In 1963, when I started in engineering school, there were two tracks that an electrical engineering student could choose from — electronics or power. Electronics was about solid state devices such as transistors. (The Intel microprocessor was not to come until 1971). The “power” track was mostly about electric motors and power generation. Fast forward fifty years and you can see an evolution occurring with regard to bioengineering. I call it BioEverything.
Initially “bio” was a special interest area that spread roots from the biology department into various engineering disciplines. Bioengineering has become a structured curriculum for students interested in the intersection between engineering and biological sciences. Bioengineering combines engineering principles with life sciences. There are three tracks available to students. Biopharmaceutical engineering encompasses biochemistry and chemical engineering. Bioelectronics/biophotonics focuses on applications of electrical engineering and physics in bioengineering such as signal processing, biosensors, and biochips. Cell and tissue engineering straddles the fields of molecular and cell biology, materials science, mechanical and electrical engineering and encompasses biomaterials and biomechanics. Studies range from cells and tissue to organs and systems. Sounds quite a bit different than transistors and electric motors.
I believe what we will see in medicine and healthcare over the next ten years will dwarf what we have seen in the past 100 years. It is a real possibility for those of us who started out back in the days of the transistors and motors and have aging bodies that some day we will benefit from bioengineered “components”. The implantable pacemaker was just the beginning. Bioengineering graduates will be developing pacemakers for the brain, cochlear implants for hearing deficiencies, artificial cartilage for our knees, devices to enable the blind to see, and cures for today’s incurable diseases. At some point a nanotechnology “cocktail” will bring nanobots to our internal systems to replace faulty cells with newly engineered ones. Just like computers have become ubiquitous, it is clear that bioeverything is on the horizon.
Bioethics will become a larger concern as research begins to reach into the basics of life. Biophysicists at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed a brain-on-a-chip which models the connectivity between different parts of the brain. The chip mimics the connectivity between the various regions of the brain where many diseases develop. The brain-on-a-chip will enable researchers to study neurological and psychiatric diseases, including traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction .