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Engineers in medical sector told to learn from nature

Posted: 28 Aug 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:medical sector? medical engineers? laws of nature?

Keynote speakers at the last week's annual IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society conference laid out two paths to innovation for engineers working in the medical sector.

Engineers need to understand the physics behind natural processes and mimic those forces to bring new technologies to life, said David Beebe, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Separately engineers can help drive the application of computing to healthcare to usher in a new era in medicine, said Jean-Claude Healy, a United Nations advisor on e-health issues. The two men spoke in back-to-back keynotes.

Beebe provided multiple examples from work in his lab about how engineers can become fascinated in natural processes and, by investigating them, harness them for new applications. "Only when you really understand the physics behind a phenomenon can you really use it," Beebe told an audience of more than 1,800 engineers and researchers.

Flower mechanism
As an example, Beebe described his work finding a simple test for botulism. He studied the process of an unusual flower with pedals stuck under pressure to a stem. When the adhesive on the stem naturally degraded the pedals appeared to explode from the center, releasing the flower's pollen.

Beebe's lab used that concept to create a small toxin detector with two arms glued together. In the presence of botulism, the adhesive between the two arms quickly dissolves creating a dramatic mechanical reaction. The so-called dipstick biosensor was warmly received by U.S. government officials for its ease of use.

His lab also developed an efficient microfluidic pump based on what researchers learned studying the movement of fish. A key part of the pump was sourced from a pile of used wristwatch parts.

"We follow the 'keep it simple, stupid' principle and avoid electronics and anything difficult to make," Beebe said. "If these sensors are going to be widely used, they need to be cheap," he added.

Sometimes the group's innovations apply to electronics, although they may not use them. Beebe's group used the hydro-phobic properties of a lotus leaf to create a liquid lens with an adjustable focal length.

An electronic engineer by training, Beebe did his graduate work in MEMS and quickly moved to work in a number of non-electronic bioengineering areas including cancer and stem-cell research, his current focus. In one study, Beebe's group is using microfluidic channels to link cells, letting them make connections through a natural diffusion process. The work tries to understand the unique communications properties of cancer cells.

Separately Jean-Claude Healy exhorted the audience to help "re-map healthcare for a new citizen-centric process" created by the advent of the Internet. The Web will open up a new era in medicine in which individuals are empowered to take responsibility for proactive healthcare, Healy said, but this change is still years away.

Web-based healthcare
Computers and communications have created a sea of changes in manufacturing and baking industries. Healthcare is yet to go through a period of being radically reinvented by the Web, he said. In part, that is because large companies, doctors and institutions still run the healthcare system today, and they largely lack a vision for how the Internet will remake the sector.

"In the next several years, the model will move to one based on peer-to-peer, citizen-to-citizen relationships," Healy said.

Engineers also need to be aware of the how the digital divide impacts the move to a global Web-based healthcare system centered on the individual, he said. Today North America has five percent of the world's population but 68.8 percent of the people with access to the Internet. By contrast, Africa has nearly 40 percent of the world's population but only 2.8 percent of its Internet-connected population.

An October conference sponsored by the United Nations will bring together all the telecom ministers of Africa, as well as many other national leaders, to address issues around the digital divide. China and India are working hard to deliver broadband access to Africa, but are pursuing their own commercial agendas, Healy said.

The UN has started a new initiative to spread connectivity to developing countries. However, so far member states have opted not to fund it, so it acts as a public/private partnership.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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