMBER) Centre between RCSI, Trinity College and University College Cork. AMBER is an academia-industry research consortium dedicated to developing new materials and medical devices. At the AMBER Industry Day recently, it was demonstrated how an Enterprise Ireland-funded technology developed in the TERG has had great success in returning a horse with a large mandibular cyst back to full health to the extent that she is now winning races. “AMBER is really thriving; it is a €58 million initiative which, by any scale, is an incredible level of investment. Of that €58 million, €22 million is coming from industry. That’s bridging academia, the world-class academics and the work done in the laboratories, with industry. It helps to bridge that gap so that technologies developed in our laboratories actually make it out to benefit society.” This, according to Prof O’Brien, is imperative. One of the major challenges for the bioengineering research industry is how to enable technologies to make the leap from laboratory to industry; AMBER is a mechanism for this to happen. “It also provides something else from a societal perspective and that’s getting companies that are already working here in the area of manufacturing, to begin to realise that we can also cater for R&D activity here in Ireland,” he said. “There are world-class facilities in many of the Irish academic institutions, the two highest profile being Trinity and NUI Galway, who are both hugely connected with the medical-device sector.”

Medical devices – Ireland leads the way

Prof O’Brien regards the connection between engineering and medicine as vital in Ireland’s quest to ensure its continued growth, even seeing it as a way to address the gender imbalance in the areas of science, technology, engineering and maths. “Many people in Ireland aren’t aware that the European centre for the medical-device industry is here in Ireland. There are tens of thousands of people employed making devices such as capacitors, stents and implants in different parts of the country. “Ireland is leading in this area from a European perspective and we’ve attracted all of these big international multinationals. It’s imperative however, that we produce more highly trained graduates capable of working in this area, spanning engineering and medicine, because it’s critical to the success of these companies and the economy. More highly trained graduates encourages the companies to stay and expand, as well as attracting new ones, and contributes to the formation of indigenous Irish start-ups. Personally, I’m biased in saying that I find it an exciting area, but many students also seem to feel this way. We are also really working to increase the number of women in the area and it seems that women are doing biomedical engineering more than any other area of engineering possibly because the medical side as well as the engineering appeals to them. This is great for the discipline because from my experience many female students tend to be more mature and stronger academically than their male counterparts at this stage of their career." Prof O’Brien has seen a definite shift in development opportunities for Irish graduates in comparison to when he left Trinity College in 1997. He sees no reason why the current crop of Irish graduates should feel the need to leave here to avail of world-class training and experience. There has been such a shift that Ireland is now attracting graduates from around the world to the centres of excellence for which it now has a worldwide reputation. “It’s so important that we let the next generation know the opportunities that exist, where to go and how to receive the best training in biomedical engineering. When I finished my PhD in 2000, you had to go away to receive top-class training. The difference is now you don’t necessarily have to. “I think that we now have a reputation internationally that there are world class centres of excellence actually here in Ireland. I find it interesting that we’re now bringing people from world-class institutions abroad who want to work here in Ireland and that’s great; it’s a sign of being successful in terms of what we do and that all the investment made by the Government in research and innovation is paying off,” Prof O’Brien concluded.