Q&A: Sue Dunkerton, TWI and Director at HealthTech and Medicines KTN

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2014

Sue Dunkerton, Associate Director at TWI, UK, and Director at Health KTN, tells Melanie Rutherford about the challenges facing the healthcare industry and what the biomedical materials sector is doing to drive new advances in this exciting area.  

Tell me about your background in the industry.
I graduated with a BSc in Metallurgy from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), leaving higher education without a PhD and going straight into work. I actually started my career at TWI and I’m still there now, though with a different remit. I began my career very much using my degree, starting out as a metallurgist in a welding group, which involved a lot of work in the oil and gas and defence sectors. My career has moved drastically since then and I wear a multitude of hats. My current role as Associate Director at TWI is predominantly a business development position and also, on contract, I head up the UK’s HealthTech and Medicines KTN.

What are your main responsibilities within these roles?
European base for high-value manufacturing. It’s a strategic and also a business development type of activity – I sit on a European technology platform called ManuFuture and have been a member of a public partnership association, the European Factories of the Future Research Association (EFFRA). As part of that, I have been working to develop roadmaps for the future of materials manufacturing at both a UK and a European level. This has now been completed, received and approved by the European Commission. While I do this on behalf of Europe, at the same time I use that intelligence to ensure that TWI has a good foresight of any changes that are happening and how that might influence the business.

My other main job in the health arena is again very much a strategic role, interfacing with Government (the TSB, the Department for Business, the Department of Health and the NHS) and business. on improving the innovation environment in the UK. I work with businesses both at one-to-one and one-to-many levels, making sure they are aware of the different initiatives that are available through Government. I also help to connect those businesses with technology capability, whether that’s in universities, in research and technology centres, or in clinical organisations – or even other businesses in the supply chain or across different sectors.

How well has your metallurgy degree served you in the biomedical sector?
It certainly hasn’t limited me. I made the classic move into the materials world – I came out of school with maths, physics and chemistry, and thought, ‘What can I do with all of those that’s applied in some way?’ I didn’t really want to do pure science and so I happened across materials. Because materials is so pervasive, it is a very good grounding for almost every industrial application you can think of. My career started in oil and gas, but I moved into aerospace, then into electronics. Having done quite a lot of work in steel, I developed a strong interest in advanced materials, which got me into biomedical materials. I’ve been fortunate in that the grounding of one area has enabled me to move into quite a number of other things. It’s quite interesting when you meet other materials scientists – a lot of them have had very interesting careers thanks to that skillset.

From a materials perspective, what challenges does the medical industry currently face?
The body is a very adverse environment, especially when connecting something onto it (such as a skin graft) or embedding something within it (such as an implant). As such, we need to take advantage of improvements in the materials developments to make these systems more effective – whether it’s to make things last longer or offer greater functionality. The driver is to provide people with a better quality of life or extended life. In terms of materials developments, that ranges from surface modifications and coatings to developments in nanoscience to enhance that materials interaction. It can mean anything from increased longevity of orthopaedic implants to potentially increased smartness – so you can detect the need for further intervention in advance of something happening in the body. Then we talk about better targeted delivery of pharmaceuticals through nanotechnology, such as nanobeads, and how you can target those materials to the right location in the body. And once they are there, activating them to function in a much more controlled and targeted way, rather than affecting the whole body – in cancer treatments, for example, you need something the future of materials manufacturing at both a UK and a European level. This has now been completed, received and approved by the European Commission. While I do this on behalf of Europe, at the same time I use that intelligence to ensure that TWI has a good foresight of any changes that are happening and how that might influence the business. My other main job in the health arena is again very much a strategic role, interfacing with Government (the TSB, the Department for Business, the Department of Health and the NHS) and business  that is much more targeted to where the problem lies. Examples of materials developments that are helping this are bubble technology and nanoparticle developments such as polymeric bead technology.

What major changes have you seen during your time in the industry?
People used to talk about the burden of demographics, but now this is actually seen as an opportunity. The realisation now is that we have a real asset in our ageing population – so how can we do things to ensure people not only live longer and, therefore, contribute to society on a longer basis, but also have quality of life alongside that? I think that’s been a major push behind biomedical developments. Another driver has been pressure on budgets, not just because of demographics, but also due to economic crises. In a way, that is a very good method for driving innovation – it’s about taking advantage of that situation.

From the global point of view, we are also seeing re-emergence of the infectious disease issue. This is a challenge that has been growing over the last 10–15 years, stemming from the increased global mobility that we have nowadays, and also from the issues surrounding antibiotic resistance. How do we innovate more effectively to avoid those problems? A lot of that boils down to contributions in materials science.  

What work is being done on infectious diseases?

It comes back to new diagnostics systems for earlier and more accurate diagnoses, which call for combinations of microarray technology, and incorporation of both materials and chemistry. At the same time we’re looking at how to extend the technology into the developed world, so much more about affordable healthcare. That’s a materials and manufacturing requirement – how do you significantly drive down cost and still get an adequate functionality to enable much more rapid testing?

What areas will the industry focus on over the next five years?

One of the activities I have been working on is the Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering in the UK report, which was published in January 2014 by the IOM3 Biomedical Applications Division. The report reviews current biomaterials and tissue engineering R&D, and from this has identified several areas that call for further research. Some novel materials are already well into development stage and are nearing clinical translation – these include biomanipulative structures, bioactive solid-state constructs and self-healing materials. A particularly interesting area is carriers for cell, gene and bioactive molecules for parts of the body that are more challenging to study, such as heart tissues. Personalised medicine is another exciting development. This is about ensuring the right treatment for the right person at the right time. It exploits materials developments alongside new diagnostics and pharmaceuticals – cancer treatments are already being tailored in this way.

Looking to future developments, regenerative medicine is high on the agenda. This calls for work on so-called designer polymers that have controlled mechanical and chemical properties – for example, stealth polymers, oligomers and polymers for gene transfer. For tissue repair and regeneration, there will be a focus on synthetic biomedical materials that can mimic the extracellular environment in the body.

What are the most exciting materials developments in the biomedical sector?
For me, there are probably three things. First, interaction of materials at surface level – how can we manipulate surfaces to enable them to interact with cells? That feeds into what is happening in regenerative medicine – the cell therapy side of it is one thing, but you also need some way of feeding it into the body. Quite often, that is about the engineering of hard tissues and synthetic tissues, and how you can go about manipulating those surfaces to make their interaction with cells more effective. 

Second is the nanoparticulate activity, which moves us towards a real understanding of the composition of those particles. That includes their surface chemistry as well as how we ensure that they interface with activation agents in some way, from either inside or outside the body, to enable them to do what they need to do, when they need to do it.

The other area is integration of smartness into materials, so that instead of acting passively, through a range of sensing requirements they become much more able to signal either locally or externally to the body. This allows doctors to monitor performance in the body and also be much more active should local repair be needed – which either a doctor can do or the material can do itself.

What would you say to others looking to move into biomedical materials?
A basic understanding of biology is extremely helpful – I’m still learning on that front and take the benefit of colleagues who have got more knowledge of that than I have. If you’re doing general materials science and want to move into biomedical materials, I would just say to do a bit more on the biology side, because the interface of those two is an extremely powerful capability. 


Sue is moving from TWI at the end of March 2014, but welcomes further interaction in her new role continuing the work of Knowledge Transfer in Health at KTN Ltd. For more information, email sue.dunkerton@healthktn.org