Focus on research: Dr Michael Monaghan
Dr Michael Monaghan is Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering at the Dept of Mechanical, Manufacturing & Biomedical Engineering, and Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering, Trinity College Dublin. He is also a funded investigator at the Science Foundation Ireland research centres Curam and Amber. His work looks at how stem cells can be used to repair cardiac muscle post-heart attack, generation of novel materials and methods in which to manufacture them, and metabolic imaging. In this interview he talks about setting up his lab in Trinity College and what he considers to be an academic measure of success.
Tell us about your academic career to date.
I am originally from Leitrim and attended NUI Galway to study Biomedical Engineering. During my final year project, I was introduced to Prof Abhay Pandit, now director of the SFI-funded centre Curam, who became my mentor. We worked with Boston Scientific on a project looking at stents and how they can be covered with the kind of cells that cover the inside of blood vessels to help them perform better after implantation. Following this, I spent some time in a small spin-off company before reconnecting with Abhay to embark on a PhD in the SFI-funded centre Network of Excellence for Functional Biomaterials. Through this, I received in depth training in biomaterial fabrication, gene delivery, and drug delivery in the field of skin repair and repair of the heart.
During this time I connected with Prof Katja Schenke-Layland based at the Fraunhofer Institute in Stuttgart and the University of Tubingen in South Germany. While performing key experiments due to the availability of specialised equipment that was available there, I prepared a European Commission grant proposal for the Marie Curie Fellowship that would fund me to independently do research in her lab for two years.
This grant application was successful so I move to Germany full time for two years and stayed on for a third to wrap up projects. Towards the end of this period, an opening for a job in Trinity College came up through a large scale initiative in TCD which was recruiting assistant professors across different departments and schools across the college, including biomedical engineering. I was fortunate to secure this position in September 2016.
Since returning to Ireland, I have kept my links with NUI Galway, established some partnerships and research collaborations and become part of Cúram as a funded investigator. I’m also a funded investigator at the SFI-funded Amber centre. Through both of these centres, SFI has been critical in my research since 2016 as I’ve been able to run projects and supervise some excellent PhD students.
After making that initial move into industry, was there a moment where you realised you were better suited to academia?
There are different experiences in industry and academia. Industry has that corporate structure with a lot of important policies in place for quality control or professional development. That’s something we’re getting better at in academia. Industry also has a reassuring level of job-security. There are projects in industry that can be curiosity driven and this is very typical of small spin-off companies. That being said, the bigger corporations are exploring more high-risk (high reward) projects and engaging a lot more with academia in doing this. I think what attracted me to a research role in a university was the autonomy. You need a high degree of self-motivation and perseverance in academia. That’s the contrast I see between the two.
Tell us about your current work in bioengineering, particularly in the area of heart attacks.
My PhD was materials-focussed and while I was in Germany I got a lot of exposure to stem cells and basic biology in how heart cells are derived from stem cells and progenitor cells in development.
In research, especially in Ireland, you have to carve your own niche as funding is quite limited. Ireland is an especially tough place to establish a research career. When moving back in 2016, I was naïve and underestimated the serious drought of research funding and opportunities for early stage researchers – this is only recently starting to improve. Allocating 1.1% of gross domestic product to research and development in science is well below the European average of 2.2%. In terms of governmental expenditure in science, Ireland is very far down in the rankings compared to other European countries.
We have a stellar international reputation for science, research and development – indeed punching far above our weight – but there is just not enough funding. I have good friends and colleagues whose grants are ranked as exceptional and recommended for funding, but limited budgets dash their chances of getting the projects off the ground. The extended repercussions of this is that international funding agencies such as the European Commission are hesitant to invest in Irish based research when there is a lack of national support and build up of momentum in that particular field.
However, I’ve persevered and when establishing my own lab I really wanted to focus on cardiac research as that’s really what my interest was in. It fascinated me that this muscle in your chest keeps you alive and disease of it kills more people than all cancers combined. It’s a very important issue globally.
