Focus on research: Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill, I-Form
Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill is a Funded Investigator with I-Form, the SFI Research Centre for Advanced Manufacturing. He is a Biomedical Engineer with a focus on the translation of medical devices from concept through to clinical use. His interests include minimally invasive devices and delivery systems. He is currently researching 3D printed microneedles and their potential applications.
You have travelled in your academic career, but you started in Galway?
I obtained a BE (Biomedical) and PhD from NUI-Galway. The doctorate focused on applying mechanical stimulation to mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for vascular tissue engineering applications.
Subsequently, I worked for Veryan Medical before joining Creganna-Tactx, where I worked in both manufacturing and design service roles, helping to establish their Specialty Needles Division in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
Early in my career, I developed a mechanical clutch needle, with the aim of preventing through-puncture injuries. Designed to stop automatically when it enters a cavity (such as the peritoneal cavity), it won first prize for best innovation at The MIT Sloan Bio-innovations Conference, 2012.
While working at Harvard University, I co-invented an adhesive microneedle patch that mechanically interlocks with tissue and can be used to anchor skin grafts – for sustained drug delivery or the extraction of interstitial fluid (IChemE’s Innovative Product of the Year Award, 2013). In 2013, I joined UCD and set up the UCD Medical Device Design Group.
In 2015 I received a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship (Reintegration Grant), focused on the development of porous metallic microneedles. In 2017 I co-founded Latch Medical to commercialise microneedle-based medical devices and drug delivery systems, focused on a novel self-anchoring microneedle system, which won the 2018 Allergan Innovation Award.
I am now an Associate Professor in Biomedical Engineering in the School of Mechanical & Materials Engineering, UCD and Director of the UCD Centre for Biomedical Engineering.
Your work has a topical element in that it has potential to solve problems related to the distribution and logistics of vaccine delivery. Can you take us through it?
Microneedle patches offer the potential to painlessly deliver drugs through the skin which are currently injected using standard needles. Potentially, self-administered microneedle patches could be used, which could have big implications for how vaccine microneedle patches are distributed, particularly in low resource settings.
One challenge my research group focus on is developing both experimental and computer methods to evaluate novel microneedle designs. Microneedles have existed for over two decades but increasingly clinical use is finally becoming a reality.
However, microneedle patch designs and the best ways of predicting how they will perform in clinical use, are yet to be thoroughly investigated or fully optimised.
The UCD Medical Device Design Group has used a range of strategies to overcome the existing limitations of microneedles for both biosensing and drug delivery applications. These approaches have focused on design, prototyping and testing of microneedle patches.
You’ve spoken about the challenges involved. How do these influence the makeup of the investigating team?
Interdisciplinary research is crucial here – bringing together experts in all aspects of the skin, as well as in drug or vaccine formulation, user-centric design, and engineering.
In terms of efficacy, a trial studying delivery of the flu vaccine via microneedles, showed this method was at least as good as the traditional method. Significant advantages were found in terms of compliance and dose-sparing. Thus far however, a combination of factors has inhibited microneedles’ widespread adoption as an alternative to a needle and syringe.
Microneedles are usually under a millimetre in length. At this depth, pain receptors are not activated and tissue is not heavily vascularized. This enables the delivery of therapeutics in a painless and bloodless way.
Microneedles inserted into the skin, are essentially micro-sharp protrusions designed to physically bypass the stratum corneum, with the goal of painlessly accessing dermal layers for drug delivery or for biosensing applications.
Human skin varies in thickness across the body and the choice of site for insertion of microneedles, is important. A key variable is the amount of adipose tissue below the skin. Hair follicles and sweat glands also play a role.
For biosensing purposes, the stratum corneum attenuates the quality of the signal obtained from the underlying muscle. Microneedles may have a role in overcoming issues related to false detection of arrhythmias in hospitals (due to poor-quality interfaces between the electrode and the underlying skin).
Wet electrodes traditionally require skin preparation, such as shaving and application of electrolyte. Use of microneedles to break through the impedance of the stratum corneum without causing any pain, is being investigated.
From a career perspective, how has your experience influenced your current research?
My experience includes working with medical device start-ups, contract design manufacturers and large multinationals. My research now includes developing platform medical device technologies, offering smart ways to sense biosignals or deliver next-generation therapeutics through minimally invasive approaches.
Spending time in both industry and academia has given me an appreciation of what both do well and allowed me to recognise opportunities in forming linkages between both, particularly in medtech. I try to ensure that all the projects we work on are driven by unmet clinical needs, which often means they are of interest in industry or suitable to spin-out ourselves.
What directions in microneedles research are you finding exciting right now?
Currently, I am particularly excited by the design freedom 3D printing offers, coupled with the computational models we have been developing. This gives us an excellent toolbox to create optimally designed microneedle patches with applications in electromyography (EMG) sense and therapeutic delivery. Microneedle patches can definitely play a key role in the rapid response to global pandemics and I predict that there will be a lot of investment and further innovation in this area.
In the future, I think we will see a convergence of ‘smart’ microneedle-based wearable devices that are able to sense biosignals from the body and deliver therapeutics in a responsive fashion.