Engineering for health

‘I’m really glad that I started my company, otherwise I would not be alive today,” said Earl Bakken, a cofounder of Medtronic, one of the world’s leading developers and manufacturers of therapeutic medical devices.

He was speaking at last year’s conference of the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. I found his words inspiring.

They gave me hope that many of the medical innovations we are developing in our laboratory here at Stellenbosch University could one day improve the lives of others, or even save them.

We work in the field of biomedical engineering, an emerging discipline that aims to close the gap between engineering and medicine.

Essentially, we apply engineering principles to the medical field, with the ultimate goal of developing products and procedures that medical practitioners can use when they diagnose and treat their patients.

In recent decades technological innovation has progressed so fast that it has changed every aspect of our lives. This is especially true in healthcare technology.

The average life expectancy in industrialised nations increased by 20 to 30 years in the past millennium and the modern hospital is the centre of sophisticated healthcare system, in which engineers have become intimately involved, developing the methods and tools now used routinely by medical practitioners.

There are countless examples of medical devices, prostheses, imaging methods and biotechnologies that were developed by engineers.

Being a mechanical engineer by training, I like to use artificial limbs, replacement heart valves, implants such as knee replacements or spinal prostheses and the Jarvik-7 (the first artificial heart) as examples of biomedical engineering.

But there are various subdisciplines in biomedical engineering, and any discipline of engineering can find some application in solving healthcare-related problems.

The Biomedical Engineering Research Group (Berg) at Stellenbosch University was formally established in 2005. The group falls under the department of mechanical and mechatronic engineering, but it also has close associations with the departments of electrical and electronic engineering and industrial engineering and with the faculty of health sciences.

Most of the work in biomedical engineering involves research on and development of new products or procedures.

At Berg our research focuses on sub-areas:

  • Biosignal processing involves extracting useful information from biological signals for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. This could mean studying cardiac signals to determine whether a patient will be susceptible to sudden cardiac death or developing speech-recognition systems that can cope with background noise;
  • Medical instrumentation and physiological measurements involve the hardware and software design of devices and systems used to measure biological signals, from simple stethoscopes to heart monitoring machines;
  • Biomechanics is mechanics applied to biology. It includes the study of motion, material deformation and fluid flow;
  • Surgical robotics includes the use of robotic and image-processing systems that interactively assist a medical team both in planning and executing surgery;
  • Telemedicine, sometimes called ‘telehealth” or ‘e-health”, involves the transfer of electronic medical data from one location to another for the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of patients in remote locations; and
  • Microelectromechanical systems (Mems) involve the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators and electronics on a silicon chip.

BioMems entail the development and application of Mems in medicine and biology. Examples include micro-robots that may one day perform surgery
inside the body.

Cornie Scheffer is an associate professor in the department of mechanical and mechatronic engineering at Stellenbosch University

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