New treatments for Parkinson's disease, back pain, diabetes-related wounds, and a range of neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic syndromes and inflammatory diseases are being developed at the Science Foundation Ireland-funded Cúram National Centre for Research in Medical Devices in Galway.
The centre has received €49 million in funding from SFI and a number of industry partners to support its goal of developing affordable, innovative and transformative device based solutions to treat chronic illness and improve the lives of patients around the world.
Cúram owes its existence to Ireland's emergence as a global centre for medical device manufacture and development, according to centre director Prof Abhay Pandit. "The centre has its origin in the ecosystem that we live in," he says. "We have a tremendous medical device industry here in Ireland. The number speak for themselves in this regard."
Those numbers include direct employment of more than 27,000 people; 18 of the world’s top 25 medtech companies having a base in Ireland; and exports of €8.5 million annually to more than 100 countries around the world.
“The workforce in the medical devices industry is very highly skilled,” he notes. “And impact of the sector on the wider economy is also very large. It is estimated that for every one direct job in the industry a further 3.75 are supported indirectly. This means that the industry is responsible for well over 100,000 jobs within Ireland. When you walk down Shop Street in Galway it is very unlikely that you will meet someone who is not connected in some way to the medical device industry.”
While led by National University of Ireland Galway, Cúram's academic partners include UCD, UCC, TCD, UL and RCSI. According to Pandit, research into medical technologies has been going on in this institutions for quite a while.
"The universities have been ramping up their research in this area for the past 15 years. Ireland is now the highest per capita exporter of medical technologies in Europe. It is a sector that needs to be nurtured and these factors have led to the establishment of Cúram."
Curam’s clinical targets include cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, soft tissue, renal, respiratory and neural diseases. Key areas of expertise include biomaterials and drug delivery, device design, regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, glycoscience and clinical trial design. Clinical targets include cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, soft tissue, renal, respiratory and neural diseases.
“There are a great many health issues to deal with,” says Pandit. “We are all getting older and chronic diseases are increasing in populations. People living with diabetes have to live with a whole range of issues related to it. There are both clinical needs and economic needs to be met. We want to come up with affordable solutions.”
Industry collaboration is vitally important for the translation of research into the next generation of medical devices and implants. “We work very closely with industry as we need to have good commercialisation partners. We also work with international teams to address issues and which have an impact across the EU and globally.”
The research process begins with the identification of an unmet need. “Our work covers a very wide spectrum. Once we have identified an unmet clinical need we work on developing a solution to it. We have teams of scientists, engineers, and clinicians who work together on this. For example, if we are developing an electrode for deep brain stimulation in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease we will start off by looking at the materials required and how they can be synthesised. We then move on to designing the implant. We cover the whole ecosystem.”
The centre has secured more than €11 million in EU funding. The projects include BrainMatTrain which involves the development of biomaterial-based delivery systems for Parkinson’s disease. Almost €4 million has been secured by Cúram to lead a consortium of researchers on this new research project that will investigate novel treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
Consortium of researchers
The TrainERS project covers endoplasmic reticulum stress in health and disease. Led by Professor Afshin Samali, a team in Curam has secured €3.7 million to lead a consortium of researchers on a new project to research endoplasmic reticulum stress (ER stress), an emerging feature in the pathology of numerous diseases including cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, metabolic syndromes and inflammatory diseases that affect millions of people worldwide each year and pose an enormous cost to the health sector.
Tendon Therapy Train looks at engineering in vitro microenvironments for translation of cell-based therapies for tendon repair. This project has secured almost €4 million for the development of an advanced therapy medicinal product for tendon repair and regeneration. In addition, the project will train a cohort of 15 early stage researchers in the multidisciplinary field of ATMPs.
Curam has also secured €2.1 million from the EU to co-fund Medtrain, a new international industry-academia fellowship program in medical devices that will run over the next 4½ years. The MedTrain programme will offer 31 prestigious two-year postdoctoral fellowships over the next 4½ years to experienced researchers in the area of medical device research and development, including tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, biomaterials and drug delivery, glyco and protein engineering, and neuromodulation and computational modelling.
Public engagement is an important element of the centre’s work. “This is a very big piece of our work,” says Pandit. “We are accountable at the end of the day and we have designed our public engagement programmes to take into account the fact that science and technology may not be for everyone but they should have access to it nevertheless. We are looking at multiple age groups and have launched a range of programmes to address them. We are working with leaders in the education field to empower them to be able to go out and engage with other teachers. That will demonstrate our work for more effectively than just going out to a few schools.”
Other activities include residency programmes for artists, writers, teachers and other and as public appearances at events such as The Ploughing Championships and participation in the Science on Screen programme at the Galway Film Centre.
Pandit’s ambitions for this programme and Cúram overall is to have recognition and pride in the centre throughout Ireland. “I want people in rural villages in Ireland to know what Cúram does and people who are being treated using devices and technologies developed here to know about it. We want to make a difference to people’s lives and to the economy. Companies are coming back to us for repeat business on research projects and I hope in future that when an overseas medical device company decides to invest in Ireland it is partly because of the work being done here at Cúram.”