From thoughts to things

Shaping 3D ideas into medical benefits.

For all the buzz of innovation, why does so little research translate into real-world applications and what are the secrets to success? Gordon Wallace shares what he has learnt taking 3D-printed products from the lab to the clinic.

Some of our best home-grown inventions we use every day.

The durable plastic bank notes in your wallet have holograms to combat forgery, and it's likely that right now you're connected to Wi-Fi, which was an accidental discovery by an engineer trying to listen to exploding black holes.

Australian scientists have also delivered life-changing inventions like the bionic ear, spray-on skin and the world's first anti-cancer vaccine. But behind each discovery is decades of ground work that can't be underestimated.

So, what does it take to transform a bright idea into real-world benefit? It's not an easy process (and Australian universities will soon have to report on the impact of their government-funded research).

If you ask Professor Gordon Wallace, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES) and 2017 NSW Scientist of the Year, he says you need the right people, great facilities, years of funding and a whole lot of luck.

A clear vision

Industrious materials scientists like Professor Wallace have been plugging away for decades, tinkering with different materials to enhance their properties or mimic the best that nature has designed.

"We've been discovering and stockpiling advanced materials for 30 years," he says.

Now, thanks to 3D printing, scientists can transform their fresh discoveries into handy products and devices. 3D printing is a rapid manufacturing technique that builds custom structures layer by layer and with it, labs have become workshops. There are machines on every bench, spare parts and prototypes lying to the side, and safety glasses galore.

When you see them in motion, it's easy to see why 3D printers have caught the attention of neuroscientists, eye specialists, oncologists, and surgeons. These printers can construct practically any shape you can think of with unmatched precision, reinventing materials to deliver new solutions to medical challenges.

We’ve got so many materials at our disposal now that even if we didn’t discover a new material for 10 or 20 years we’d still be making amazing advances with biofabrication methods. - Professor Gordon Wallace

"It enables us to take new ideas into a practical demonstration very quickly," Professor Wallace says. "The whole approach is tangible so it attracts the practically minded - clinicians."

The first challenge was set by Professor Peter Choong, an orthopaedic surgeon at St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne. To regenerate cartilage that cushions our joints but can wear thin or tear, they would print a 3D scaffold to encourage cells taken from the behind the knee cap to grow into new tissue.

"Professor Choong had been in the game long enough to see a real need to regenerate that cartilage," Professor Wallace says. "It was very much driven by him and the clinical need he had identified through his practice."

After printing a tissue scaffold on the bench, Professor Wallace and his team went one step further, creating a hand-held 3D printer that can be used during surgery to deposit living cells exactly where they need to grow. Trials are underway and the BioPen seems set to be a game-changer for osteoarthritis and traumatic knee injuries.

Professor Peter Choong of St Vincent's Hospital demonstrating the use of a prototype of the BioPen.

The right people

Each collaboration since has been driven by clinicians who want a smart solution for their patients and upheld by materials scientists with their inventory of advanced materials. It's quickly shaping a new dimension of health care.

Spearheaded by Professor Wallace, who jets interstate almost every week, there are projects in progress across the country to improve wound healing, treat corneal ulcers, print prosthetic ears, and transplant insulin-producing islet cells for the treatment of diabetes.

It takes a team - a whole network - of people who are determined, resilient and willing to listen, Professor Wallace attests, to build momentum like this. "Those attributes are absolutely necessary of any researcher. It goes above and beyond technical capabilities and expertise."

'We have a responsibility to listen to the issues around us – the ethics, the regulatory affairs and what makes economic sense." - Professor Gordon Wallace

With obstacles everywhere, flexibility is also key. Professor Wallace recruits "can do" people who figure out a way to get things done. In an arena where tight funding breeds caution, this trait is not easily cultivated but inherent. Some people thrive on the challenge.

"You can't be nailed down by your point of view," Professor Wallace suggests. "You need to listen to others to devise a way around the problem."

He says scientists must also acknowledge the social issues that frame medical research and inevitably determine its success.

