What is your research about?
My research involves the analysis of the dielectric (electrical) properties of human tissue, as a platform for new medical device development. These electrical properties are used in medical imaging (using microwave and electrical impedance imaging) and in therapeutic applications (radiofrequency and microwave ablation of diseased tissue).

Our clinical targets range from neuro-imaging for stroke detection (funded by CÚRAM) to bladder imaging for managing bed-wetting in young children (collaboration with ICAN). Working closely with NUI Galway’s BioInnovate Programme, we are also investigating a number of clinical applications of ablation, as a therapeutic technology in the gastro, ENT and cardiac spaces.

How much of an advantage does your location add to the research?
We are focused on developing medical device technology that is both close to patient and close to market. Our Translational Medical Device Lab (www.tmdlab.ie) is the first in Ireland to be physically embedded within a large regional hospital (UCHG) and co-located with the Health Research Board’s Clinical Research Facility. We are funded by the European Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.
Being based in a clinical environment gives us unique access to clinical expertise, both in terms of understanding the clinical need and in developing prototype devices that are suitable for early-stage pilot studies. No other medical device research facility in Ireland (and maybe even in Europe) has such experience and expertise available on their doorstep. Even more important has been the support provided by both the HRB’s CRF and the research staff of the Lambe Translational Research Facility, many of who have become co-investigators on our device development projects.

How does your research get translated?
The average cost of bringing a medical device though clinical trial is estimated to be around $9 million. Therefore, in order to get the device to the patient and make a tangible impact on patient care, external investment is almost always required. To secure that external investment, we need to consider factors such as the market size, the regulatory pathway, the clinical burden of proof required, and the IP landscape. These questions can only be answered through close collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team at the very earliest stages of device development. 

What other challenges are there in bringing a medical device through clinical trials?
One of the biggest challenges of translating medical device technology is completing early-stage clinical trials. From a personal perspective, in 2014 I completed the MSc. in Clinical Research here in NUI Galway. The course material was developed and delivered by the staff of the HRB’s CRFG and therefore is very practical and applied. This knowledge and experience of device trials then feeds into our design process as part of our “design for trials” approach. On a longer-term basis, a dedicated device trials unit within the CRF would be a very attractive prospect, both to support NUIG device trials and the wider medtech community in Ireland. This is something we are currently discussing with Prof. Martin O’Donnell and Prof. Stewart Walsh. 

Do you collaborate with industry?
To achieve our goal of developing technology that is close to market, we need to adopt industry best practice in terms of research and development. Part of that process involves working closely with local, national and international medtech companies, both in terms of technology development, but also in terms of supporting medical device trials here in Galway.
Currently, we’re working with companies like ARC devices, Fire1, SATIMO and others on projects at every stage of the device lifecycle. The unique selling point of NUI Galway is the world-class infrastructure available for developing medical device technology, ranging from CÚRAM, the Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research in Medical Devices, to BioInnovate, and from the Translational Medical Device Lab to the HRB Clinical Research Facility. By integrating these centres of excellence into a coherent conveyor-belt for medical device development, we can be come the place to do medical device research in Europe. 

What impact do you hope your research will have on patients / society?
The ultimate goal of all of our research activities is to have a real and tangible impact on patient care, and patient quality of life. Putting the patient’s need at the centre of the research question is one of the core elements of the BioInnovate system, and also is reflected in the HRB’s new Programme on Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) in Research. Having the Translational Medical Device Lab based within UCHG gives us a unique opportunity for early engagement with patients and family to better understand their needs, an opportunity to collaborate closely with clinicians to develop an engineering solution, and access to the support of the HRB CRF to complete early-stage patient trials.

Can you give an example of a current project that benefits from this type of collaboration?
One project that particularly excites me in terms of patient impact is our CÚRAM project on neuro imaging, in collaboration with Prof. Martin O’Donnell. We’re looking at using novel imaging technology for much faster diagnosis and classification of stroke (potentially even within the ambulance). This would allow clinicians or even paramedics to administer “clot-busting” drugs much earlier, preserving precious brain tissue and protecting patients from many of the debilitating and long term symptoms of stroke. If successful, that project would have a very significant impact on a condition with a huge burden of care.