In the 1970s Oxford University engineer John O’Connor with surgeon John Goodfellow invented the Oxford Knee.
This prosthetic device, which has gone through many incarnations since, is an alternative to complete knee replacement, helping patients recover mobility faster after the operation and giving them an implant that, in over 90 per cent of cases, lasts for over 20 years.
It’s a great example of where an engineering idea results in a successful new medical technology but for every success story are other ideas that aren’t as commercially viable or don’t address a real clinical need.
So how can we ensure that tomorrow’s young engineers invent new technologies that will transform patients’ lives?
Ideas into products
Part of the answer could be found in the new Centre for Doctoral Training [CDT] in Healthcare Innovation which is officially launched today at Oxford University’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering [IBME].
It’s one of 44 new CDTs supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [EPSRC] as a focal point for PhD training in the UK - Oxford now has four such centres.
‘Biomedical engineering is an applied subject that aims to have clinical impact,’ Alison Noble Director of the CDT, tells me, ‘so it’s important to understand that not all good research ideas make good products, and that listening to customer needs, in our case clinicians, can suggest the best research questions to work on that lead to useful solutions – and profits.’
The new centre aims to equip a new generation of postgraduate researchers not just with traditional academic biomedical engineering skills, but with an appreciation of the clinical environment in which new inventions have to succeed, and the routes to commercialising a new product or service.
So what’s different about training at the CDT?
‘The traditional doctoral training route focuses on research training in one sub-discipline of biomedical engineering. This is an excellent route for students who know exactly which research area they want to work in, but the onus is on the student to fill in their gaps of knowledge and build up an interdisciplinary skills base,’ Alison tells me.
‘By contrast the CDT programme provides a solid grounding of advanced biomedical engineering research skills and an introduction to healthcare technology commercialisation and clinical translation up-front in the first year.’
Understanding these issues from the very start of their doctoral training, before they specialise, is, she believes, very important so that this understanding can inform the development of each student’s research.
As part of the 4 Year DPhil programme at the CDT students cover three key themes; Information Driven Healthcare, Modelling for Personalised Healthcare and Cancer Therapeutics and Delivery.
Software to cancer therapy
Each theme is an area already being investigated at the IBME, so in information-driven healthcare, for instance, Oxford researchers are currently looking how to use intelligent signal processing methods to automate the monitoring of signals from devices in the ITU, and developing software-based clinical decision-support systems for monitoring breast cancer treatment.
Whilst in cancer therapeutics and delivery on-going research includes work on molecular imaging, development of ultrasound-based methods for detecting early response to cancer therapy, monitoring of high-intensity focused ultrasound, and new drug delivery technologies.
But the programme is about more than academic research:
‘We want students to consider careers in industry as well as academia and we offer various activities over the 4-year programme: business and entrepreneurship modules, seminar series, events, and placements or PhDs involving industry partners,’ Alison explains. ‘These aim to expose students to the breadth of the healthcare industry and associated businesses to enable them to make an informed decision about their future careers.’
The goal is for the CDT to form the focal point for postgraduate training at the IBME over the next 8 years, with an estimated 75-100 students passing through the programme, providing an invaluable alternative to traditional doctoral training.
Alison tells me: ‘we want to make the CDT a flagship postgraduate programme in the UK and internationally, and judging by the quality of overseas applications we are receiving, it has strong global appeal. We already have one university-funded overseas scholarship and are looking to raise funds for more.’
‘Our aim is, whether they work in industry or academia, for our graduates to go on to become global leaders in their field.’
Professor Alison Noble is Director of the new CDT and is based at the IBME, part of Oxford's Department of Engineering Science.