Interview with Dr Tristan Tapper, R&D Manager
Please describe your role at Contamac
As Research & Development Manager at Contamac, I lead a team of dedicated chemists who are responsible for many of the company’s new developments. Working with the commercial side of the business, we identify new potential areas of opportunity and derive target specifications for developments that are commercially interesting, technically viable and financially sound. The project may require speculative research or more engineered solutions. Increasingly, as well as running internally driven projects we are being approached by external organisations that have led to some interesting collaborations.
What do you enjoy most about working at Contamac and our industry?
The greatest satisfaction is when a new product makes a real difference for Contamac, its direct customers and most of all the end user, the patient. One of the benefits of working at Contamac is that once a project is defined it is common to see it through all stages, from initial inception to full realisation in the marketplace. Typically when at the start of a new project a lot of research is conducted into the background literature, including academic papers, commercial patents and other published information. Ideas are then formulated and the most promising progressed in the development laboratory, to form some initial prototypes that meet the project’s brief. Manufacturing of successful prototypes is then scaled-up and more detailed testing conducted to ensure that they meet the design specification and are suitable for the intended application. We often work with our clients at various stages throughout a project and then support the product through validation, early production, regulatory and into the market. A lot of effort and work is invested, so when a new product enters the marketplace and helps grow Contamac’s and its customers’ businesses, then it is very rewarding.
What is your professional history?
I studied chemistry at Aston University and following graduation with a Bachelor’s Degree was offered the opportunity to join the University’s Speciality Polymer Synthesis Research Group and gain my PhD. The position was funded by an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) case award sponsored by Shell Research Ltd. The focus was the synthesis of monodisperse polymers by living cationic polymerisation with applications for fuel additives. After completion of my PhD, I joined Dow Corning Ltd and spent 2 years as a Research Chemist in the Polymer Science Expertise Centre conducting research into organo-silicone polymers. Unfortunately at the time R&D activities within Dow Corning were being reduced, ultimately leading to the closure of the UK site. However, my next role introduced to me to the ophthalmic industry that I have now been part of for 16 years, 12 years of which have been spent at Contamac.
You have worked developing new materials for the ophthalmic industry for the last 16 years, during this time which has been the biggest step forward in material development?
In our own custom manufactured segment of the industry, Definitive silicone hydrogel materials have had a significant impact. The difficulty with high oxygen permeable, lower water content silicone hydrogels of the type that are commonly used for mass produced moulding, is that they are inherently rubbery materials in the dry state, making lathing for production very difficult. Definitive 74 approached the problem from a different angle and relies on a combination of both the water content and silicone to achieve its oxygen permeability. The resulting material was the first of its kind, being machinable and inherently surface wettable when hydrated. The material revitalised various segments of the industry and we received very positive reports from patients with serious eye conditions and the difference it has made to their lives. It was for Definitive that in 2016 the company was awarded the Queens Award for Enterprise. A great achievement for all involved.
While contact lenses are primarily used to correct vision, it seems research in recent years has turned toward the use of lenses for other applications, including disease detection and drug delivery. How important is the material element for this kind of projects?
The demands on the contact lens material are as diverse as the potential applications that are being researched. Often not only do the materials need to fulfil the basic function of a lens but also meet additional requirements.
Contact lenses as a method of drug delivery have been studied for many years. The challenge is controlling the amount and rate of release of the active component from the lens. Most lens materials will dispense the drug too quickly. Some of the currently more promising solutions involve some method of encapsulating the active ingredient within or on the lens. The encapsulation then controls the delivery of the drug to the ocular environment.
For diagnostic work and disease detection, many researchers are imbedding microelectronics and sensors into lenses. If there are components in the tear film being measured, then the material must allow their passage to the embedded sensor. Other applications may require the lens to fulfil certain physical requirements such as stability, mechanical behaviour or refractive index. At Contamac we have a lot of experience at manipulating material properties and targeting specific performance attributes.
Most of the R&D projects are kept in a certain level of secrecy, but could you share with us what are you working on at the moment?
The R&D team has projects running in all of the company’s core product areas. Intraocular lens materials are an important focus with the market having increasingly high demands. There are now many pressures in this sector concerning the cost of materials and manufacturing, but the need for innovative materials and solutions is also higher than ever. Within the contact lens sector, the need for further silicone hydrogels for custom manufacture continues, with requirements for products with increasing oxygen permeability whilst importantly retaining excellent surface characteristics and of course machinability. There also projects outside the company’s core areas, many of which are collaborative with other organisations and secret. So we have plenty to keep us busy and you can expect more innovative products to be launched in the near future.