I remember my brief encounter with electronics engineering and medical technology in the late seventies. I was given the task of adjusting a heart pacemaker, in a primitive way, through the skin of a patient, while Dr Christiaan Barnard looked on impatiently at the fumblings of yet another engineering student. At the time, we told ourselves that the patient’s discomfort was minor compared with the prospect of survival. Of course, I am not going to get involved in the debate of life/quality of life and technology today. And we have come along in leaps and bounds since then. It is incredible, however, to note that increasingly engineering science is being applied to the life sciences (biology, biotechnology, genetics etc) and the medical world. This is becoming more obvious particularly with the massive growth in medical science due to an increasingly aging and demanding population. The opportunities to apply our engineering skills to this growing and fertile field abound.
The IEEE notes that the field of engineering in biology and medicine includes (quoting directly from their excellent magazine on the topic): biochemical engineering, biocontrols, bioinformatics, BioMEMS, biomaterials, biomechanics, biosignal processing, biotechnology, cellular and tissue engineering, clinical engineering, imaging and image processing, information technology, instrumentation, sensors and measurements, micro and nanotechnology, neural systems and engineering, physiological systems modelling, proteomics, radiology, rehabilitation engineering, robotics in surgery, and telemedicine. Furthermore, the dean of the MIT School of Engineering, Subra Suresh, noted recently that although engineering has traditionally come from intellectual foundations of physics, biology is now a key part. As a result MIT has expanded their engineering education into cancer research, biological engineering - with a focus on human health and infectious diseases (tuberculosis, avian flu, malaria). According to Jay Keasling, from the engineering school at the
Berkeley, significant strides have been made toward engineering micro-organisms that produce ethanol, bulk chemicals, and drugs cheaply.
When I look around – just in my little world, I can see significant evidence of engineering being applied to biology and the life sciences; remote diagnosis of patients, improved hearing devices, laser surgery and the extraction of ore using bacteria.
The challenge, however, is that engineers lack the tools to easily and predictably reprogram biological systems (as opposed to working with a microprocessor chip). Added to this is the fact that there is a dearth of standards for biological components making for poor interchangeability and then on top of this many biological components have been patented thus restricting further development.
Now I know I am going to get pilloried for even suggesting our involvement here - visions of doomsday virus manufacture (remember WMD’s) and dehumanizing people with horrible experimental medical technologies. There is no doubt engineering ethics will be stretched to its limits when assessing some of these technologies. But the opportunities for applying our engineering skills in this fast growing area abound. Whether it involves developing new technologies or applying existing technologies to this newish area of engineering.
So what should we do:
- Open our minds to how we can apply our current engineering technologies to medicine and biology
- Investigate these fields by reading and talking to people working in these areas
- Encourage our firms or organizations to invest in R & D where newer areas in biology and medicine may be applied to engineering
- Visualise, wildly, the growth areas based on an aging population demanding increasingly sophisticated medical technologies, but with an emerging shortage of foods.
- Encourage our local colleges and universities to set up courses in engineering which incorporate the life sciences
Above all, let us ensure that engineering doesn’t assist medicine and biology to develop as Napoleon viewed it, oh so many years ago:
[Medicine is] a collection of uncertain prescriptions the results of which, taken collectively, are more fatal than useful to mankind.
Yours in engineering learning