The Irish scientist ‘building’ body parts in Australia

Scientist Cathal O’Connell had aspirations to follow in the footsteps of journeyman apprentices from ancient times who learned their craft travelling from one master to another across cities and towns. But it wasn’t to be, as he happily got stuck in Melbourne along the way.

Originally from Swords, O’Connell completed his undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry of advanced materials in Trinity College in 2008. “I work in nanoscience. Nanoscience is the study of structures and materials on an ultra-small scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a metre. TCD are world leaders in this field, boasting connections with other labs around the world.”

As a result, O’Connell was “lucky enough” to spend time working on research projects making strong fibres using carbon nanotubes at the University of Wollongong. Wollongong is the third largest city in New South Wales and just an hour from Sydney.

After college, he spent a year travelling overland from New York to Buenos Aires, during which time he decided to return to the Australian city to do a PhD. “In Wollongong, you can do a PhD straight from your undergraduate degree and cut out the masters. I filled out my forms while getting a bus across Peru and ended up going straight from South America to Australia. ”

Restore hearing

That was in 2009 and the PhD was in bionics. “Bionics is all about creating electrical devices which can interact with the body, such as the cochlear implant or bionic ear which can restore hearing to people who are profoundly deaf. My research was in the area of developing new ways to electrically communicate with living cells at a very small scale.”

During his PhD studies, O’Connell founded a creative writing and literary society at the university.

“The culture of societies at universities isn’t as widespread as it is in Ireland, so it was great to get something started up.” Writing was to serve him in his next career move, as a contributor to Australian science magazine, Cosmos. “I focused on translating hard science into articles for people who aren’t scientists, but have an interest in the area. I wrote almost 150 popular science articles for the magazine.”

He also published academic papers in high-impact journals such as Nature Nanotechnology, Small and Nature Scientific Reports. “I enjoyed writing and interviewing some very interesting scientists and Nobel prize winners, but eventually I wanted to go back to the lab.”

O’Connell moved to Melbourne in 2017 to work at a 3D lab printing living cells.

“My lab research is based at BioFab3D at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, where I work with surgeons, engineers and biologists to develop ways to print 3D tissues using living cells.

“BioFab3D is a state-of-the-art bioengineering research, education and training hub. It is equipped with advanced technology, such as 3D bioprinters and tissue bioreactors, and brings researchers and clinicians together to develop and produce replacement body parts. The field I work in is called ‘biofabrication’ which means ‘building body parts’,” he says.

“Our goal is to use engineering to help repair and regenerate parts of the body which can’t repair themselves – like the cartilage for example. It has no natural healing ability. If you injure yourself or damage it, you will need surgery, and potentially replacement with artificial joints.

“So our team developed a handheld ‘biopen’ for printing stem cells in surgery. The idea is that the surgeon can literally ‘draw’ an ink of cells and materials in the joint which will fill in the damage and restore the joint’s natural shape.”

“We’ve seen strong evidence in the lab and in animal trials that stem cells printed this way can generate a new cartilage – potentially enough to stop osteoarthritis from ever developing. It’s such a painful condition with no cure.”

“The human trials have yet to start and, like all trials, once they do, funding will be sought from different entities. Currently, our work is funded by the university and by public funds. It is a lengthy process and there are no shortcuts,” he adds.

Along with his cartilage work, O’Connell is involved with a number of other projects for engineering tissues including muscle, bone and skin.

St Vincent’s Hospital was founded by an Irish nun 125 years ago. “It is very popular with Irish nurses and doctors, who come to work in Australia. We work in the lab there, which is shared by four universities in Melbourne.” One of these is RMIT University in Melbourne, where he lectures in biomedical engineering.

O’Connell says Melbourne is a great university city and a place to live. “It’s been voted the world’s most liveable city numerous times. There’s a famous rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, but we have better coffee here.

Cultural offering

“They get better weather, but as a result, the cultural offering in Melbourne is fantastic. There are great music venues, pubs, theatres and it’s great for families. It’s not as expensive as Sydney either, but we’re not too far off. Cost of living is famously high down under, but quality of life is good,” he says.

“My family of four has citizenship, but the children also have Irish passports, which will be helpful when they get older and possibly want to live in Ireland.”

Despite being virus free for almost six months, Australia has gone back into lockdown. “There is no in-room teaching, childcare is closed and you can’t go beyond 5km, so we’re lucky we got out.”

O’Connell and his family of four are currently spending time with in-laws in Hungary and he is teaching remotely from there. “Seeing our families again has always been the light at the end of the pandemic for us. Hopefully when we return in January, we can quarantine at home or not at all.

“Australia didn’t get there with the vaccinations and the new variant is too much to deal and they were having difficulty quashing the Delta variant, despite the best efforts of locking people down again.”

But O’Connell hopes that, by January, when they return, the quarantine mandates will have changed. “In the meantime, thanks to the wonders of global communication I can work remotely.”

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