A scaffold for healing

Research Lives: Prof Fergal O’Brien, RCSI professor of bioengineering and regenerative medicine

Fergal, you work on materials to fix bone and cartilage, can you explain?

In my lab, the Tissue Engineering Research Group, we develop materials made from substances that occur naturally in bone, such as hydroxyapatite and collagen.

We design and make multi-layered materials that can be put into damaged sections of bone or cartilage, where the material acts as a scaffold. Either the material’s structure can encourage the body’s own cells to grow and repair bones and joints, or the material can be used to deliver specific cells or genes to help boost healing.

How did you get interested in this area?

After I finished school in Westmeath, I went to study engineering at Trinity College Dublin. In practicals, we were looking at how materials like metals break. But I developed more of an interest in how bones break, and it went from there.

It might sound like a simple idea, to put a scaffold material into bone to help it heal, but bone is a living system, a complicated biological environment. So we have been working with a lot of experts from various areas, such as orthopaedic surgeons and cell biologists and pharmacists, and we spun out a company to help bring the material towards the clinic, so it can help patients.

What have you done with the material?

We were able to show that the material helps to heal small lesions or areas of damage in injured joints, such as knees and hips. I think one of the really big leaps for us was to show the concept worked in horses with injuries – we helped a racehorse with a damaged jaw and a show-jumper with knee damage to recover – and we have also shown it to be safe for use in humans, both for bone and cartilage.

We have just licensed technologies for orthopaedic applications to Locate Bio, a company in England, so hopefully they can bring our technologies to more widespread use.

What do you think made it all work?

Collaboration, I think. When you are bringing a piece of fundamental science towards patients, you need to work with a lot of people who know about the relevant parts of that journey.

Putting different heads together also opens the way for new projects, such as the work we are doing on scaffolds for skin, blood vessels and nerve tissue, including spinal cord repair at the SFI Amber Centre in partnership with IRFU Charitable Trust. It has been a privilege to have a number of injured rugby players provide their insight into our work.

You are a researcher, a lecturer and you are director of research and innovation at RCSI. What do you like most about your work?

The opportunity for continuous learning and to engage with so many talented, smart people from different backgrounds. It has been a joy to see the amazing career progression of many young researchers who worked in my labs.

And what do you find most challenging?

Managing my time. I have a number of different roles, and I owe it to the many people I work with to give adequate focus.

If you get to take a break from work, what do you like to do?

Spend time with family. Our six-year-old twins provide a lot of entertainment. I'm also a big sports fan and love travelling, so while I miss attending sporting events and seeing new places since the pandemic started, it has been nice being together so much. I live in Stepaside, so I've also enjoyed cycling in the mountains over the past few months.