Body of work from a scientist bringing innovation to the front line of medicine

Professor Eileen Ingham and her team at Leeds University have carried out important research into how the body responds to replacement heart valves and artificial hip and knee joints. ''Picture: Mark Bickerdike
Professor Eileen Ingham and her team at Leeds University have carried out important research into how the body responds to replacement heart valves and artificial hip and knee joints. ''Picture: Mark Bickerdike
Have your say

It’s no surprise that Professor Eileen Ingham has been honoured as a leader, innovator and role model. Sheena Hastings reports.

SHE’S a leading scientist and innovator whose research stands to help tens of thousands of people every year. She has spent the best part of 40 years in labs and clinics, studying everything from spotty skin to the reasons behind the eventual failure of artificial joints and how biology influences the longevity of replacement heart valves.

She is the co-founder and scientific director of a highly-successful university spin-out company marketing a product of new tissue engineering technology for use in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. She’s an inspiring lecturer and role model, and many a scientist or engineer would probably be pleased to accomplish half as much as Eileen Ingham has in her career so far.

When she recently won the award of Woman of Outstanding Achievement from the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, it was in recognition of all of the above and of her leadership within the University of Leeds’s Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, a world leading centre with more than 100 academic researchers and current external grant income of more than £50m. A gentle, good-humoured, no-fuss sort of woman, when she accepted her accolade she simply said she’s been lucky in spending her working life on activities she so enjoyed and in having that work recognised. No bombastic self-promotion, just understated and undisputed fact.

In her own faculty Prof Ingham says women biological scientists are in the majority as undergraduates and there are very healthy numbers staying on to do further degrees and post-doctoral research. The tail-off comes at the upper end of academic posts, where women represent only 20 per cent of the staff. The professor says that women tend to hang back in applying for senior jobs until they feel sure they will succeed. “Men tend to go for promotion sooner, thinking ‘I’ll give it a go’”.

Hearing Eileen Ingham talking about the field that has so engaged her since she first turned up at Leeds as a raw undergraduate in 1972 should be all that any schoolgirl or junior lecturer searching for a new challenge should need to set them on the road to finding their niche. As she describes some of the milestones in her career, her eyes light up. Describing collaborations with engineers and medical clinicians she has worked with along the way, she’s fastidious about naming them all, too many to mention here. In describing some important piece of research, she resists phrases like “ground-breaking” that are too much bandied about in the media. Yet she is acknowledged as a leader in her field.

Born in Manchester, brought up mostly by her dad after her parents’ divorce, and recipient of a solid state grammar school education, Ingham says she “did okay” at school. She loved biology and art, but her biology teacher Miss Morris (again acknowledging the contribution of others) encouraged her to take science A-levels and she applied to Leeds to study genetics and zoology. Shortly after arrival, she’d switched to microbiology and biochemistry, and towards the end of her degree didn’t think she would do well enough to be considered as a postgrad. “I was looking at graduate nursing or health protection, but then I did very well and one of my lecturers suggested a PhD. He sent me to see a professor of immunology at LGI, who offered me a position and I started my research by trying to isolate, characterise and purify the enzymes produced in bacteria involved in acne... I really enjoyed the involvement with patients in clinical trials, sampling young people’s spotty faces.”

Over time Ingham’s research interests widened out into different kinds of inflammatory skin diseases, contributing to the development of better treatments. Then, one day in 1992, medical engineer John Fisher called from across the campus. “He had a problem he thought I might be able to help with. He came to see me with a pot of fluid that carried particles from a hip simulator. There was a hint that the particles might be involved in the failure of artificial hip joints, and he had the insight to see that to understand the role of the particles he needed to collaborate with someone who understood the immune system. It seemed a very interesting problem.”

Ingham set off down a new track, analysing particles taken from simulators and from patients when artificial hips had to be revised (replaced again). “The particles from the plastic joints accumulated in the body, and the body can’t destroy them. Over years the build-up causes chronic inflammation and the load begins to destroy the bone, leading to bone loss around the prosthesis, which loosens. This process can take between 10 and 25 years. Hip and knee replacements don’t fail for mechanical reasons but for biological ones.”

The long-term collaboration between Ingham and Fisher on which particles were the most destructive contributed new understanding which has helped those who manufacture replacement hip and knee joints to modify the polyethylene they use. Research into hips and knees continues, as does newer work on spinal discs. “I don’t think the future of discs is going to be in metal and plastic. It will be in more natural solutions, maybe from stem cell research or biomaterial technology.” In every area of Ingham’s research a team of biologists, clinicians and engineers is involved. “One of the reasons the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering is so successful is the interdisciplinarity. Clinicians give you the insight into what real patient needs are, so engineers and biologists can focus their work on real problems. More recent work on heart valves and vascular patches have developed in response to direct patient need.

A long-term and ongoing project in conjunction with UK Blood and Transplant Tissue Services, who keep body tissue donated including skin, bone and heart valves for use in transplantation. Ingham and colleagues have spent years on the understanding of how and why the body rejects the “foreign body” (valve) over time, which is particularly problematic in children. “Ideally doctors want the valve to last a lifetime, so the tissue bank people are always looking at ways of improving valves. The question was how to treat the valve so the recipient body did not reject it.”

Eventually a technique was developed for removing the cells from valve tissue, thus removing the mechanism which was essentially “the other person”. The engineers were then able to test whether the valves worked as well without these components. Pig valves were used to further research, and a heart consultant in Brazil helped to further understanding by experimenting with valves taken from pigs and put into sheep. In a still-developing country where heart disease is much more prevalent, clinical need has led to the use of acellular human valves being used for the last seven years.

“Demand in Brazil is higher because there are many more children requiring heart valve replacement. Here in the UK the demand is lower and academics are very cautious,” says Prof Ingham.

Vascular surgeons suggested the same technique was used for a vascular patch – used to close an artery after it has been opened and scraped clean of plaque. “Synthetic patches stay inert in the body and can lead to infection and possibly further surgery to replace part of the artery. With an acellular patch the patient’s own cells move into it and incorporate it into the arterial tissue, helping it to regenerate.” This one product is responsible for the phenomenal success so far of the university spin-out company Tissue Regenix, of which Prof Ingham is scientific director. “It’s very satisfying,” she says. “And I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in such work.”

Does she believe women have something unique to offer to her field? “I don’t know but studies have shown that companies with women in the boardroom tend to do better in terms of profit making. What they contribute that’s unique is hard to define. We’re all scientists. All I can say that this (career) is a great life. Hopefully, I do encourage others.”