Professor Fergal O’Brien from the RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) Department of Anatomy and AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre, has been awarded a highly prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant for a research project that aims to revolutionise the treatment of damaged articular joints such as the knee or ankle. Currently, there is no successful treatment for repairing damaged cartilage with even small defects often progressing to degenerative osteoarthritis requiring joint replacement.

The award is one of just three ERC Advanced Grants being made to Irish Institutions this year. The funding, worth a total of €653 million, will give 269 of Europe’s senior researchers the opportunity to realise their most creative ideas and potentially produce results that will have a major impact on science, society and the economy.

Professor O’Brien, who is Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group in the Department of Anatomy at RCSI and Deputy Director of AMBER, has been awarded funding of €2,999,410 for a project entitled ‘ReCaP. Regeneration of Articular Cartilage using Advanced Biomaterials and Printing Technology’.

The ReCaP project proposes a new approach to articular joint repair which will transform the way articular cartilage injuries are treated. The project will achieve this by combining cutting edge recent advances in the area of 3D printing and advanced manufacturing with new insights in stem cell and gene therapy to develop a platform biomaterial technology (a scaffold) capable of repairing both bone and cartilage. A novel surgical procedure will then be applied to allow this scaffold to be anchored to the joint surface while encouraging the body’s own cells to infiltrate the material and repair the surrounding damaged tissue. Using this new approach, the treatment will promote the restoration of even large regions of damaged tissue.

This research builds on the pioneering regenerative scaffolds developed in Professor O’Brien’s laboratory over the past decade which have already improved the quality of life for patients with orthopaedic injuries. It combines knowledge gained from the development of these scaffolds with new insights in scaffold-based gene delivery obtained from previous European Research Council funded projects (CollRegen and miRaColl) together with new developments on 3D printing of regenerative biomaterials from the SFI-funded AMBER Centre.

Professor O’Brien said: ‘I am honoured to have been awarded this prestigious advanced research grant from the European Research Council. It builds on previous ERC-funded projects undertaken at my lab. Combining these insights with advances in 3D printing of biomaterials from our AMBER Centre and a new surgical approach for joint repair, offers new hope to patients suffering from damage to their articular joints.’

Commenting on today’s announcement Professor Janusz Jankowski, Director (Corporate) Chief Research and Innovation Officer and Deputy Vice Chancellor said: ‘This award to Professor Fergal O’Brien is a testament to his exceptional, impactful and unique research in the area of biomaterials and the expertise of RCSI’s Tissue Engineering Research Group. Moreover, this clinically applied research is addressing common health issues arising from a range of chronic conditions such as injuries that lead to osteoarthritis. This innovation could transform the lives of patients around the world, and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of Professor O’Brien’s work as his research expands during this important grant. This latest success adds a further exemplar of what a quality, innovative and impactful research programme should look like for all our students and young researchers.’

Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: ‘The ERC’s Advanced Grant scheme has supported outstanding and established research leaders since 2007. It provides a great example of how EU funding can help expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge, providing the resources necessary to continue ground-breaking, high-risk projects, and ensure Europe’s global competitiveness.’

The ERC Advanced Grants are part of the EU’s Research and Innovation programme, Horizon 2020. Demand for ERC grants remains very high: 2,167 research proposals were submitted this time, out of which 12% were selected for funding. These grants will not only allow top researchers to execute their best ideas at scientific frontiers, but will also lead to job creation as an estimated 2,000 postdocs, PhD students and other staff could be employed in the grantees’ research teams.

Breakthrough could improve recovery for heart attack and burns patients

Researchers from AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science institute have developed a new biomaterial which is capable of both regenerating tissues which respond to electrical stimuli (such as the nerves, spinal cord, heart, brain and muscles) as well as eliminating infection – an ever-growing problem in hospitals. This could enable enhanced recovery for heart attack and burn patients. The new study is published in Advanced Materials*, a leading international materials science journal. The study was led by AMBER researchers at RCSI (Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland) in partnership with Trinity College Dublin and Eberhard Karls University in Germany.

This new material could help to improve quality of life for heart attack survivors, as scar tissue build-up can decrease heart function. An electroconductive biomaterial could bypass damaged regions of the heart and restore functional activity.

For people with extensive nerve damage, there are currently very limited options in terms of repairing nerve injuries extending beyond two centimetres. However, by combining a biomaterial with proven regenerative capacity, like collagen, with a material that can carry an electrical stimulus, it may be possible to transmit electrical signals across damaged tissue, resulting in functional restoration of the affected area. This concept may also have potential in regenerative capabilities of the spinal cord and other areas including the brain.

