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Catalyst NI: Inventing the resistance to COVID-19

  • The North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing (NWCAM) is leading the way in the fight against COVID-19, creating new technologies, preventative measures and diagnostic systems to turn the tide against COVID-19.

    The impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been felt across the globe with immeasurable consequences and challenges both human and systemic that will be felt for years to come.

    Since March this year, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic, NWCAM (a UK and ROI life and health science cross border innovation initiative) has accelerated its collaboration to try to meet these challenges on all fronts.

    The North West Centre for Advanced Manufacturing was developed to link research capability to industrial challenges using advanced manufacturing within the Life and Health Science sector within Northern Ireland, the Border Region of Ireland and Western Scotland. Led by Catalyst and delivered through four academic and ten industrial partners, the consortium facilitates and co-ordinates collaborative research and innovation.

    RELATED: Belfast MedTech organisations are helping the world understand the Covid-19 virus

    When COVID-19 arrived, the businesses and innovators who are part of NWCAM side-lined their ‘normal’ working patterns to focus on accelerating, scaling-up and repurposing their manufacturing capabilities to come up with new ways to meet needs created by the pandemic.

    Dr Oonagh Lynch, Innovation Broker at Catalyst, said: “Our NWCAM partners immediately responded to address the COVID-19 demands for PPE and ventilation equipment as well as scale-up modelling for global production of vaccines and testing. Teams halted their ‘business as usual’ work schedules to employ their strengths, skills and collaborative links to solve these critical problems that will benefit everyone. We are immensely proud of all NWCAM partners playing their part through engineering and manufacturing to create a safer environment for frontline workers and help support the global combat against COVID-19.”

    In this article, we look at some of the brilliant work that has already been done in a very short space of time.

    Room to breathe – Armstrong Medical

    Armstrong medical, a specialist manufacturer of breathing and respiratory products has scaled up their capacity and substantially increased their workforce to manufacture disposable breathing circuits and electromedical devices for Intensive Care Unit’s (ICU’s) to meet global demand. Recently they launched a range of key products including the  AquaVENT VT breathing circuit which incorporates much of the research & development (R&D) generated from the NWCAM collaboration with Ulster University.

    Pushing the boundaries of 3D Printing –  Axial3D

    Pivoting from Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 3D anatomical modelling, Belfast based Axial3D has altered its core commercial capability and repurposed 3D printing capacity to print much needed parts for ICU ventilators, as well as COVID-19 test kits and masks for the National Health Service (NHS) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). In response to the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage, Axial3D teamed up with Sports Fusion, a leading UK sports-tech company to crowdfund £20,000, enabling the rapid production and direct shipping of protective face shields to front line staff.

    Nanotechnology with a Mammoth Impact – Causeway Sensors

    It’s no understatement to suggest that Causeway Sensors’ (a Queen’s University Spin-out working in partnership with the Universities of Ulster and Glasgow) novel sensing platform could revolutionise drug discovery and production in the biopharmaceutical industry. Using nanostructured technology, it will illuminate existing measurement blind spots and yield high quality, rapid ‘label-free’ analysis, thereby helping the industry to accelerate its development processes. This technology could potentially be a game changer in supporting the scaling of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutic production.

    Healthcare giant pivots for vaccines – GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) one of NWCAM’s largest industry partners is playing a pivotal role in the search for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and testing.

    GSK are collaborating with companies such as Sanofi and research groups across the world working on promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Together with Sanofi, they are using their innovative vaccine adjuvant (A pharmacological or immunological agent that improves the immune response of a vaccine) technology which reduces the amount of vaccine protein required per dose, allowing for faster scaling and greater production of the available vaccine. GSK are expected to enter clinical trials in the second half of 2020 and, if successful they aim to complete the development required for availability by the second half of 2021. GSK and Sanofi combined have the largest vaccine manufacturing capability in the world and if successful, will have the capacity to manufacture the hundreds of millions of doses that are likely to be required worldwide. GSK Sligo also produced and packaged 5,000 litres of hand sanitiser that was donated to the Health Service Executive, local charities, local healthcare providers, and An Garda Síochána (police).