My research has evolved over the years. At the beginning I wanted to create a tissue-engineered patch to replace damaged heart tissue. Tissue engineering can use either biomaterials alone (metals, plastics or collagen) but we can combine those with a drug such an anti-inflamatories to encourage blood vessel growth or bones to be reformed. There is also work looking at combining cells with these materials – so they can be either from bone marrow or stem cells or immune cells – which are being used in cancer therapy.
What I was interested in doing was incorporating heart cells and biomaterials to create living heart tissue that beats. If you think about heart cells – we call them cardiomyocytes – they beat but they don’t proliferate or regenerate. Once you get an injury to your heart you’re left with scar tissue that doesn’t beat.
Every tissue in the body is quite different. Skin, hair and nails regenerate well, but your heart cells grow at a rate of only 1% per year. We use stem cell reprogrammed from ‘fibroblasts’ in the skin which we then program to become heart cells. We combine these cells with our materials in a dish and use them to model heart tissue.
This is a really useful tool for discovering new drugs because quite often in the pipeline for discovering new drugs there are a lot of animal studies involved and animals do not possess the same physiology as humans. A drug might be successful in an animal but not in a human and vice versa.
We’re also looking at using these materials to help the heart on their own. One of the areas we’re very interested in is electroconductive biomaterials to replace pacemaker cells in the heart that co-ordinate a synchronous beating of your heart chamber to pump blood around the body, to the lungs so it can oxidate, and so on.
The materials we work with are not metal-based because you can imagine it wouldn’t be a good idea to use metal around the heart. Instead, we’re working with a specific class of polymers that will conduct an electrical signal. We’re fabricating these using a number of different techniques so that they will expand and contract to the same degree as the heart.
You’re also the founder of Monaghan Lab in TCD. What was the sinpiration behind it?
The labs I worked in before had strong identities so I wanted to replicate that experience with my own group. The first year of The Monaghan Lab was just me on my own as I was going through the process of researcher recruitment.
On the ground now we have our group of PhD students, a research assistant, and each year we have undergrad students joining the lab through their final year projects. We have a very active Masters in Biomedical Engineering programme, we also have a Bachelors of Engineering programme and an MSc in biomedical engineering – I’m the director of that programme here in TCD. The group expands and contracts every year with these undergraduate students but there is a core of PhD students and the research assistants. Throughout the years we’ve had post docs present, as well.
There is a hierarchical structure in that I would be the principal investigator. I would meet with everyone at least once every two weeks – the more junior students nearly every week. Within the group the post docs would be very senior and help with the supervision of the undergraduate students and provide them with more hands-on expertise. It’s the same for the PhD students who are in their third or fourth year and are quite independent but also work with the undergraduates. The MSc projects feed into the PhD projects.
We’re quite organised digitally, and this has become especially important with the remote working and social distancing measures imposed on us due to the pandemic. Communication is really key and I’ve really grown to appreciate its importance. If something goes awry or if a student is dealing with their own issues, it usually becomes pretty obvious. There’s an open dialogue between everyone. There’s always a meeting every week to keep up to date on what was happening in the lab and where other people’s projects were going. We also have a ‘journal club’ where we discuss a paper that has caught our interest. Quite often we find these things on Twitter. I see a paper, I like it, I share it via the Teams channel and it keeps us up to the date on what’s being published in our field.
Monaghan Lab also fits into bigger organisations like the Trinity Centre for Biomedical Engineering, the Trinity Biomedical Science Institute, and the SFI centres Curam, Amber, and the Dept of Mechanical Manufacturing & Biomedical Engineering, where myself and my students are registered, which is tied into the School of Engineering. There are a lot of layers to the structure.
Do students stay on from undergraduate to post doc levels? Would you like them to?
Yes and no. My first PhD student is finishing up and he’s a brilliant scientist but it wouldn’t be a measure of his success if he stayed on with me for a three-year post-doctoral research post. It would look better on his CV to show he had moved on, learned new skills and gain new experience. We have some great students coming through our undergraduate programme and we struggle to retain them. The jobs market is very attractive right now, and our graduates are highly skilled and sought after.
Some of our students may have been in Trinity for five years and its often time for them to find something else to do. It’s a measure of success if people do move on. They are our ambassadors.