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Medical engineering – be excited…

2 Jul, 2010
Mechanical heart by Bill McConkey. Image credit: Bill McConkey, Wellcome Images

Mechanical heart by Bill McConkey

The term ‘medical engineering’ was something that used to mean almost nothing to me – the kind of thing I expected to hear come out of Captain Janeway’s mouth as the Borg launched another attack in Star Trek. But over the course of several weeks filming, my eyes were opened as I was granted enviable access to the four new UK Centres of Excellence for Medical Engineering.

My brief was simple: go to each centre and film what you think looks good. The idea was to highlight the variety, ingenuity and richness that comes with all things ‘medical engineering’. But given that each Centre was barely up and running, I was a little concerned. What if they had nothing to show?

I shouldn’t have worried. Or rather, my caution meant that I was completely blown away by what turned out to be a glut of enthusiasm and innovative science.

You want to live to a healthy old age, but your joints inevitably wear down, your tissues start eroding, heart valves collapse… Thanks to the team led by Professor John Fisher at the University of Leeds, we’re closer to medical technologies that will deal with these problems – and hopefully extend healthy living by an extra 50 years.

Or let’s say your heart needs some vital surgery. The days of cracked ribs to gain access to the organ are coming to an end as Professor Reza Razavi and his team at King’s College London develop highly sophisticated imaging and robotic technology. These are making it possible to see one’s heart beating in real-time and rectify wrongs by sending a remote-controlled device deep into the heart.

Elsewhere in the Centre, King’s researchers are using scanning technology to improve mental health diagnostics and treatment. The techniques are so sophisticated that scientists can not only get a sense of what’s happening in an individual’s brain, but also tell whether or not a particular medication is having the desired effect.

Meanwhile, at Imperial Professor Ross Ethier and his team are performing exhaustive research to understand the precise biomechanics of human movement – how we move, where the forces go, precisely which muscles pull and when. In doing so, they are refining the design and construction of artificial joints and tailoring rehabilitation strategies.

What this means is smaller, more compact, hip and knee-joint replacements tailored to your body, with the rehab programmes to match. And the operations themselves will soon be performed with sub-millimetre accuracy by human-guided surgical robots.

And imagine being able to place your mobile phone against your heart such that its built-in microphone could detect anomalous heart rhythms – then send out a distress call to the appropriate medical authorities. This is just one of the personalised treatments being developed at the University of Oxford by Professor Lionel Tarassenko and colleagues.

The team is also working to make the big C a little smaller by directly targeting the cancerous tumour with ‘wearable technology’. This will one day detect the tumour using ultrasound and tailor the precise amount and location of anti-cancer drug to activate.

All this is medical engineering but it’s also a sea change in how science is done. Hardcore engineers are now working side-by-side with clinicians and life scientists to devise, design and implement entirely new technologies that are highly effective and move quickly to trials. It is nothing short of a biomechanical revolution and I and the researchers working in this emerging area are wildly excited about what lies around the corner.

Barry Gibb, Multimedia Editor, Wellcome Trust

Image credit: Bill McConkey, Wellcome Images
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