Irish scientist “builds” body parts in Australia
Scientist Cathal O’Connell aspired to follow in the footsteps of the journeyman apprentices of ancient times who learned their trade by traveling from master to master through towns and villages. But that was not to be the case, as he gleefully got stuck in Melbourne along the way.
A native of Swords, O’Connell received his undergraduate degree in Advanced Materials Physics and Chemistry from Trinity College in 2008. “I work in the field of nanoscience. Nanoscience is the study of structures and materials on a very small scale. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. TCD is a world leader in this field, benefiting from connections with other laboratories around the world.
As a result, O’Connell was “fortunate” to spend time working on research projects on manufacturing solid fibers using carbon nanotubes at Wollongong University. Wollongong is the third largest city in New South Wales and only an hour from Sydney.
After college, he spent a year traveling by land from New York to Buenos Aires, during which time he decided to return to the Australian city to do a doctorate. “In Wollongong, you can do a doctorate directly from your undergraduate degree and cut out the masters. I filled out my forms by taking a bus through Peru and ended up going straight from South America to Australia. “
It was in 2009 and the doctorate was in bionics. “Bionics is about creating electrical devices that can interact with the body, such as the cochlear implant or the bionic ear, that can restore hearing to people with profound deafness. My research focused on the development of new ways to communicate electrically with living cells on a very small scale.
During his doctoral studies, O’Connell founded a creative and literary writing company at the university.
“The corporate culture in universities is not as widespread as in Ireland, so it was great to start something. Writing was to serve him in his next career, as a contributor to the Australian science magazine Cosmos. “I focused on translating hard science into articles for people who are not scientists but who are interested in the field. I wrote nearly 150 popular science articles for the magazine.
He has also published academic papers in high impact journals such as Nature Nanotechnology, Small, and Nature Scientific Reports. “I enjoyed writing and interviewing very interesting scientists and Nobel laureates, but eventually wanted to go back to the lab.”
O’Connell moved to Melbourne in 2017 to work in a living cell 3D printing lab.
“My lab research is based at BioFab3D at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where I work with surgeons, engineers and biologists to develop ways to 3D print tissue using living cells.
“BioFab3D is a state-of-the-art bioengineering research, education and training center. It is equipped with cutting-edge technologies, such as 3D bio-printers and tissue bioreactors, and brings together researchers and clinicians to develop and produce replacement body parts. The field I work in is called “biofabrication,” which means “building parts of the body,” he says.
“Our goal is to use engineering to help repair and regenerate parts of the body that cannot be repaired, such as cartilage. It has no natural healing ability. If you injure yourself or damage it, you will need surgery and possibly replacement with artificial joints.
“Our team has therefore developed a portable ‘bioopen’ for printing stem cells in surgery. The idea is that the surgeon can literally “draw” an ink of cells and materials into the joint that will fill in the damage and restore the joint to its natural shape. ”
“We’ve seen strong evidence in the lab and in animal tests that stem cells imprinted in this way can generate new cartilage – potentially enough to prevent osteoarthritis from developing. It is such a painful disease with no cure.
“The human trials have not yet started and, like all trials, once they do, funding will be sought from different entities. Currently, our work is funded by the university and by public funds. It’s a long process and there are no shortcuts, ”he adds.
Along with his work on cartilage, O’Connell is involved in a number of other tissue engineering projects, including muscle, bone, and skin.
St Vincent Hospital was founded by an Irish nun 125 years ago. “He’s very popular with Irish nurses and doctors who come to Australia to work. We are working on this in the lab, which is shared by four universities in Melbourne. One of them is RMIT University Melbourne, where he teaches biomedical engineering.
O’Connell says Melbourne is a great college town and a place to live. “It has been voted the most pleasant city in the world on several occasions. There is a famous rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, but we have better coffee here.
“The weather is better, but as a result the cultural offerings in Melbourne are fantastic. There are excellent concert halls, pubs, theaters and it’s perfect for families. It’s not as expensive as Sydney either, but it’s not too far away. The cost of living is noticeably high, but the quality of life is good, ”he says.
“My family of four has citizenship, but the children also have Irish passports which will come in handy when they grow up and may want to live in Ireland.”
Despite being virus-free for almost six months, Australia has returned to containment. “There is no classroom instruction, the daycare is closed and you cannot go beyond 5 km, so we are lucky to be out.”
O’Connell and his family of four are currently spending time with in-laws in Hungary and teaching remotely from there. “Seeing our families again has always been the light of the end of the pandemic for us. Hopefully when we come back in January we can quarantine at home or not at all.
“Australia didn’t get there with the vaccines and the new variant is too much to handle and they were having a hard time canceling the Delta variant despite all efforts to re-lock people down.”
But O’Connell is hoping that by January, when they return, the quarantine warrants will have changed. “In the meantime, thanks to the wonders of global communication, I can work remotely. ”