"We have a responsibility to listen to the issues around us - the ethics, the regulatory affairs and what makes economic sense. We don't have to experts in those areas, but we should listen to valuable members of the team who are providing that input and let that influence our research pathway." Otherwise the shoe won't fit - or there will be no market for it.

Graphic: Jasper Smith

A dose of luck

"The clinical network that we now have across Australia and overseas was instigated by a chance encounter with Graeme Clark of bionic ear fame," Professor Wallace says. Professor Clark introduced Professor Wallace to other like-minded clinicians wanting to push the boundaries of research.

It's not the only time Professor Wallace mentions an element of luck. He says there are lots of things that need to fall into place, things which are out of your control and for which no amount of planning can prepare.

"To gather the necessary skills and capabilities, secure timely funding, assemble the required facilities, negotiate unchartered policy, garner political support and build industry confidence … if the alignment of those is not luck, then what is it?"

"To gather the necessary skills and capabilities, secure timely funding, assemble the required facilities, negotiate unchartered policy, garner political support and build industry confidence … if the alignment of those is not luck, then what is it?" - Professor Gordon Wallace

Reflecting on the development of the BioPen, four years from the lab to its demonstrated success repairing cartilage defects in sheep, Professor Wallace says they were lucky to have the right skills around the table. "Each time we encountered a challenge, we could move very quickly on that.

"It's matter of building a critical mass," he continues, "that includes a continuum of skills from fundamental discoveries to knowledge dissemination and practical implementation."

With the latest funding from MTP Connect - the Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Industry Growth Centre - a world-first bioprint facility is planned. Of course, it takes time and patience.

"It has taken 30 years to get to this point, but we've always had a 10-year timeframe with key milestones along the journey. I think that's long enough to achieve big things and short enough that you do not lose the support of all involved."

Not all research leads to tangible outcomes but every effort contributes to the body of knowledge that shapes future developments.

Two steps forward

But what about not-so-successful projects? Which hurdle have they fallen at? Professor Wallace says he has seen plenty of projects kick-started with a great idea from an industry partner that has not delivered an exact product.

He cites one example: "The truth is we discovered a fundamental underlying property [of the material] that said it was never going to work. That knowledge was very valuable to our industry partner even though a new process or product wasn't developed. It saved them a lot of money not going down that track."

Not all research will lead to tangible outcomes, he argues, but every effort contributes to our body of knowledge that shapes future developments. Researchers can piggy-back off what others have learned and achieved - the trick is to recognise where a discovery could be applied elsewhere.

Jeremy Crook and Gordon Wallace are developing a 'brain on a bench' that will allow them to watch how neural networks develop or turn awry.

To grow a tiny replica brain, a brain on a bench, and be able to watch how the neural network typically develops or turns awry would give neuroscientists an unparalleled insight into brain disorders. Excitement is brewing now that stem cells derived from skin cells can be printed in 3D on a small chip and programmed to develop into different types of neurons.

But first any cell has to withstand the printing process. Wallace describes the pivotal discovery of naturally occurring biopolymers, which change consistency under certain conditions. Thick like honey on the bench, these polymers become as thin as water under shear force.

"We realised straight away that we could use these materials for printing. If that property had been measured in isolation as part of an unrelated study, we probably wouldn't have discovered our first bioink that protects living cells during printing."

The back catalogue

As this technology spawns more wild ideas and different types of 3D-printed printers emerge to meet clinical demand, materials scientists are going back to their inventories to transform materials that were previously overlooked into innovative structures.

"It's interesting what you can do with a clever arrangement of existing materials," Professor Wallace says. He mentions the way the shape and porosity of 3D-printed scaffolds can be changed to control the release of a drug held within. The scaffold can be made of a simple biopolymer that has been commercially available since 1939.

"We don't have to look for elaborate materials or synthesise new materials. We've got so many materials at our disposal now that even if we didn't discover a new material for 10 or 20 years we'd still be making amazing advances with biofabrication methods."

Slowly but surely each discovery will find its place in the world - whether that's in our heads or in our hands.

Banner graphic by Jasper Smith.