Biomedical engineering is a relatively new and exciting branch of the life sciences that has the potential to transform healthcare — paving the way for further technological developments in prosthetics, surgical devices, diagnostics, imaging methods and much, much more.
Bridging the gap between biological science, medicine and engineering, the interdisciplinary field of biomedical engineering is changing the way we interact with the world. From prosthetic limbs to medicine delivery technology, the pioneering research of biomedical engineers is shaking the foundations of traditional healthcare to its very core.
Biomedical engineering combines the design and problem-solving skills of engineering with medical biological sciences in order to improve healthcare treatment — including diagnosis, monitoring and therapy — and help people to live longer, better quality lives. The miniaturisation of tech has also been a major breakthrough: facilitating the development of more advanced wearable technologies, microneedles for drug-delivery systems and sensors for brain-controlled prosthetics.
In late 2018, the European Parliament Interest Group (EPIG) met in Brussels to discuss the future of biomedical engineering. During the meeting, they outlined their intentions to see biomedical engineering recognised as an independent profession by 2020, which is especially important given that maintenance of machines in hospitals is essential for patient care. For people working as biomedical engineers, there’s never been a better time to be in the workforce.
While healthcare organisations and institutions are warming to the widespread implementation of biomedical technology, researchers are guiding us through previously uncharted waters. Whether or not the technologies produced by biomedical engineers usher in a prosperous age of posthumanism or plunge us towards a 1984-style system of surgical surveillance remains merely speculative. For the foreseeable future, one thing’s for sure: the Fourth Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and it shows no signs of letting up.
In this article, we look at four major trends in biomedical engineering that are making waves in the world of science.
Wearable devices and implantable technologies
Of all the major trends in biomedical engineering, the proliferation of Wearable Health Devices (WHDs) and implantable technologies is arguably one of the most visibly disruptive to the healthcare sector.
These medical devices range from Fitbit, a direct-to-consumer fitness wearable that tracks weight and body fat percentage, to Medtronic’s Insertable Cardiac Monitor, a long-term implant just under the skin that provides patients (and their GPs) with real-time updates on heart rhythm and respiratory problems.
The personalised, real-time element to such devices enables GPs to detect symptoms more quickly, aiding early diagnosis. By being able to monitor their patients remotely, GPs can save time and money by reducing unnecessary face-to-face consultations. GPs are also able to use real data gleaned from these devices to optimise treatment and tailor it towards the individual.
While the healthcare wearables sector is estimated to be worth $60 billion by 2023, the use of implantables remains controversial — largely fuelled by fears they can cause infection or that microchip technology will be leveraged for surveillance. However, these fears are largely unfounded, especially as implanted devices such as pacemakers have been around for over half a century.
Nanorobotics is an emerging field of technology that involves creating tiny surgical robots whose components are roughly the size of a nanometre (equivalent to one-billionth of a metre or one-millionth the length of an ant).
With their microscopic size, these burgeoning technologies will enable scientists to manipulate biological matter at an atomic or molecular level — with seismic implications for our ability to effectively fight diseases.
In surgery, medical nanobots will be introduced into the body in a minimally invasive way via the vascular system or other cavities. Programmed or directed by a human surgeon, they would perform crucial functions such as searching for pathogens. Because nanobots are capable of recording vital signs such as temperature and blood pressure, it’s thought this technique will enable doctors to diagnose, test and monitor microorganisms, tissues and cells in the bloodstream.
Nanotechnological innovation in healthcare recently had a huge breakthrough: in February 2018, researchers were able to shrink tumours in mice by using cancer-hunting nanobots to cut off the blood supply. For cancer patients, this development offers a glimmer of hope. If the technique gains approval for future use on humans, it could offer a less harmful and more successful alternative to chemotherapy.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs)
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are devices that enable signals from the brain to direct external activity, such as moving a cursor or prosthetic limb. BCIs work by measuring the brain’s electrical activity using a monitoring method called electroencephalography (EEG), which involves placing electrodes on the scalp surface. For individuals who have experienced a debilitating loss of motor control, the pursuit of this assistive technology by researchers offers a crucial ray of hope.
Though brain-to-computer technology may sound futuristic, the first human to be successfully implanted with a BCI was way back in 2004, when a quadriplegic named Matthew Nagle received a device called BrainGate that allowed him to move a cursor across a screen.
Since that momentous moment, the capabilities of modern BCIs have advanced to such an extent that a number of ethical questions have been raised, ranging from privacy to loss of humanity. For example, if a BCI device misreads an invasive thought and executes a harmful action — even if the user didn’t intend to fully through with the action — how much responsibility can we ascribe to the user?
Thankfully, scientists are tackling these moral quandaries head-on. In 2019, scientists developed the first-ever noninvasive brain-computer interface, which will benefit the lives of paralysed patients and others with movement disorders. While BCIs are not particularly reliable in their current form, the ongoing work of biomedical engineers is helping to improve accuracy and safeguard the wellbeing of users.
As for the long-term impact of BCIs, the sky seems to be the limit. While these devices currently have the potential to do enormous good for people with serious motor disabilities, in the future, scientists believe they will be applied in the area of “human augmentation” — using the technology to improve human cognition as well as other abilities.
According to Davide Valeriani, post-doctoral Researcher in Brain-Computer Interfaces at the University of Essex, BCIs could ultimately turn us into “cyborgs”:
“The combination of humans and technology could be more powerful than artificial intelligence. For example, when we make decisions based on a combination of perception and reasoning, neurotechnologies could be used to augment our perception. This could help us in situations such [as] when seeing a very blurry image from a security camera and having to decide whether to intervene or not.”
Indeed, as Elon Musk’s 2017 acquisition of the neurotechnology company Neuralink and subsequent plans for ambitious new mind-computer products demonstrate, BCI technology is set to continue advancing at a rapid clip.
3D bioprinting describes the use of 3D-printing techniques to combine cells, growth factors (proteins or hormones) and biomaterials to create biomedical parts that precisely imitate natural tissue characteristics. This technology utilises a layer-by-layer method to deposit materials called bioinks and creates tissue-like structures that can later be used in the fields of medical and tissue engineering.
Though this application of three-dimensional printing is in its infancy, Israeli scientists have already created the world’s first 3D-printed heart using human cells. While this artificial heart doesn’t beat and is only the size of a rabbit’s, it represents a significant step in the ongoing efforts to improve treatment for heart disease — one of the biggest killers in the Western world.
3D bioprinting’s potential is enormous. In the near future, doctors may have the ability to print artificial skin cells for burn wound victims. Following on from the lead of the Israeli team’s achievements, surgeons may one day even have the ability to bioprint replacement organs — something that, once implemented at scale, may eliminate the need for risky organ transplants altogether.
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