Research Focus: Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill, I-Form
How 3D printed needles can change the way we vaccinate
Dr Eoin O’Cearbhaill is a researcher funded with I-Shape, the SFI Research Center for Advanced Manufacturing. He is a biomedical engineer and focuses on the translation of medical devices, from concept to clinical use. His interests include minimally invasive devices and delivery systems. He is currently studying 3D printed microneedles and their potential applications.
Have you traveled in your college career, but started in Galway?
I obtained a BE (Biomedical) and a PhD from NUI-Galway. The doctorate focused on the application of mechanical stimulation to mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) for vascular tissue engineering applications.
Subsequently, I worked for Veryan Medical before joining Creganna-Tactx, where I held manufacturing and design service roles, helping to establish their specialty needle division in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
Early in my career, I developed a mechanical clutch needle, with the aim of preventing puncture injuries. Designed to stop automatically when it enters a cavity (such as the peritoneal cavity), it won the top prize for best innovation at the MIT Sloan Bio-innovations conference, 2012.
While working at Harvard University, I co-invented a micro-needle adhesive patch that mechanically engages with tissue and can be used to anchor skin grafts – for prolonged drug delivery or l ‘interstitial fluid extraction (IChemE Innovative Product of the Year Award, 2013). In 2013, I joined UCD and created the UCD medical device design group.
In 2015, I received a Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant (reintegration grant), focused on the development of porous metallic microneedles. In 2017, I co-founded Latch Medical to commercialize microneedle-based medical devices and drug delivery systems, focused on a novel self-anchoring microneedle system, which won the award. Allergan innovation 2018.
I am now an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Mechanical & Materials Engineering, UCD and Director of the UCD Center for Biomedical Engineering.
Your work is timely in that it has the potential to solve problems related to vaccine distribution and delivery logistics. Can you let us know?
Microneedle patches provide the ability to painlessly deliver drugs through the skin that 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, especially in low-resource settings.
One challenge my research group is focusing on is the development of experimental and computational methods to evaluate new designs of microneedles. Micro-needles have been around for over two decades, but their clinical use is increasingly becoming a reality.
However, the designs of microneedle patches and the best means of predicting their performance in clinical use have yet to be thoroughly investigated or fully optimized.
The UCD medical device design group used a range of strategies to overcome the existing limitations of microneedles for biosensing and drug delivery applications. These approaches have focused on the design, prototyping and testing of microneedle patches.
You mentioned the challenges involved. How do these elements influence the composition of the investigation team?
Interdisciplinary research is crucial here – bringing together experts in all aspects of the skin, as well as in drug or vaccine formulation, user-centered design and engineering.
In terms of effectiveness, a trial studying the administration of the flu vaccine via microneedles showed that this method was at least as good as the traditional method. Significant advantages were found in terms of adherence and dose savings. So far, however, a combination of factors has inhibited the widespread adoption of microneedles as an alternative to needle and syringe.
Micro-needles are generally less than a millimeter in length. At this depth, the pain receptors are not activated and the tissues are not strongly vascularized. This allows the administration of therapeutic products in a painless and bloodless manner.
Micro-needles inserted into the skin are essentially micro-sharp protrusions designed to physically bypass the stratum corneum, for the purpose of painlessly accessing the dermal layers for drug delivery or for biosensing applications.
The thickness of human skin varies across the body and the choice of where to insert microneedles is important. A key variable is the amount of fatty tissue under the skin. Hair follicles and sweat glands also play a role.
For biodetection purposes, the stratum corneum attenuates the quality of the signal obtained from the underlying muscle. Micro-needles may play a role in solving problems with false detection of arrhythmias in hospitals (due to poor quality interfaces between the electrode and the underlying skin).
Wet electrodes traditionally require preparation of the skin, such as shaving and application of electrolyte. The use of microneedles to pierce the stratum corneum impedance without causing 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 the development of medical device platform technologies, offering smart ways to detect biosignals or deliver next-generation therapies through minimally invasive approaches.
Spending time in both industry and academia has allowed me to appreciate what both do well and allowed me to recognize opportunities to bond between the two, especially in technology. medical. I try to make sure that any projects we work on are driven by unmet clinical need, which often means they are of interest to industry or can be created on our own.
What directions in microneedle research do you find exciting right now?
Currently, I am particularly excited about the design freedom 3D printing offerings, coupled with the computer models that we are developing. This gives us an excellent toolkit for creating optimally designed microneedle patches with applications in the direction of electromyography (EMG) and therapeutic delivery. Microneedle patches can certainly play a key role in the rapid response to global pandemics and I predict there will be a lot of investment and other innovation in this area.
In the future, I think we will see a convergence of “smart” wearable micro-needle devices capable of detecting body biosignals and delivering treatments in a reactive manner.