Boost for printed body parts research

Naomi Paxton, first winner of the Ezio Rizzardo Polymer Scholarship

Naomi Paxton, first winner of the Ezio Rizzardo Polymer Scholarship. Photo courtesy of Queensland University of Technology.

A PhD student working with industry on better ways to 3D print body parts is the first winner of an award worth up to $35,000.

Naomi Paxton from Queensland University of Technology is researching the fabrication of high-density polyethylene, patient-specific surgical implants.

“My research brings together polymer science and engineering in an emerging field called biofabrication.

“I use 3D printing to fabricate biocompatible polymer surgical implants, working closely with Melbourne-based medical device company, Anatomics,” she said.

Ms Paxton has already completed two highly successful research projects, melt electrospinning scaffolds for bone regeneration using a promising FDA-approved biomaterial (polycaprolactone) and optimising hydrogel formulations for bioprinting cartilage.

Her work has been recognised with the inaugural Ezio Rizzardo Polymer Scholarship, which acknowledges the potential impact of an outstanding PhD candidate in polymer science or engineering. It provides $10,000 per year over three years, plus a $5000 travel fund. Ms Paxton is already in her second year so will be eligible for $25,000.

The scholarship has been established to honour Professor Ezio Rizzardo AC FTSE (pictured below), one of Australia’s pre-eminent polymer scientists and a major contributor to the science and management of the Cooperative Research Centre for Polymers during its 25-year life.

During 38 years at Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, he co-invented 44 patents, including Reversible Addition-Fragmentation chain Transfer (RAFT). He also co-authored 210 journal papers, was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and ranked 18th in the Thomson-Reuters’ list of the world’s top 100 chemists over the past decade.

Professor Rizzardo is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

We are developing solutions to 3D print bio-resorbable scaffolds that contain the patient’s own cell

Ms Paxton said: “My research aims to help patients who have lost bone as a result of accidents, birth defects or diseases such as cancer. Currently, grafting is the gold-standard treatment option (taking bone from another site on a patient’s body or from a donor and using it as a replacement in the defected area).

“But then you have two surgical sites, which means twice the risk of infection. Grafting is a great solution because the patient’s own tissue is used, but tissue availability is limited and there are challenges.”

Plastics and metals are other common bone replacements, but Ms Paxton says there are also some risks in using them.

“We are developing solutions to 3D print bio-resorbable scaffolds that contain the patient’s own cells. We can design patient-specific 3D designs from medical scans so that the implants perfectly fit the individual patient.

“These bioactive implants will begin to rapidly regenerate the patient’s own tissue while degrading; ultimately, these will completely heal the bone defect.”

The scholarship is open to domestic students at one of the 14 universities that took part in the former CRC.

Ms Paxton impressed the selection committee with her academic record and involvement in STEM outreach activities.

Scholarship committee chair, Dr Peter Coldrey FTSE, said he and his committee were delighted that someone of the calibre of Ms Paxton was the inaugural winner of the scholarship.

“She has excelled in her undergraduate degree and presented a research proposal with the potential to make a high-impact contribution to polymer science and engineering.

“Naomi also clearly demonstrated her ability to communicate her scientific ideas and accomplishments to a broad audience,” he said.

Ms Paxton said she was honoured to be the first recipient. “Combining polymer science and engineering innovations in biofabrication research has the potential to revolutionise how we treat tissue loss and improve the quality of care for patients all around Australia.

“This scholarship will make it easier for me to work on these biofabrication solutions and I’d like to thank the selection committee, including Professor Rizzardo.”

At QUT, Ms Paxton received both a Science and Engineering Dean’s Scholarship and was a Vice-Chancellor’s Academic Scholarship recipient in 2012, completing her Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in Physics and Mathematics, in just 2.5 years.

In 2015, she was in the first cohort of 20 students internationally to complete the Dual International Biofabrication Masters degree, combining her background in physics with polymer chemistry, engineering, biology and materials science.

Ezio Rizzardo in lab coat

She has been a committed STEM ambassador and science communicator, involving herself in STEM engagement activities since 2012. Since 2013, she has presented at five conferences and more than 20 outreach events across Queensland, including high school workshops.

In one of her interactive biofabrication workshops she shows students how to use smart phones to create a 3D visualisation of model bone defects. From these, the students can design their own patient-specific implants and have them printed on in-house 3D printers.

Ms Paxton paid tribute to her role model, supervisor Professor Mia Woodruff. “She is absolutely incredible. She has very much empowered me to succeed in research, which can be very challenging, particularly for females. While half of all PhD students in STEM are female, there is only 12 per cent female representation at senior research level in Australia.”

The scholarship is administered by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and the selection committee comprises Academy Fellows who are polymer specialists.