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Boost for PhD research into 3D printed solutions for patients in need

27th February 2019

QUT PhD student Naomi Paxton is the first winner of an award worth up to $35,000 for her collaborative work with industry to find better ways to 3D print body parts.

Ms Paxton has been recognised with the Ezio Rizzardo Polymer Scholarship, which acknowledges the potential impact of an outstanding PhD candidate in polymer science or engineering.

“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.”

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.

 “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, which involves taking bone from another site on a patient’s body or from a donor and using it as a replacement in the defected area.

“Grafting is a great solution because the patient’s own tissue is used, but tissue availability it is limited and there are challenges, such as an increased risk of infection from two surgical sites.”

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, through the creation of 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 healing the bone defect.”

Ms Paxton impressed the scholarship 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,” Dr Coldrey said.

Naomi said she was honoured to be the first recipient and explained what her research could do for patients.

“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.”

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 to complete the Dual International Biofabrication Masters degree, combining her background in physics with polymer chemistry, engineering, biology and materials science.

She has been a committed STEM ambassador and science communicator, involving herself in STEM engagement activities since 2012 and has presented at 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, allowing students to create 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.

“Mia is incredible – she has 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 Ezio Rizzardo Polymer Scholarship is administered by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and the selection committee comprises Academy Fellows who are polymer specialists.

The scholarship has been established to honour Professor Ezio Rizzardo AC FTSE, 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.

“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,” Ms Paxton said.