The new material developed by the multidisciplinary research team is composed of collagen (the most abundant protein of the human body which has known regenerative potential and can support the body’s cells) and graphene (the world’s thinnest material which is known to have unique mechanical and electrical properties) resulting in an electroconductive ‘biohybrid’ combining the beneficial properties of both materials –resulting in a material which is mechanically stronger, with increased electrical conductivity.

This ‘biohybrid’ material has been shown to enhance cell growth and, when electrical stimulation is applied, directs cardiac cells to respond and align in the direction of the electrical impulse. Furthermore, the material prevents bacterial attachment, a hugely favourable characteristic which can be applied in the development of next generation antimicrobial medical devices. The surface roughness of the material, induced by the introduction of graphene, causes bacterial walls to be burst while simultaneously allowing the heart cells to multiply and grow.

Professor Fergal O’Brien, Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group (TERG) in the Department of Anatomy in RCSI, Deputy Director of AMBER and lead Investigator on the project said, “Many cells and tissues in the body are responsive to electrical stimulation but electroconductive materials are limited because they may kill cells or cause infection. Despite progress in biomaterials science for some applications, there has been limited success in treating tissues of the heart and nervous system. There are currently no solutions for very large nerve defects and large areas of heart wall damage.

We are very excited by the potential of this material for cardiac applications but the capacity of the material to deliver physiological electrical stimuli while limiting infection suggests it might have potential in a number of other indications such as repairing damaged peripheral nerves or perhaps even spinal cord. The technology also has potential applications where external devices such as biosensors and devices might interface with the body.

This type of collaborative research is only possible in a centre like AMBER where leading researchers from different disciplines get to share ideas and work in partnership together.”

Professor Jonathan Coleman, Principal Investigator in AMBER and Trinity’s School of Physics said, “It is remarkable to work with my AMBER colleagues in RCSI, combining bioengineering and physics to find a new application for the graphene being produced in our labs. Recently our team have pioneered the development of a technique to produce large quantities of pristine graphene at low cost and so it is significant that we are in a position to now create this new biomaterial using this wonder material.”

The work was conducted by AMBER and RCSI TERG post-doctoral researcher, Dr Alan Ryan, first author on the paper with Dr Cathal Kearney, an AMBER senior research fellow and lecturer in RCSI in partnership with multi-disciplinary team of researchers based in RCSI, Trinity and Professor Katja Schenke-Layland’s laboratory in Eberhard Karls University Tübingen in Germany, where the electrical stimulation research was carried out.

Professor Michael Morris, Director of AMBER, said, “Today’s announcement about this new biomaterial demonstrates our track record of pushing the boundaries of science to discover real solutions for people. We will continue to carry out excellent research that has real societal impact, with this technology potentially improving the lives of thousands of people.”


Additive Manufacturing is a revolutionary technology that is changing the face of innovation a market projected to be worth over 200 billion US dollars

AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland-funded materials science research centre headquartered at Trinity College Dublin, today announced a new additive manufacturing (AM, commonly known as 3D printing) research laboratory. The AR-Lab (Additive Research Laboratory) was established with a €4.3 million investment from Science Foundation Ireland and the European Research Council as well as strategic funding from Trinity and the institutional support these large initiatives require. The AR-Lab will focus on world-leading research that will innovate new materials, printing methods and extend the capability of 2D and 3D printing to enable revolutionary, new medical, electronic, mechanical, optical, acoustic, heat transfer, and sensing devices.

Additive manufacturing refers to technology that can produce 3 dimensional objects via layer by layer deposition of materials. This approach allows the fabrication of complex shapes, forms and designs without the need for complex moulds, forming or subtractive shaping. It will be a major driver of technologies such as the internet-of-things, wearable and flexible devices as well as personalised healthcare products. Additive manufacturing will change how goods are produced in the future with a shift in emphasis from mass production to mass customisation where bespoke products can be manufactured at scale for low cost. AMBER will partner with existing and new industry partners enabling next generation products from innovative SMEs and Multinationals. AMBER’s AR-Lab features a combination of both Irish and world first equipment and 3D printers – allowing industry a unique partnership opportunity.

The SFI Research Centre AMBER has invested in a suite of 3D printing technologies which spans the full spectrum of materials from ceramics, metals to polymers and biomaterials. The ability to 3D print ceramic materials is of particular interest. These materials have application in a wide range of sectors from telecommunications to biomedical implants but, due to current constraints on manufacturing techniques, are limited in their use and performance. For example, it is envisioned that advanced free-form lightweight 3D printed ceramic objects could ultimately be used in the future as orthopedic implants designed to promote tissue and bone growth. Other applications for AM can be found in aerospace, defence, automotive, healthcare, and other industries. This is due to its many advantages, including design flexibility, product customisation, and minimisation of material waste, compared to subtractive manufacturing. The use of additive manufacturing also has the potential to add significant advancement to medical device development, as geometries will no longer be constrained to the limited base stock (i.e. flats sheets or circular tubes) that components are machined from.

Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Heather Humphreys TD commented, “Additive manufacturing has grown from strength to strength in the last number of years and I am delighted to see Ireland once again keeping pace with these disruptive technologies. AMBER’s new additive research lab highlights another new market entry for Ireland – one of crucial importance for industry in the future. With potential applications in industries such as healthcare and automotive, this is another great opportunity for Ireland to grow our global reputation for excellent and impactful research.”

Dr Patrick Prendergast, Trinity’s Provost said, “Additive manufacturing is being hailed as part of the ‘fourth industrial revolution”, marked by emerging technologies including nanotechnology, bio-technology, and the internet of things. However, the materials and techniques needed to progress from a niche area into widespread application requires intense research. The opening of this laboratory Trinity is an exciting development and will allow AMBER to undertake world leading research that will sponsor innovation and allow Ireland to exploit the technologies to deliver economic and societal benefits for the country

Professor Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland said, “Science Foundation Ireland is delighted to support the establishment of a new additive manufacturing laboratory at the AMBER SFI Research Centre through the latest SFI Infrastructure Call. Ireland has built a reputation for cutting edge science and engineering and now attracts top international talent from across the globe. We are also educating the next generation of innovators here. However, this knowledge base must be underpinned by state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. Such infrastructure, provided by Science Foundation Ireland, provides the scientific community with the platforms they require for continued progress and achievement.”

Professor Michael Morris, AMBER Director said, “AMBER’s AR-Lab will be a pivotal component of AMBER’s research focused on the fundamental material science challenges associated with 3D printing e.g. the range and complexity of the materials that can be printed, the size of these features and how a number of material sets can be integrated into a functioning device. We have invested in a customised suite of 3D printing technology which spans the full spectrum of materials from ceramics and metals to polymers and biomaterials. This investment will play a leading role in the emerging 3D printing national research ecosystem. It will enable AMBER to build on our foundation of innovative excellence in materials science and become leaders in this emerging technology which is critical to the manufacturing industries that support the Irish economy.

The size of the AM market is projected to reach $0.2 to 0.6 trillion (US Dollars) by 2025, with between 30 - 65% cost savings for the industrial sectors adopting it.

AMBER’s AR-Lab has been enabled by a €3.3 million award from SFI as part of their Research Infrastructure program and an additional €1 million investment from the European Research Council.

AMBER, the Science Foundation Ireland funded materials science centre based at Trinity College Dublin have recently added a Brabender 20mm twin screw compounding extruder to their growing capability in polymer and composite materials development.

Supplied via Engelmann & Buckham Ltd, the Brabender 20/40D segmented Twin extruder is equipped with two Brabender gravimetric feeders and a side feeder. Absolute control over the primary polymer and additives will ensure that speciality compounds can be produced in pellet form or thin film and reproduced with an exceptional level of precision and repeatability.

Mark Galliver of Engelmann & Buckham, who oversaw the installation said, “This Brabender extruder enhances AMBER’s existing capability allowing them to reliably produce high-end polymer composites on the kilogram scale.”

The Brabender addresses a current gap in Ireland in the ability to translate polymer composite research from lab to pilot scale which is essential for the medical device sector who require new materials in sufficient quantities for early stage product development and testing.

Prof Michael Morris, Director of AMBER said, “The tool will also complement our recent investment in 3D printing and additive manufacturing infrastructure which will be launched in early 2018. With the Brabender extruder, our lead researcher Dr. Ramesh Babu will have the capability to produce custom made filaments for a polymer based 3D printing technique known as Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). This will open up the technique to a range of new materials enabling 3D printed objects with properties such as enhanced mechanical strength and electrical and sensing functionality. Our vision is to become a research leader in the development of the materials roadmap enabling 3D printing for future manufacturing technologies.