    PPE for the World- NuPrint Technologies

    Irish design and print specialist NuPrint are retooling and focusing on large scale automated manufacturing to produce up to 200,000 pieces of protective equipment a day, (including customisable CE certified face shields) to help alleviate and fill the demand needed for front line healthcare workers to feel safe as they help others. The team are engaging with Ulster University, Magee to develop the new manufacturing systems and processes needed to combat the PPE shortage.

    Shields for the Heroes of Healthcare – Denroy Plastics

    Denroy have been working with a consortium of local businesses to design and manufacture the Hero Shield, a plastic protective visor to guard the face. Denroy recently took over distribution of Hero Shield face shields along with Crossen Engineering Ltd. and have been delivering orders to healthcare workers on the front line as part of the COVID-19 response. Over the next few months Denroy will deliver over 1 million Hero Shields through the NHS and HSE.

    NWCAM Academia

    NWCAM academic partner, Professor Ravinder Dahiya from the James Watt School of Engineering at University of Glasgow has developed a Do it Yourself (DIY) emergency ventilator for deploying primarily within low to middle income countries or in remote settings. The team are now seeking additional funding and a potential industry partner for further development of the prototype to rapidly take to market. Another leading Glasgow researcher, Professor Nikolaj Gadegaard and his team have been manufacturing PPE at scale, producing 500 face shields per day and are now ramping up the production towards 1000 per day ensuring local frontline staff have the necessary equipment.

    RELATED: Cross-border Hero Shield PPE manufacturing group gets €300,000 Co-Innovate funding

    IT Sligo’s Centre for Precision Engineering, Materials and Manufacturing Research (PEM Centre)  have been scaling up their production of face shields since the beginning of April. Academic director of the PEM Centre, Dr David Tormey highlighted that precision engineering and additive manufacturing (better known as 3D printing) are core competencies of the Centre and the team were able to manufacture three types of face shields, differing in terms of material grade, geometry and design depending upon the required end use. Having produced over 12000 face-shields over a seven week period, all three models are being distributed to frontline staff in the HSE, nursing homes and care facilities.

    NWCAM supported principal investigator, Professor Alistair McIlhagger alongside teams in the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre – NIBEC and the Department of Engineering, Ulster University are applying their expertise in 3D modelling and medical device design and fabrication to support the Southern Health & Social Care Trust to design and fabricate innovative respirator and aspirator cover prototypes which will being trialled by respiratory consultants to support patients and protect staff. Vita Materials are now mass-producing visors designed by the School of Engineering team. Ulster University are also rolling out a COVID-19 Antibody Trial App at their Jordanstown campus led by Tara Moore and Jim McLaughlin along with the development of an Covid-19 antibody test with CIGA Healthcare.

    RELATED: NI manufacturer develops portable hand-washing station to fight Covid-19

    Engineering staff at Letterkenny Institute of technology (LYIT) have been fully committed to the ongoing nationwide efforts to manufacture protective face shields. Repurposing equipment originally intended for electronics and mechanical engineering projects, LYIT engineers went into immediate production. In the midst of a campus shutdown, the team relocated their operations to facility Donegal Town and have delivered 520 face shields in the first week of production.

    “We are delighted to be able to produce the face shields.  The valuable skills and expertise of our engineering staff has now resulted in a series of tweaks to the design to allow a quicker production cycle.  We are thankful to those working on the frontline,” said Dr Jim Morrison Head of Department of Electronic and Mechanical Engineering at LYIT.

    The arrival and impact of COVID-19 pandemic has been swift, indiscriminate and deadly, yet as we move from the brace position to stand against it, a new era of nascent cross-collaboration in the innovation, scientific and engineering communities has been born. NWCAM partners and institutions around the globe are mutually connected by a common purpose and strive not just toward a COVID-19 free world, but ultimately a safer tomorrow.

    RELATED: Read more from Sync NI's MedTech section here 

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