Engineering new solutions

Professor Andrea O’Connor leads the Tissue Engineering Group at the University of Melbourne, and is a top researcher in biomaterials, tissue engineering, antimicrobial materials and medical devices. She is also involved with the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery. Here, the Shanahan Chair in Frontier Medical Solutions discusses her passion for collaborative research with real-world impact.

I became a biomedical researcher largely through serendipity. While working in chemical engineering at the University, a surgeon from the O’Brien Institute at St Vincent’s Hospital walked over to our University building in search of someone who could help with a technique that he read about in a journal article. He walked down my hallway, saying, ‘Does anyone know how to make a polymer scaffold?’ I happened to hear him, and knew enough about the technology. I jumped at the chance, and continued to work with that O’Brien Institute team for over 20 years.

One of my main areas of research is replicating and restoring human tissue in the body. This has clinical applications, such as treating patients where their tissues may be missing or not working well. But we’re also looking at mimicking tissues for other uses, such as drug screening or training surgeons on how to do surgery before they go and operate on real people.

Andrea O'Connor

I’m really excited about collaborating with the Australian Medical Robotics Academy. We’re helping them to make models of organs that surgeons can use for training in robotic surgery. Currently, surgeons have to train on cadavers or animals, neither of which is ideal for reasons of access, ethics and even COVID-19 or disease transmission. So we’re making alternative models for them to practice on.

I am also working with industry on making materials that prevent and resist antimicrobial resistant infections. We recently published a paper that demonstrates that some of the nanoparticles we make can stop bacteria from developing resistance over an extended period of time. We’re really excited about this development because it’s a major global health challenge. People call it the “next pandemic” — the fact that antibiotics and other drugs might not work as well in the future.

An amazing thing I’ve been involved in was a clinical trial of tissue engineering on women who’d had breast cancer and mastectomies and wanted a natural reconstruction option. The O’Brien Institute ran a clinical trial called the Neopec project. We were able to engineer new tissue to replace the tissue that had been removed due to the cancer surgery. It was a very small trial, and there’s a long way to go to make that a routine clinical practice. But it was really ground-breaking to be able to grow healthy tissue for these women in a real world situation. It was a multidisciplinary project with a medical device company called Anatomics, the O’Brien Institute, St Vincent’s Hospital and the University.

I always think about how I can translate my research into products and services, especially for clinicians. For the last 20 years, I’ve worked closely with clinicians to help them solve problems in their work. Technological developments cost money, of course, and require a lot of highly controlled processes. We really need industry partners, such as commercial manufacturers, to help us with those things. That’s how you can actually translate the findings of your research into something that’s useful in the real world. Industry brings us problems that need solving, too, and that makes research really interesting.

In my research I work with a number of external partners, including through the ARC Centre for Medical Implant Technologies. We bring together industry and clinicians, as well as academic staff, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers working on problems related to medical implants. I’m also part of the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery, a multi-institution consortium that includes the University and St Vincent's Hospital along with seven other partner organisations. Together, we’re working on tackling global healthcare challenges through biomedical engineering.

The people at the University of Melbourne are the most amazing resource. Because we’re a large multidisciplinary university, we have access to experts across so many disciplines, so you can find people to work with on multidisciplinary problems. But it’s also a bureaucratic organisation, like many others, so there are always some hurdles and headaches. In recent years, I think the University has become more agile and more focused on the benefits of commercial translation.

I’m really passionate about use-inspired research, particularly because I’m an engineer. We want to solve problems. It doesn’t have to be commercial. There is blue-sky research and knowledge for its own sake; that underpins discoveries that will be made later. Having a spectrum of those kinds of projects across an institution is very important. Even within my own research, we have projects that are closer to commercial application and others that are quite a long way from application.

It’s important to have a realistic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. Rather than coming up with an idea and looking for an application, we need to understand the problem and design a project to address that need. It’s a real communication challenge in knowing what questions to ask, and being brave enough to reveal that you don’t always know the answer.

My long-term research goals include getting some of these technologies out into the world. We’re very keen to translate our antimicrobial material technology to applications in medical devices, maybe as a coating on an existing medical device to prevent infection. These will also hopefully limit the chance of new resistant microbes developing. I’m also really excited about the Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery, which will include a new building for collaborative teaching, research and MedTech translation at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. In a few years’ time, we’ll have a hospital-based centre that will be a significant addition to the med-tech landscape.

Taking on all these roles across different institutions and groups is a significant time investment. But to me, it’s really valuable. It’s important to build relationships that help you understand the potential use of what you’re doing. Then, your motivation is clear.

As told to Kate Stanton

The University of Melbourne has announced the establishment of two new major investment funds dedicated to supporting Melbourne’s world-leading researchers to turn their extraordinary discoveries and innovation into commercial reality. Find out more about the University of Melbourne Genesis Pre-Seed Fund and Tin Alley Ventures.

First published on 8 December 2021.

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