Professor William Bonfield CBE, FREng, FRS, Professor of Medical materials at the University of Cambridge, has won this year’s prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering’s Prince Philip Medal.

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as The Academy’s Senior Fellow, will present Professor Bonfield with the solid gold medal at the Academy Awards Dinner in London on 10 June.

The unique award, instigated in 1989 by Prince Philip, is not made every year – only periodically to ‘an engineer of any nationality who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education’.

Professor Bonfield has indeed made an outstanding contribution to science, engineering and to society. Described as someone who has helped to ‘define the field of biomaterials’, he has outstanding achievements in developing and taking right through to commercialisation and clinical use the world leading ‘artificial bone’ material.

Biomaterials are either modified natural or synthetic materials, which find application in a spectrum of medical implants for the repair, augmentation and replacement of body tissues.

Virtually everyone has a simple biomaterial in their body. Common tooth fillings represent the ‘first generation’ of biomaterials, but many people also rely on more critical implants. One well known example is the replacement of an arthritic joint such as a hip by an artificial prosthesis.

Professor Bonfield’s work has provided a transformational change to a new ‘second generation’ of biomaterials derived from a biological template. This has made possible, for the first time to tailor and control the required mechanical and biological properties of skeletal implants.

The biological template, hydroxyapatite, Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2, a compound similar to bone mineral formed the basis for the first such biomaterial. The result, of Professor Bonfield’s manipulation of hydroxyapatite resulted in a hydroxyapatite-polyethylene composite, an analogue of bone which bonds naturally without separate cementing being required for implants.

This material has now also achieved significant application as a bone graft in a range of medical and dental applications.

This novel bone analogue has achieved clinical success as a middle ear prosthesis. Disruption of the middle ear bones leads to deafness and, to date, some150,000 patients have benefited from such implants. This means that there are 150,000 people who were once – and still would otherwise be – deaf who can now hear and who can engage to the full in society to the enrichment of their own lives and to the lives of others.

He has taken his fundamental innovation through all the necessary stages of the chain: from the novel basic materials research, through prototype device/artefact realisation, clinical trials and use in patient treatment. And he has done this together with the requisite parallel processes of research, patenting, licensing through to market deployment.

As a result a large number of patients have benefited already from his innovation; more do so with each passing year. Further, this is now multiplying additionally as the continuing biomaterials innovations find their way from his research and specialist company into a yet wider range of skeletal implant applications.

Notes for editors

  1. The Prince Philip Medal, instigated in 1989, is awarded periodically to an engineer of any nationality “who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education.” The list of previous winners is short but very eminent: the late Sir Frank Whittle OM CBE FREng FRS in 1991 for the development of the jet engine; Sir Denis Rooke CBE FRS FREng in 1992 for changing the face of the UK gas industry; Professor Charles Kao CBE FREng FRS in 1996 for the invention of optical fibres; Professor John Argyris FREng FRS jointly with Professor Ray Clough in 1997 for developing the technique of finite element analysis; Sir John Browne FREng, Chief Executive of BP Amoco plc, in 1999 for his engineering and managerial achievements in creating Britain’s biggest company; the Academy’s President Sir Alec Broers FREng FRS, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in 2000 both for pioneering miniature electronic circuits on silicon chips and for building the university’s links with industry; Philip Ruffles CBE RDI FREng FRS for his key role behind Rolls-Royce’s award-winning Trent family of engines, which have captured over half the global market and Professor David Rhodes, Executive Chairman of Filtronic plc, in recognition for his outstanding research expertise in communications technology which he developed into a highly successful world-wide company.
  2. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship - comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers - provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Dr. Claire McLoughlin at the Royal Academy of Engineering