10 minutes with.. EPSRC fellows

Materials World magazine
3 Nov 2015

Four new fellowships launched by the EPSRC will respond to the challenges set out in the Manufacturing Foresight Report. Natalie Daniels speaks to all the fellows about their research and plans to drive the future of manufacturing.   

Simon Webb, Reader and Director of Research in Chemistry at the University of Manchester. Foresight Fellowship in Manufacturing: High-throughput functionalisation of biomaterials for personalised healthcare. 

How do you plan on using the EPSRC grant?

The Fellowships will give us the opportunity to travel and to develop contacts within industry and leading researchers from around the world in the areas that we have identified as important. My vision is to apply the principles of industrial biotechnology and synthetic biology and chemistry to make better, cheaper biomaterials with improved performance. 

Which biomaterials are you interested in? 

This is an area we have been working on for around 7–8 years now, collaborating with researchers from around the university alongside the School of Materials. We have been looking at scaffolds for regenerative medicine and developing liposomes for targeted drug delivery agents. A reasonable amount of our work is focused on magnetic nanoparticles – their nanoscale properties are really interesting because they allow you to essentially probe that nanoparticle, even if it is inside a lot of tissue, and can be used as MRI contrast agents much like gadolinium complexes. We have been looking at introducing targeting onto these magnetic nanoparticles to see if we can apply those as MRI agents or hypertherma agents. 

We are planning to to go to institutes that are looking into these kinds of applications to see what they think is required to make the research more marketable. 

What is the most important thing to be doing right now? 

Based on my experience, it is trying to get higher throughput into these classes of biomaterials. At the moment it takes quite a while to develop biomaterials that you think have the right properties and to study them using rheology and all the different techniques you need to characterise them properly. What we really need is faster ways of making those materials and faster ways of analysing what they do. 

What are the biggest challenges? 

I want to bring people together who have an interest in this area, because we are quite dispersed, even within the University of Manchester. We are spread across a range of schools, and materials is such a multi-disciplinary area that some of us are in the school of chemistry, some in materials and chemical engineering and I think around the world people in this field are also quite dispersed. One of the challenges will be trying to bring all these people together so we can form a coherent approach to solving these problems.

Dr Jonathan Aylott, Associate Professor in Analytical Bioscience in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham. Foresight Fellowship in Manufacturing: Analytical Technologies in Continuous and Additive Manufacturing

How will you use your fellowship grant? 

We want to transform pharmaceutical products using continuous and additive manufacturing. To do this, we will need to make new formulations – I am going to be investigating how we can better analyse the pills as we make them. I want to make tablets in a much more effective way, such that you can combine various medications in a single pill. With an ageing population, this will greatly improve compliance of taking the right medicines at the right time. The concept will let you print seven pills into one combined pill. 

Some of that is technologically feasible, but there are difficulties in terms of which drugs go with which, and there are considerable regulatory issues. There is also the analytics of having x amount of drug in a tablet and ensuring it is pure and how its supposed to be. It’s trying to take the model of manufacturing from the research facilities to a point of treatment in the pharmacy. 

How long could this process take? 

I think we will be able to set out the frameworks in the period of the 18-month grant, but getting industry to take this up will take a while. It is not just getting the large pharmaceutical companies innovating with more personalised medicine – they need to convince the regulatory bodies as well. I would think some of these medicines could be produced within 3–5 years, but I don't expect it to be widely available on the market for another decade.  

A 3D printed drug to treat epilepsy has recently been approved in the US. Could we see more of this in the coming years?

Yes, I think we will – that drug, SPRITAM, is a trailblazer for 3D printing. As the concept gets more widespread recognition, we could see more medicines being printed at the point of need and that might change how a lot of treatments are given, especially when you need to get a drug to a patient quickly – 3D printing will help there in a big way. 

What will be the biggest challenge?

I think it will be bringing together industry, the regulators and the technologists, showing the technology is viable in a real world setting. I think this fellowship will allow me to interact much more closely with industry decision makers, implementing these new innovations in manufacturing, while acting as an advocate as to how we can make this happen.

John Batchelor, Professor of Antenna Technology at the University of Kent. Foresight Fellowship in Manufacturing: Defining and Fabricating New Passive Bio-Sensing Wireless Tag Technologies. 

Tell me about your background

I have been working on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology for a number of years, looking to turn RFID tags from simple wireless identification labels into sensing devices that can be read remotely without the need for batteries. These sensors will ultimately be customised to user needs and produced by additive manufacturing.

How do you plan to explore bio-sensing technology? 

I will be working with materials scientists and biologists at my own university, as well as additive manufacturing experts in the UK. I also plan to collaborate with passive sensing experts in Italy and Finland to develop new biocompatible tag materials and the high-resolution 3D manufacture of sensors. I’m working alongside Professor John Rogers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA, who has pioneered the field of epidermal electronics. 

One of our main targets will be to create fungal infection sensors for artificial larynxes. These silicone structures are highly prone to infection, which not only makes the patient ill, but also impedes the function of the implant. We will work towards integrating passive sensing devices directly into the prostheses to give an early warning of fungal biofilm build-up and allow an intervention to prolong the useful life of the implant. Our materials scientists will develop methods to integrate conducting structures directly into the silicone substrates and our bioscience collaborators, in partnership with a local multi-disciplinary health team.

What are the materials involved in these sensors?

As our sensors will be either mounted directly on the skin in the form of tattoo transfers or implanted into patients, we must use biocompatible materials. Not only must they be chemically compatible with humans, they must also have the correct mechanical properties to avoid stress to the tissues on which they are placed. I am working with a soft materials expert to create silicones and other polymers as functional materials, which respond directly to stimuli. I am also planning to look at the micro patterning of polymers grown by AM to provide sensing functionality. 

The real challenge is creating functional materials that are sufficiently selective and sensitive to biological agents. The materials must respond to the stimuli by changing physical properties, such as size, conductivity or permittivity without any local power supply or amplification. We must also design chemical to radio frequency transducers to signal the response to a remote reader. Finally, all our proposed designs must be considered for AM processes to make them viable in bespoke form.

Phill Dickens, Professor of Manufacturing Technology, Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Research Group, Nottingham University. Foresight Fellowship in Manufacturing: The Future of Additive Manufacturing

How important will additive manufacturing be in the future? 

In some areas, AM will only have a marginal effect, but in others it will completely change the industry. Where complex structures are required, it will have a major effect. For example, much more efficient and lightweight structures could be produced for the aerospace industry. Personalised tablets could be introduced in the pharmaceutical sector. The potential is that tablets could be produced at a central facility, hospital, pharmacy or in the home.

How do you plan to develop this technology? 

As part of the Fellowship I am tackling this in two areas. I think we need much faster, new processes. I will be travelling around the UK to encourage physicists, chemists and materials scientists to work in this area and team up with existing AM academics. In one of the evidence papers for the Manufacturing Foresight Report, I suggested we needed a UK strategy to ensure maximum exploitation of AM. I am working with a small group to develop this strategy, supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Half of my work over the next two years will be dedicated to this. We have also established a spin out company, Added Scientific Ltd, to help companies exploit AM. There is a role in AM for almost every material and combinations of materials, so I will be open to using a wide range of materials. 

What is the biggest challenge? 

A general lack of understanding of AM, which exists at all levels. Most people within industry do not understand what AM is or how they could benefit from it. Often people do not fully understand how processes work or how to control them. A national strategy would address all of these issues and ensure that the UK is the best country in the world at exploiting the technology.

The Manufacturing Foresight Report can be found online, visit bit.ly/1KUA7Wv