Conor de Paor talks to Ian Woods, a PhD student researching nanofibre structures that are revolutionising the world of medicine.  

What is your research about?

Tissue engineering is the idea that we can use a patient’s own cells to develop replacement tissue and organs to treat a range of conditions, from atherosclerosis to heart failure. I specialise in designing biodegradable nanofibre structures to help cells grow arteries with the Flanagan Tissue Engineering Group in the School of Medicine. The nanofibres form biodegradable fabric with a pattern that encourages cells to form specific structures. As the cells degrade the nanofibres replace the structure with a biological structure like human tissue. The goal is to create implantable arteries which can be used to help children born with heart defects. Only tissue engineered structures can grow with young patients, which is really important for neonatal patients.

How did you become interested in your area of research?

I always wanted to do medical research, but didn’t want to study medicine. I picked UCD because of the biomedical engineering program which lets you study loads of cool topics across a really wide range. Some days, I’d be doing robotics, other days, nanotechnology or neuroscience. After I finished I wanted to work in a broad field and also work on something where I thought I could make a direct impact on people. In tissue engineering I get to work with nanotechnology, design biological structures and work with electronics; it kind of brings every aspect of what I studied together. Plus, I liked that it was a fairly new field.

Why are you doing a PhD?

I hate mornings and money. But more seriously, a PhD lets me travel, work my own hours and work on something I’m passionate about. I wanted to do research and keep learning about engineering and biology and a PhD seemed to be the best way to do that.

What’s the hardest thing about undertaking a PhD?

It has some serious ups and downs and you never know whether what you’re doing will work out. You can go for months without feeling like you’ve accomplished anything and it can seriously wear you down. The most important quality for a PhD is patience!

How do you undertake your research?

There’s a few things that come together. First I design structures for the cells to grow on, generally tubular structures made out of reconstituted blood proteins. I grow cells in a flask and then seed them onto the tube. They’re allowed to grow for a while and then you stop the process and section the “artery” into different pieces for analysis. Some of the pieces are torn apart to see how strong they are, others are imaged for a visual structure using scanning electron microscopy and immuno-fluorescence and then we use assays on the rest to determine the quantity and type of protein making up the structure. Put it together and you can estimate how close it is to a natural artery.

What do you use for your research in terms of materials and equipment?

We use everything! There’s a lot of wet bench work for the biochemical analysis, then sterile work with cells. So you use the usual pipettes, assay kits and cell stuff. But for the engineering side of things, I use everything from duct tape and hammers to 3D printers and soldering kits.

Do you find funding difficult to acquire?

Well, I didn’t acquire it. My supervisor, Dr Tom Flanagan, applied for the funding from the Children’s Research Centre, in Crumlin Children’s Hospital and I interviewed for a PhD position in his group.

What applications do you see for your research?

Well, ideally we want to produce a graft that can be rapidly grown and is strong enough for implantation. If we can do that then the project could lead to clinical trials and a real therapy for children who need it.

Do you enjoy teaching undergraduates?

I don’t actually do much teaching! I supervise summer research students and work with some MSc projects but most of my work is in the lab!

What are your plans for when you are finished?

Invent something fantastic, patent it, profit. Failing that, I’d like to stay in research for a few years and work internationally in different labs so that I can travel but also keep learning.

Would you undertake any more academic research after your PhD?

Maybe you can ask me again after the PhD. Right now, I think I will but in two years, maybe not!

When can we expect Doctor Who-like nanobots in our bodies? 

We already have a lot of nanotechnology in medicine, but I’d say somewhere in a DARPA lab or in Area 51 something like them already exists!