We spoke to president of the ESB, Pamela Habibovic, about the importance of biomaterials research and development in Europe.
The future of innovation in the field of medical devices and regenerative medicine depends on the deep understanding of the mechanisms of interaction between biomaterials and the host biological environment. New chemistry and material engineering will need to emerge to produce biocompatible, bioactive, and bioresponsive biomaterials. The European Society for Biomaterials (ESB) offers a multidisciplinary environment where scientific knowledge is promoted, and technological solutions can be found. Speaking to ESB President Pamela Habibovic, we found out about some of the latest developments in advanced medical devices, regenerative medicine, and Biomaterials research and development.
Can we begin with a brief introduction into the work and role of ESB?
The ESB is the oldest and one of the largest societies in the field of biomaterials. We bring together scientists in this field, in order to really stay up to date with the developments in the field. We connect with our affiliated societies in Europe and we do the same with our international sister societies. For example, every year, the presidents from each affiliated European society come together to discuss what is happening on the national level in the individual countries and how we can learn from each other and strengthen these developments.
In addition to this, we are also playing the liaison between our members and our sister societies (such as those in the US, Canada and Asia). We are trying to understand the developments in the other parts of the world in this field and communicate that to our members. Moreover, we liaise with the European Commission to both understand the European vision and priorities in research and development funding, and to inform the policy makers about developments in our field. In short, we explain how biomaterials can be used to address the societal and economical challenges we are facing.
We also try and stimulate them to open possibilities for collaboration with biomaterials societies in China or in the US for example, where sometimes research is accelerating very quickly, and so we want to stay up to speed with the societies in these countries. The ESB also has a lot of attention for the younger researchers in the field. We offer them possibilities to stay informed and educated on relevant topics such as scientific writing, grant applications, and job opportunities. An important player in these activities is the ESB’s Young Scientists Forum. The ESB has a lot of really different roles; it is bringing everybody together in the biomaterial field, academic researchers, clinicians and people from the industry, and offering them a platform to exchange ideas and knowledge.
What are some of the latest developments in advanced medical devices and regenerative medicine? What role do biomaterials play in this?
The whole biomaterials field has changed over the past couple of years and it is still changing. Before, we had the materials that were passively taking over the function of a malfunctioning organ or tissue, mainly medical devices such as hip implants and mechanical heart valves etc, and whilst these are still tremendously important and have made a difference to many patients, we are now expecting more and more from biomaterials.
We don’t want them to just sit there and to perform their mechanical function. We really want them to actively interact with the body, and to instruct the body to exert a certain function. For example, to trigger the process of regeneration, or to stop infection or inflammation.
We are trying to develop materials that have an advanced interaction with the environment of the body. We also see that there’s a greater need for models that are more physiologically representative than conventional systems based on cell and tissue culture in 2D. This will reduce the number of animal studies needed to test new drugs, regenerative therapies, etc. I think biomaterials are already playing a very important role in the context of creating a physiologically relevant microenvironment.
It is important to have models where we can understand diseases and develop treatments. However, current developments of new medical devices, implants and tissue engineered constructs will remain equally important.
When it comes to biomaterials, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges researchers come up against within the industry, and how can these be overcome?
I think the biggest challenge is the translation of research itself. We expect researchers to have all the knowledge ranging from the doing fundamental research, to doing everything that is needed to turn such an innovation into a product. Nowadays, if I look at academia, we expect researchers to actually take the initiative to translate their research findings into something that is potentially clinically or commercially relevant. However, many of us academics, we do not have the important knowledge to do that. Many researchers simply do not have the time or skills to turn our research into business plans.
What I think is one of the biggest challenges is finding a liaison between research and people who are experts in making the research translate into something clinically applicable, or even a commercial product. This includes actively helping the scientists identify the potential ideas that can then be translated into clinical applications and helping them through the process of regulation and business plan development. I think that this is missing and that many scientists are struggling with this. Many of us working in this field do have the final aim of helping a patient, but it is difficult to go from a finding in the lab to something that is commercially viable; there is still insufficient support in this process in my opinion.
In terms of biomaterial research, development and innovation in Europe, what more can be done? What role does ESB play in this?
What I consider important in this context is the fact that the field of biomaterials is insufficiently making use of many available technologies from other fields. For example, in terms of wearables for sports and/or monitoring our health, eventually this will start playing a more important role in medical devices and regenerative medicine as well. In order to do that, we really have to learn from other fields and integrate innovations from those fields into ours.
We have to make much more use of the fields of micro- and nanotechnology but also data science, for example. There is a lot of advanced engineering going on in other fields, but these haven’t yet reached our field. I think that what would be great is that if the ESB could play this role and actually monitor developments in other fields and try to bring these to our scientists and vice versa. I hope we will be able to play a more proactive role in this context in the future.
Where would you like to see biomaterials, and the ESB, in europe in five years’ time?
The ultimate aim of our field is to make patients quality of life better. I’m hoping that in five years from now, we will have even more therapies in which biomaterials play a role, which have reached the clinic and have actually helped patients. I also believe that without a very high end fundamental research, the innovation will stop so I’m also hoping that the field will continue to innovate (for example, by using tools from other fields), but there is also so much more unexplored in our field.
I’m hoping that in five years from now, there will be significant progress both in the translational side of the field as well as an fundamental side and that there will be enough funding for both because we really do need both to continue to innovate.
In terms of where the ESB will be in five years from now, I think we will still be there. We will be able to even more actively monitor, influence and support the developments in the field. I find monitoring what is happening in the world, and really making sure that we stay at the highest possible level as compared to the rest of the world imperative, and in addition to that, providing support to our scientists (especially our young scientists) in these development. That is really something that I hope we will be able to achieve and in five years from now be larger and more active than ever.