|Imagine if we could re-grow healthy new bone tissue to replace old or non-functioning tissue? In the lab, researchers have already done this, growing bone to naturally fit the ‘hole’ left by the surgical removal of old or non-functioning bone.
This ‘regenerative medicine’ will soon be coming to a hospital near you thanks to the work of Prof Fergal O’Brien a 37-year-old bio-engineer from Co Westmeath, and researchers like him around the world.
As we age, we encounter more problems with our bones. The most common problems centre on hips and knees, which are forced to bear the brunt of our bodily weight.
Giving the body a helping hand
In the field of regeneration medicine, researchers are devising ways to help the body repair its own damaged tissues – whether bone, nerve or muscle.
From a young age, Prof O’Brien liked figuring out how things worked. He broke model cars so he could rebuild them. He was also interested in veterinary and medicine, but decided that engineering would suit him best.
He studied general engineering at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) for two years, before focusing first on civil and then on mechanical engineering.
Hooked on bio-engineering
In his final year of college, he did a project, linked with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), investigating the mechanics of how bones break.
For the first time, he was able to marry his interest in engineering with medicine. It was a real eye opener to see how engineering could be applied to biology and he was hooked – he wanted to become a bio-engineer. Prof O’Brien did a PhD in bone mechanics between TCD and RCSI, which was followed by post-doctoral work. Then he went to Boston, where he worked between engineering research institute MIT and Harvard Medical School. In 2003, he returned to Ireland and won a President of Ireland Young Researcher Award.
Design for new life
In the past few years at the RCSI, he has been working on the design of biological scaffolds, which can be constructed at the site of bone loss or damage and act as a structure on which new healthy tissue is grown.
Prof O’Brien says the most enjoyable thing about his job – which has many aspects – is interacting with fellow researchers, developing ideas and publishing them in research papers. The boundaries between engineering and medicine are breaking down, he says, but he would still advise young people that doing an engineering degree is a great way to start out.
“Engineering is training in problem solving and it can be applied to many areas,” he says.