Innovating at Intersection of Engineering and Surgery

Associate Professor Greg O’Grady is a surgeon and researcher. He typically spends half of his workweek at the Auckland City Hospital performing mainly colorectal surgeries, specialising primarily in ‘keyhole’ surgery for bowel cancer. At other times, he can be found conducting research at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) or the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland. “Problem-solving through research is exciting – I find myself getting bored without it. Also, the opportunity to think with engineers, who have a different perspective, is great,” he says.

Greg’s main research interest is in the gastrointestinal field – he works closely with the Gastrointestinal Group at ABI and was recently awarded a $5 million grant by the Health Research Council to “really move the field forward in the diagnosis of motility diseases and surgical recovery.”

He is also driven to address problems in the surgical field by bringing engineers and clinicians together – initiating the formation of the Surgical Engineering Lab. Clinicians have the insight into the needs for innovation that exist, and engineers have the expertise to build and develop solutions.

“Surgeons are generally innovative. However, collaborations with engineers are quite rare – they are more inclined to work with industry. As a result, ideas that get to the market are often those that are led by the industry’s interests rather than truly innovative solutions based on unmet clinical needs,” he says.

The Surgical Engineering Lab is currently working on two main projects – devices that can rapidly detect a life-threatening complication of colorectal surgery (anastomotic leak) and those that will enable better visualisation as surgeons operate in narrow body cavities. Another research output, a nutrient refeeding device, was recently spun out to the Surgical Design Studio, a commercialisation vehicle for the Surgical Engineering Lab. The Surgical Design Studio was founded just six months ago and is currently focused on building the first product and business strategy for the device.

There are a number of exciting projects Greg is involved with across his different roles – it is a challenging balancing act but he is enthusiastic. “It is satisfying to change one patient’s life through surgery, but research gives you leverage to make an impact in the lives of far more patients across the globe who live with the same problem. You can think much bigger than just the patient in front of you, and this keeps me motivated,” he says.

Associate Professor Greg O’Grady with a patient in the ward, undertaking research
with a student from the Surgical Engineering Lab.