Focus on research: Prof Abhay Pandit, Curam

Prof Abhay Pandit, Curam
Prof Abhay Pandit, Curam

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5 December 2016 | 0

Prof Abhay Pandit is Scientific Director of the Science Foundation Ireland-backed Curam centre for research into medical devices based at NUI Galway. In this interview he talks about comnig ‘home’ to academia, personalised medical treatments and the importance of an ethical mindset.

What drove you to pursue an academic career in Ireland?
I completed a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1998 and then worked for a number of years in medical device industry in the US. The last industry position I had was with St Jude Medical as manager of research and development, and principal investigator on an Advanced Technology Program Grant.

I was always interested in blue sky research and while I really enjoyed my time in industry I realised that the ideal scenario for me would be to continue my work in academia while maintaining strong links with industry partners.

I was attracted to Ireland because of the strong MedTech presence here and the commitment of the Irish government to supporting research excellence in this area. My research integrates biomaterial science and biological paradigms in developing solutions for chronic disease.

I am now Scientific Director of Curam. Our goal is to develop the next generation of medical devices, ie affordable, transformative solutions for patients suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson’s Disease.

When someone talks about medical devices they think of invasive solutions like pacemakers, dialysis machines and inhalers. Curam’s work comes from a different place.

Curam’s research is grounded in an understanding of medical implants and devices and the role they can play in providing structural support, function and diagnostic value and in augmenting the body’s repair and regenerative processes. Our research programme focuses on innovative device design, assessment and manufacture and is driven by specialist researchers, clinicians and industry partners developing solutions for specific disease states.

Key Areas of expertise at Curam include biomaterials and drug delivery, device design, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine and glycoscience. We also have expertise in clinical trial design, as clinical trials are an essential step in creating medical devices that realise their full potential, and ensuring the safety value of each new development. Without these trials, research cannot be translated into economic, health or societal benefits.

With the establishment of Curam, Ireland’s clinical infrastructure is now moving forward using a wide range of expertise to increase the number of clinical device trials carried out in Ireland.

Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine is a key area of research at Curam with a goal of finding solutions to chronic health problems and addressing unmet medical need.

Scientific advances in stem cells, gene therapy, biomaterials, medical device technology, growth and differentiation factors, as well as biomimetic environments have created unique opportunities to fabricate tissues in the laboratory from combinations of engineered extracellular matrices (‘scaffolds’), cells, and biologically active molecules.

In addition, use of these technologies to develop clinically translatable reparative and regenerative approaches is a major goal. Engineered matrices have taken a variety of forms such as injectable hydrogels, films, nanofibers and using nanoprinting technologies. With a focus on biomimetics and regenerative medicine, Curam is developing innovative approaches, assays and tools for comprehensive and accurate analysis of complex biological systems and their interaction with medical devices and associated therapeutics.

Curam is looking to produce devices that deliver personalised treatments. Just how personal can they be?
Yes, they can be extremely personal and the efficacy of treatments will depend on the microenvironment in the body.

In our ageing society, chronic disease has a ‘personalised identity’. If we are to work on any therapy for chronic illnesses like heart disease or critical limb ischemia, we need to develop adaptable treatments that are personalised.

Just as individual identity is transformed with communication with others we are designing materials systems that engage tissues at a cellular and molecular level to modulate their disease states. Current research paradigms are not only harnessing the body’s self-healing mechanisms, but are also looking for inspiration in nature’s own adaptive systems.

Much of the work is centred on chronic ailments but will we see regenerative solutions come to the A&E department? Are we near the point where we can have ‘spray on skin’?
Yes we are – at least for wound healing, not yet for bone fractures. For wound healing these sort of therapies have already been developed but are prohibitively expensive for everyday clinical use. That’s why Curam is focused on developing cost-effective solutions that can actually improve quality of life for patients and decrease the financial burden of chronic illness on the healthcare system in the long term.

Curam recently launched its training initiative in Research Integrity. Given that the SFI-backed centres ask for scientists to have a commercial awareness of their work, is there a need for an ethical awareness alongside it?
Absolutely, this is a critical part of good scientific practice and high ethical and professional standards are imperative to success in research.

This training initiative reinforces the importance of responsible behaviour as a fundamental component of quality research. We’re working with all of our academic partners on this initiative (NUI Galway, UCC, UL, UCD, TCD and RCSI). We want to ensure that our research leaders of the future will be outstanding, responsible scientists and mentors.

It comes back to the very basic fact of reputation – we need to ensure that the quality of our work is maintained so that our partners and peers can rely on any data or other research outputs to the benefit of both society and the economy.

One of the key outputs of the training is the compilation of an ‘individual integrity portfolio’ by each participant where researchers record their notes and reflections on the issues discussed throughout the course as well as compiling a list of important links and contact details relevant to the institute they are based. This helps them to locate and familiarise themselves with institutional or discipline-specific policies and guidelines, and provides a useful reference manual for the duration of their individual research careers.

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