Biology gets smart to help ailing heart

Research Lives: Dr Manus Biggs, lecturer in biomedical science at NUI Galway and researcher with the CÚRAM research centre

You are starting a new project to make smart biological sensors to monitor ailing hearts and blood-vessels, what does that involve?

We are developing two different technologies. One is a kind of biological scaffold and glue with integrated sensors that can be patched into the heart following a heart attack. The biomaterial monitors the function of the heart tissue and sends back information.

It also contains stem cells that we prepare in the lab that seek to reduce the amount of scar tissue left on the heart as it heals. Then the scaffold gets resorbed into the body after a couple of months.

The other technology is a material that can be delivered into a major blood vessel just off the heart called the aorta when there is a bulge or aneurysm present. The idea is that the material can help to track the aneurysm over time, without the need for the person to come into the hospital repeatedly for imaging tests.

How will you make that happen?

My lab in Galway will develop the biomaterials for the devices, and we will collect data about how they perform in a biological environment. We will work closely with researchers in North Carolina State University who are experts in wearable technology and in building prototypes that could be used for clinical tests.

My lab will also be working with colleagues at Queen's University Belfast who can analyse whether and how the external power delivery system affects the cells and tissues around the heart. The project is being funded by the Science Foundation Ireland US-Ireland Partnership, which supports these tripartate collaborations between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the USA.

How did you develop an interest in regenerative medicine?

When I was in secondary school, I was interested in chemistry, and when I went to NUI Galway I was drawn towards the biological sciences. For my PhD I went to the University of Glasgow and I learned about engineering and microelectronics. Then I realised I could integrate these interests – the chemistry, the biology and the engineering – into engineering biologically relevant materials, or biomaterials that could carry out a function in the body and then be resorbed.

Are there any misconceptions that people tend to have about your area of research?

I think misconceptions exist around how medical devices are developed, and perhaps people don’t realise it is a very multi-disciplinary process. I work with stem cells and biomaterials, yet rely on collaborators and partners to provide expertise in microelectronics, biological systems and the pathway to clinical trials.

These needs have led to the establishment of CÚRAM, a national centre for research in medical devices, and one of the goals of this centre is to raise public awareness about medical device research.

Do you get to do much lab work yourself now?

I don’t get to work in the lab as much as I would like these days, but when I do, I consider it time well spent. I also enjoy working with state-of-the-art lab equipment and devising how we can use it for making and studying new biomaterials or medical devices.

But I think the best part of my job is watching the students grow as scientists and become experts in their area. It’s a great moment when they tell you something that you didn’t know, or have a really original insight.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation