OPN talks with Professor John Fisher, a leading researcher at the School of Medical Engineering, University of Leeds, about pioneering research in the fields of medical devices and regenerative medicine
OPN: Tell us a little about your background and education in the orthopaedic industry?
JF: I am a leading researcher in medical and biological engineering – having been Director of the Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering at the University of Leeds until 2016. My leadership of the research portfolio has included: Director of Wellcome Trust & EPSRC Centre for Excellence in Medical Engineering (WELMEC), Director of the EPSRC Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Director of EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Medical Devices (MeDe Innovation), Director of White Rose Doctoral Training Centre in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, and Co-Director of NIHR Leeds Musculoskeletal Biomedical Research Unit. As the former Director of the Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, I provided leadership to over 100 academic researchers in Medical Engineering at Leeds – working towards a common goal of 50 Active Years After 50®.
We were rewarded with the 2012 Queen’s Anniversary Prize, the country’s highest accolade for an academic institution. The award, which was presented by the Queen in February 2012, recognised the contribution iMBE made during two decades of cutting-edge medical engineering research and impact.
I am also a chartered engineer, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
OPN: Could you explain more about your work at the University of Leeds and the emerging developments you see in medical engineering?
JF: At the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering we are dedicated to improving the quality of life of an ageing population, and it is our belief that our second 50 years can be as active as the first.
We are undertaking solution-focused pioneering research in the fields of medical devices and regenerative medicine, innovating and translating novel therapies into practical clinical applications.
Our expertise is in the area of musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems with our research focusing on three main areas – joint replacement, tissue re-engineering and functional spinal interventions.
In joint replacement and substitution, we have uniquely positioned ourselves to study all aspects of joint replacement function and performance, in terms of wear, lubrication, debris and functional biocompatibility.
But it is in tissue re-engineering that we will see the most exciting and innovative developments. Supported by our intellectual property portfolio on immunocompatible biomimetic natural scaffolds, and led by Professor Eileen Ingham in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, in collaboration with NHS Blood & Transplant Tissue Services and Tissue Regenix, we are researching and developing functional soft tissue solutions for life-critical applications.
Biomimetic natural scaffolds which retain the essential biological and biomechanical attributes of the natural tissue offer great potential for the re-engineering and regeneration of cardiovascular and orthopaedic tissues in which restoration of physical function is critical immediately upon implantation. Our biomimetic natural acellular scaffolds can be implanted directly and regenerated by the recipients own endogenous stem cells, or can be regenerated with differentiated or stem cells in vitro in bespoke physically interactive bioreactors.
We aim to become one of the globally leading research centres for functional engineering of soft tissues for orthopaedic and cardiovascular applications.
OPN: Recently you led the Leeds City Region audit, ‘Opportunities and Growth: Medical Technologies’ – could you tell us what the audit identified?
JF: We carried out an extensive review of science and innovation to map research and innovation strengths and identify areas of potential global competitive advantage in medical technologies across the Leeds City Region (sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) – through interviews, focus groups, surveys and analysis of data available.
The audit found that government, the research councils, industry and the NHS need to invest between £200 million and £250 million in the Leeds City Region’s medical technology sector over the next five years to enable it to exploit opportunities associated with the growth in the global health market, the convergence of technologies and digitally-enabled technologies producing new combination devices and interventions which are more precisely targeted to patient needs.
The Leeds City Region has a long association with the med tech sector – through the manufacture of medical devices and cutting-edge research at the region’s five universities.
There are around 250 businesses in the region specialising in med tech and another 200 digital and technology firms operating in the health field, and nearly a quarter of the UK’s digital health jobs are in the region. 8.9 per cent of med tech patents submitted by UK inventors have originated in the Leeds City Region.
Alongside the region’s universities and business base, there is a unique and influential wider health innovation ecosystem. It is home to four out of five NHS headquarters, 13 clinical commissioning groups and 12 NHS trusts, including one of the largest NHS Trusts in the country, the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
OPN: How could this affect the Leeds City Region in the future?
JF: The investment could generate around an extra 4,000 jobs, taking employment in the sector to around 15,000 workers.
The global market for new medical and healthcare products is growing rapidly and is expected to increase over the next five years, with a value that is anticipated to reach more than half a trillion dollars.
However, the window of opportunity to capitalise on the opportunity is imminent and there is an urgent need for strategic intervention nationally and regionally.
OPN: What obstacles could smaller companies face to prevent them from taking advantage of the opportunities available in the emerging global health market?
JF: Most companies operating in the sector are small to medium-sized enterprises with a turnover below £5 million.
The audit found those SMEs face obstacles which are preventing them from taking advantage of the opportunities in the emerging global health market.
They find it difficult to get new medical devices tested or evaluated in the NHS. Without effective evaluation they will not get to market; there is a shortage of appropriate multidisciplinary graduate engineers; there are not enough medtech technology and innovation parks where industry and researchers can collaborate – and industrial centres of excellence can be developed; and there is a lack of wider business and innovation support to help companies navigate a complex and highly regulated sector.
OPN: How do you think the future looks in the field of medical engineering in relation to medical devices?
JF: Patients are living longer and want improved quality of life, healthcare systems are under increased pressure and need to deliver more efficient and cost-effective treatments, there is a need to target interventions and devices more precisely to give improved patient outcomes
The audit highlights how new market opportunities are not coming from the refinement of existing devices but through game-changing innovation, the creation of brand new products and services forged from the convergence of engineering, digital technologies and life sciences. Examples include the convergence of medical devices and information technology; artificial intelligence applied to medical devices; combining medical imaging with robotics to automate surgical procedures; digital health; and smart drug delivery devices.
For further information and to read the Science and Innovation Audit report, visit http://leedscityregionmed.tech
Professor John Fisher has an active role as a leading researcher in Medical and Biological Engineering, as Director of the EPSRC Medical Technologies Innovation and Knowledge Centre and Director of EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Medical Devices (MeDe Innovation). His personal research interests lie primarily in the areas of medical engineering, joint replacement, biomaterials, regenerative devices and simulation.