Personalised Implants ecosystem: medical implants tailored to the patient

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The PI ecosystem is an awarded project with a four-year subsidy from regional funding agency Samenwerkingsverband Noord Nederland (SNN) and further supported by the Province of Groningen and the Municipality of Groningen.

The UMCG is the coordinator of the PI ecosystem. We interviewed Elena Merlo from the Center of Development and Innovation (CDI) at the UMCG, project manager of the ecosystem.

Medical implants

Medical implants are often used to repair bone fractures in the human body, but the current standard implants have limitations. Since there are so many differences between the patients and the kind of injuries that they have, standard implants are not suitable to fit every patient optimally (source: PI ecosystem). This leads to longer surgeries and recovery periods, an increased risk of infection and reduced recovery of the patient. Merlo explains: “Currently, there are very few possibilities to work with implants that are tailored to the patient. In some cases surgeons have to bend implants during surgery to make them fit. This can cause long-term problems for patients’ recovery. With our ecosystem partners, we want to develop solutions to generate implants that are specific to the patient, are produced in shorter time and are made of materials that are less prone to infections and more functional. We also want to improve the digital workflow for the design and visualisation of the implant before they are produced.”

Projects and valorisation

The main goal of the PI ecosystem is to find solutions that can be transferred into society, become part of the clinical routine and help patients. The ecosystem facilitates projects that will develop innovative products, new technologies and improve processes. “One of these innovative products could be a biocompatible polymer coating that releases antimicrobials on-demand when an infection is detected in the surrounding of an implant. Three of our partners, Polyvation, Bether Encapsulates and dr. Patrick van Rijn from the Biomedical Engineering Department of the UMCG, have joint expertise to increase the infection-resistance properties of implant surfaces, so that in the future less post-op complications will arise from infections”, states Merlo.

Two projects within the ecosystem are closer to the clinic. Merlo mentions two collaborations between the Oral Diseases and the Maxillofacial Surgery department, Trauma Surgery department, the 3D Lab (UMCG) and the Witec Fijnmechanische Techniek, a production company in Stadskanaal. She explains: “These partners are collaborating in two projects. One project is focused on optimising the workflow of how implants are produced. The second project is more translational and aims to demonstrate the added value of using 3D technologies, virtual planning and patient-specific implants for the surgical treatment of pelvic injuries. The time that is needed for the current workflow – from the moment that a patient enters into the clinic to the moment that he/she gets surgery – is currently three to four weeks; the partners are working on reducing this time considerably. This will benefit both the patient recovery and the healthcare system, with a reduction of hospitalisation costs. We think that with these projects will lead to development of new professional figures with unique expertise and possibly result in job openings in the near future.”

Current stakeholders

Stakeholders from three different fields work together in the ecosystem: clinicians, academic researchers and companies. “We collaborate with clinicians, such as surgeons from the UMCG Trauma Surgery, the Oral Diseases & Maxillofacial Surgery and the Orthopedics departments. We also collaborate with the 3D lab, which is a facility at the UMCG where technical engineers work with surgeons to create the improved imaging and 3D design for implants”, says Merlo. Next to these stakeholders, the ecosystem includes the department of Biomedical Engineering and hopefully in the future also other research departments, such as for example the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials (ZIAM) of the University of Groningen. Other stakeholders in the ecosystem are companies. Merlo elaborates: “Our first partners were Witec, a 3D printing manufacturing company, PolyVation, a research and development polymer company and Bether Encapsulates, a start-up specialised in encapsulation technologies. Recently, new partners have joined: VDL, Smart Polymers, Elbo Technics, Innovizie and BiomAcs, who together with Polyvation and the department of Biomedical Engineering (RUG) will work on development of resorbable devices such as plates and screws for the fixation of complex bone fractures, with expert advice from clinicians.” Merlo mentions that she is looking forward to expand this pool of partners further so they can broaden the overall expertise.

A community of partners

The ecosystem is an open network where different partners collaborate to strengthen the economy, research, and business in the region of the Northern Netherlands. “We welcome new partners that have complementary expertise in the field of biomaterials, regenerative medicine, implants production, and quality and assessment related to clinical application. The ultimate goal is to create a community of partners that will find each other, recognise their own strengths, and help each other to find solutions to common challenges,” says Merlo. The subsidy from SNN supports this start-up phase of the ecosystem, but Merlo states that the ecosystem is meant to be a sustainable long-term project that will benefit the region and will make it recognisable beyond the regional borders. Merlo elaborates: “Personalised Implants is only one of the ongoing initiatives around health technology, medical devices and digitalisation that are running in the Northern Netherlands, recently introduced under the Healthy Technology Research & Innovation Cluster. All these multidisciplinary efforts will contribute to make the Northern Netherlands a hot spot for research and innovation in the health tech field”.

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