Over the last few months, the importance of medtech engineering has been brought into the public consciousness as never before. Engineering companies – from Formula 1 teams to Dyson – have stepped forward to increase the production of ventilators and protective equipment, to help the NHS deal with the coronavirus.
While it will be medical science, through vaccines, tests and treatments that provides an eventual route out of the crisis, engineering has proved critical to the immediate response.
The range of engineering companies involved has emphasized the multidisciplinary nature of medtech engineering. It draws on nearly all facets of engineering – chemical, electrical, mechanical, materials and more. But it must also work in tandem with medical expertise, to ensure that the engineering solutions proposed properly meet clinical needs.
At the University of Bradford, we’ve helped to build such a multidisciplinary team, bringing together three academics from different parts of the University to work together on developing synthetic vascular implants.
The aim is to enable surgeons to avoid taking blood vessels from other parts of the body for use in bypass surgery. Dr Farshid Sefat from the School of Engineering, Dr Jacobo Elies from Pharmacy and Medical Sciences and Dr Kirsten Riches-Suman from Chemistry and Biosciences have teamed up with two clinicians from Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust to take their project forward.
They are using a Grow MedTech Proof of Market grant to look at the commercial and market opportunities in this highly competitive field. Their aim is to develop an implant into which the body’s own cells will migrate, to help it work as effectively as blood vessels taken from the patient.
Tackling healthcare challenges
Engineering has always been part of the solution for healthcare and is becoming more important with the huge challenges now faced by our healthcare systems: rising costs, pressure on quality and safety, an aging population and growing numbers with chronic conditions, to name but a few.
MedTech engineering is helping us to tackle the broad challenges that affect us all, but it is also being brought to bear on more specific challenges where, although fewer stand to benefit, the potential impacts are life-changing.
At the University of York, for example, researchers are developing tissue engineering and biomaterials approaches to help treat hypospadias, a common genetic condition where boys are born with their urine hole in an abnormal position on the penis.
Surgery to correct the condition has mixed results, due to the lack of native tissue at the repair site. Professor Jennifer Southgate, in collaboration with colleagues from Leeds, has developed a means of removing cells from pig bladders to create a material with similar properties to the natural tissue for use in such surgical reconstructions.
With the help of Grow MedTech, she is now working with NHS Blood and Transplant to adapt the technique for donor human bladders. This will avoid some of the regulatory hurdles associated with the use of animal tissue to enable this material to reach the clinic much faster.
A rich heritage
The UK has a rich heritage in medical technologies. The use of nuclear magnetic resonance for imaging and diagnostics was pioneered in the UK – and many millions now benefit from MRI scans across the world.
The UK was a pioneer too in orthopaedics, particularly joint replacements, and in the use of ultrasound. Initially, a technology used only for diagnosis and observation, especially pre-natal, ultrasound is now used for treating disease – as well as for many non-healthcare applications.
One such application developed by researchers at the University of Leeds involved using ultrasound to monitor nuclear waste. Now a team led by Dr James McLaughlan is being supported by Grow MedTech to use his expertise in this field for the treatment of cancer.
His work uses high-intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU. HIFU focuses ultrasound beams to a tiny area, the size of a grain of rice, which heats and so kills cancerous tissue.
Dr McLaughlan aims to develop a device that a surgeon could use both to identify and treat head and neck cancers without damaging any health tissue.
Grow MedTech funding will enable Dr McLaughlan to build and test a prototype device, engage with patients and map out the regulatory and market pathway for the technology.
A national and regional strength
The UK’s medical technology sector – in which medtech engineering plays a central role – accounts for six percent of the sector globally. And the Leeds and Sheffield City Regions have a concentration of medical technology companies and university research in this field, which Grow MedTech is helping to leverage.
All our partner universities have strengths in medical engineering, particularly the largest institution in the consortium, the University of Leeds. Healthcare technologies make up almost 20 percent of Leeds’ research portfolio, with particular expertise in medical and surgical engineering, wearable devices, bioelectronics, imaging and robotics.
It is surely no coincidence that the University has such a large Faculty of Engineering. Also important are Leeds’ close links to the teaching hospitals in the city, which help ensure clinical input on all medical engineering research.
Leeds Teaching Hospitals, for example, runs one of the largest in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) clinics in the UK, and its clinical director, Professor Adam Balen is a partner in a project at the University of Leeds to develop new methods to maintain the viability of human embryos during IVF.
Dr Virginia Pensabene in collaboration with Prof Helen Picton is developing a device for use in IVF that provides a safe, closed and precisely regulated microenvironment, more closely resembling an embryo’s natural growing conditions. This will provide an alternative to the current system, which sees embryos grown in open plastic dishes, overlaid with a potentially toxic mineral oil.
Grow MedTech funding is enabling the project team to assess the safety and toxicity of different materials for their device and validate the most promising. Key to the project is user engagement: with patients, the public as well as embryologists at other IVF clinics.
Our healthcare system pledges to care for us from cradle to grave and healthcare and medical engineering plays a role at every stage: from the pre-natal care to supporting the elderly; from diagnostics to improving public health.
The current crisis has brought the role of medtech engineering, usually invisible to the majority of patients, suddenly into full view. Once the crisis is behind us, hopefully, that visibility will remain.