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The Rise of Biomedical Engineering

In 1963, when I began studying electrical engineering, there were two tracks of courses a 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 is now accelerating. I call it BioEverything.

Initially “bio” was a special interest area which 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 today, 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 someday will benefit from bioengineered body “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 has arrived.

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.

BioEverything is revolutionizing human health and medicine and enabling a deeper grasp of how the human body functions in both health and disease (physiology and pathophysiology). To bring focus to the tremendous advances in engineering and the blurring of the line between engineering and biology, the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS), and the Departments of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) organized a workshop titled “Grand Challenges at the Interface of Engineering and Medicine”. The Grand Challenges brought together international experts in the field of biomedical engineering who co-authored the resulting paper. The group identified five grand challenges as the research areas with the greatest potential of achieving tremendous impact on the field of medicine.

The paper explores these five grand challenges:

1: Precision Medicine – Creating Avatars of Human Physiology

2: SmartHuman – Developing Smart and Responsive Systems for Human Function Augmentation

3: Engineering The Brain and Foundations for the ExoBrain

4: ImmunoEngineering – Harnessing the Immune System for Health and Wellness

5: Engineering Life – Engineering Genomes and Cells

Readers may find the challenges scary, but I believe they are inevitable. The five grand challenges success will depend on the critical role of interdisciplinary collaboration between life sciences and engineering disciplines. A second dependency will be the need to adapt training for the next generation of healthcare professionals.  Physicians and clinicians will require a stronger foundation in technology-driven and quantitative sciences. They will need to leverage a vast array of non-invasive measurements. This data will be used to create a detailed picture of an individual’s “human wellness quotient,” allowing for personalized lifestyle recommendations.

The project was led by Shankar Subramaniam who is Distinguished Professor of Bioengineering, Computer Science & Engineering, Cellular & Molecular Medicine, and Nanoengineering at the University of California San Diego. You can read the entire paper here. The citation for the paper is:

Subramaniam et al., “Grand Challenges at the Interface of Engineering and Medicine,” in IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology, vol. 5, pp. 1-13, 2024, doi: 10.1109/OJEMB.2024.3351717.

You can read more about this subject area in a couple of my books:

Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare
Reflection Attitude – Current, Past, and Future

Note: I use Gemini AI and other AI chatbots as my research assistants. AI can boost productivity for anyone who creates content. Sometimes I get incorrect data from AI, and when something looks suspicious, I dig deeper. Sometimes the data varies by sources where AI finds it. I take responsibility for my posts and if anyone spots an error, I will appreciate knowing it, and will correct it.