Inaugural Lecture by TCD’s Professor of Bioengineering Professor Patrick Prendergast: ‘What matters in Bioengineering?’

Posted on: 03 November 2008

In the recent inaugural lecture by TCD’s Chair of Bioengineering and Vice-Provost/Chief Academic Officer, Professor Patrick Prendergast described how engineering was about problem-solving and how bioengineering was concerned with the repair and reconstruction of the ‘human machine’.

“Engineers use the principles of engineering to harness the great forces in nature for the use and convenience of mankind. Engineering is the art of using knowledge to achieve objectives,” stated Professor Prendergast.

“An engineer’s work begins with a systematic design process, meeting a specific need. This is often the most creative part of designing an engineering artefact.  Engineers define a problem to be solved and then begin concept design, during which various designs are proposed and evaluated. Concepts that do not survive analysis are revised and re-evaluated. Analysis and optimisation is the next step, which involves the selection and evaluation of solutions best suited to the problem. Evaluation for medical devices is particularly difficult because the devices need to be assessed for use in humans. Realistically, medical devises can only be evaluated when they are released in multi-centre clinical trials and the risk to patients must be minimised there”.

Professor Prendergast’s research in bioengineering is concerned with the engineering of biological systems, in particular the design of medical devices for the repair of illnesses as diverse as aneurysms and arthritis. “The human body should be viewed as a machine but it’s not a machine that lasts forever. The body degrades and most of us want to do something about this. For example, the circulatory system degrades and the heart no longer pumps blood at the same pressure; bones begin to become brittle and break. This is where the engineering of medical devices makes a difference”.

Professor Prendergast’s recent research has included the analysis and design of two such medical devices: an aneurysm repair device and knee replacement prostheses. “An aneurysm occurs when a blood vessel expands like a balloon which creates local dilation and the blood flow no longer goes along the artery. We can solve this problem by placing a graft into the blood vessel preventing blood flow into the aneurysm. Successful deployment of the graft within the artery poses many engineering design challenges. The aneurysm repair device is a relatively new design and is one example of the repairs engineering can make to the circulatory system”. 

“Knee replacement has now become more common than hip replacement. Early designs were hinges with a fixed axis, like a hinge on a door, which loosened after a few years,” explained Professor Prendergast. “These hinge designs were replaced by more innovative designs such as ‘mobile bearing prosthesis’ which enabled rotating motion within the knee.”

Other areas of bioengineering addressed in Professor Prendergast’s lecture included the power of computer simulation focusing on osteoporosis, the effects of the disease and how it can be prevented. It also included the repair of the skeleton using stem cells, where these cells can regenerate bone and cartilage. He explained the ongoing work of his research team to better understand the mechanobiological regulation of stem cells to repair the skeleton damaged by disease or injury. Professor Prendergast closed his lecture with an emphasis on the importance of free inquiry and concluded that what matters in bioengineering at TCD is that students and researchers want to learn more about it.

Vice-Provost/Chief Academic Officer of Trinity College Dublin , Professor Prendergast is a graduate of TCD and a member of staff since 1995. Professor Prendergast’s expertise is in biomechanical engineering and the analysis of medical devices. Professor Prendergast was Director of the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering from its inception in 2002 until July 2008 and was elected to Membership of the Royal Irish Academy in March this year.