Written: July 2022
In 1963, when I started studying electrical engineering, 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 sixty years and you can see an evolution which has been occurring in engineering for some years and now is accelerating. 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 and life sciences. At my alma mater, there are three tracks available to students. Biopharmaceutical engineering encompasses biochemistry and chemical engineering. Bioelectronics and biophotonics focus 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 someday 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, 3-D printed organs, 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, BioEverything is on the horizon.
As an example, the April 2022 issue of Science Advances, published “Engineering a living cardiac pump on a chip using high-precision fabrication”. The project, at Boston University, used a new technology called two-photon direct laser writing (TPDLW) to fabricate a tiny device with mechanical properties which enable cyclic contraction of a stem cell–derived ventricular chamber. The breakthrough device will enable doctors and clinicians to better understand the human heart and how it responds to various treatments. The engineering work may pave the way for building lab-based versions of other organs, from lungs to kidneys. At some point BioEverything will lead to the construction of full-sized organs which are desperately needed by thousands on the list for transplants.
BioEverything is not just about engineering and life sciences. Enter bioethics, an emerging 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. Despite the many potential benefits, bioethics will be important for the study of the ethical issues emerging from advances in biology, medicine and technologies. Discussion is arising about moral discernment in society. I believe the discussion will lead to refinements in today’s medical policies and practices.