Accelerating the pace of advanced material development

Kieran Perkins, Technology Innovation Manager at Grow MedTech, investigates how advanced new materials are being applied to create novel medical devices at some of our partner universities.

The pace of advanced material development is accelerating rapidly and nanotechnology, sophisticated computational modelling and material science are allowing us to design and modify materials that solve problems in radical ways. 

These new materials are creating high value markets but it can take decades for these materials to turn into commercially successful products —and this needs to change.

In 2013 the UK government included advanced materials as one of the “Eight Great Technologies” in which the UK is set to be a global leader.

In the UK businesses that produce and process materials are essential to the UK economy. They employ over 2.6 million people, create 15% of GDP and generate sales in UK of £170bn pa.

Grow MedTech’s approach is to harness these advances in new materials and apply them to create novel medical devices to meet unmet clinical needs. 

By recognising the vast potential of advanced materials and the need to test markets and develop applications rapidly, we support teams to operate at speed to develop their technologies and de-risk the innovation for future investments.   

The growing interest and excitement in advanced materials is also reflected in the decision of major research and innovation funders in both the UK and EU to target advanced materials within their portfolios. 

This is especially true in medical, health and wellbeing research funding programmes. Examples include the importance of this research for smart-related health systems, bio sensors, optical sensors, micro and nanoelectronics and smart nano- and bio-materials.

Narrowing the focus

Advanced materials can have applications in several industries and so getting the right partnerships in place at the start is crucial to help researchers narrow the focus of projects towards the most distinct clinical applications.

These decisions can be tough to make when the properties of a new material have many potential applications. 

Grow MedTech supports teams to explore their technologies and ensures a robust commercial case can be made for new developments.

At the University of Bradford, for example, a team led by Professor Anant Paradkar has developed a biocompatible liquid crystal material, called ‘Self-Gel’ which has several applications including, wound care, assisting surgery and imaging & sensing.

Grow MedTech has supported Professor Paradkar in assessing the clinical need and commercial viability for several end applications. The next step is to direct the focus towards one particular product: developing the material as an injectable ‘cushion’. 

This innovation will reduce the risk of perforation and haemorrhage during polypectomy procedures and so make the surgical procedure safer whilst offering the patient a faster overall procedure time.

Overall, this will increase work flow within the NHS and support the NHS to meet the increased demand from an ageing population who are all looking for increased outpatient-type services. 

“Support from Grow MedTech has also enabled us to build a strong strategic relationship with the NHS supply chain,” says Professor Paradkar. “We have recently signed a collaboration agreement with Huddersfield Pharmacy Specials (HPS) – a manufacturer owned by the NHS – and we will work with HPS to scale up this technology and industrialise for market”

Tackling big healthcare questions

Because advanced materials have properties and capabilities that have never before been seen in healthcare, they are providing ways to tackle extremely common, yet intractable problems that place a huge burden on patients, on healthcare systems and on the economy.

One of the biggest of these is back pain. More than 10 million adults in the UK suffer from lower back pain (LBP) and it is the leading cause of disability in England, representing 11 per cent of the disability burden of all diseases and costing the economy some £10.7 billion each year in sickness days, work loss and care costs.

At Sheffield Hallam University, Grow MedTech is supporting a team, led by Professor Christine Le Maitre and Professor Chris Sammon, to develop an injectable biomaterial that could replace a number of different current therapies.

These include painkillers, physiotherapy, or invasive spinal fusion surgery – an operation used as a last resort and often with limited success.

As with many other advanced materials projects, Grow MedTech has worked with the team to help narrow down the product development field.

One product now in development, called Bgel, works to promote new bone formation, offering the possibility of safer and more effective spinal fusion without the need for metal implants and rods.

A Grow MedTech Proof of Feasibility grant will enable the team to explore the use of Bgel in cows’ tails. These are an effective substitute for the human spine and will enable the team to carry out early-stage tests to see if a simple injection of Bgel can effectively fuse discs together.

Exploring new directions

Once a technology has been proven for its selected application, researchers will often explore further directions for development.

A great example of where this approach has worked extremely successfully is at the University of Leeds, where acellular biological scaffolds are being developed to repair and replace human tissue.

Called dCell®, the technology has been commercialised through Tissue Regenix and products for woundcare and cardiovascular applications have already reached the market. 

New ways to apply these dCell techniques are continually being explored. Dr Jennifer Edwards, a post-doctoral research fellow in Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences, has been awarded Grow MedTech Proof of Feasibility funding to investigate ways to remove cells from donated adipose tissue.

The aim is to produce an implantable product that surgeons can use in reconstructive surgery without triggering an immune response. Working in collaboration with NHS Blood and Transplant, Dr Edwards’ team is looking particularly at developing decellularized fat pads that can be used to treat diabetic foot ulcers.

These kinds of approaches show the incremental improvements and developments that are possible following the invention of a new material.

We don’t know, yet, what other applications will be discovered for dCell technology, but by helping bring together researchers from different disciplines  with relevant industry and clinical partners, we’ll be giving each great new idea the best possible launchpad.