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The new face of biomedical engineering

Free collection features articles on how medicine is being customized with 3D printing, body-monitoring technology and more

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Robot mechanical arm with chemical tubes in a medical laboratory (Photo © istock.com/Cylonphoto)

Biomedical engineering has been changing the way we practice medicine since the tinkerers of the scientific revolution invented the microscope and the thermometer.

And it continues to do so at an ever-accelerating pace. With new materials that are compatible with human tissues, new ways to automate medical diagnostics and monitoring, and new approaches to analyzing the human body, there has never been greater opportunity to provide personalized care tailored to the individual patient – right down to printing them a new limb.

From custom-built ears to apps that monitor whether were taking our medication, biomedical engineering is changing the way technology interacts with our health. This special collection of articles, free to read until December 31 2017, features some of the innovations and approaches that could transform our health in the future.

Printing the human body

Biomaterials – materials that are in contact with the human body, such as those used in hip replacements – have been around for 50 years. But advances in computing and technology have opened the door to a whole array of new materials and methods for producing them. 3D bioprinting is an increasingly popular method for producing replacement body parts, as it is possible to tailor the size and shape of the parts and it’s relatively cheap.

For patients with missing or damaged ears, it means they may be able to grow a new ear. An approach called auricular cartilage tissue engineering can be used to treat patients who need new ears. Using bioprinting, it is possible to control where living cells are placed and therefore grown on the engineered biomaterial that acts as cartilage.

In a paper in Bioprinting, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden evaluate a bioink made of nanofibrillated cellulose and alginate. Printing in 3D with this ink encourages cells to grow evenly across the structure, making it ideal for producing bespoke ears for patients.

Medical equipment can also be tailor-made using 3D printing. When a patient has a cerebral aneurysm – a weakening of an artery or vein wall in the brain causing the vessel to balloon – a device called an endovascular coil can be inserted into the vessel to stabilize it. They can be challenging to produce and place, however, as the size, shape and orientation of the vessel differs from person to person.

Researchers from The Jikei University School of Medicine in Japan describe their new approach in Computers in Biology and Medicine. Using 3D printing, they can tailor-make microcatheters to place the coil. Using imaging data, they designed and printed 48 microcatheters for 26 patients. The printed microcatheters made placement easier and more successful.

Using technology to monitor our bodies – and behavior

Biomedical engineering also provides new approaches to monitoring medical conditions and patient behavior. Take your smartphone, for example. It’s a phone, a camera, a video recorder, a navigating device – and a stethoscope. In Biomedical Signal Processing & Control, researchers at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences propose technology that monitors the sound of a patient’s heartbeat, comparing it to a reference. If the sound and beat is within the norm, the patient is told so in a message; if not, they receive a recommendation to see a doctor.

Wearable technology, such as the smartwatch, can also be used to monitor medical measures such as heart rate. But what if they could monitor our behavior as patients? A team at UCLA and Northwestern University in the US have developed a wearable sensor system that can tell whether a patient has taken their medication.

When a doctor gives a diagnosis and medication to treat a patient’s condition, the patient takes over control of managing their own condition by taking that medication. Not adhering to the medication – for blood pressure, an infection or any number of things – can result in a decline in their health or even hospitalization. Scientists have proposed smart pill bottle technology, which can tell whether the patient has taken a pill from the bottle, but this does not show whether the patient has actually taken the medication.

Writing in Artificial Intelligence in Medicine, the researchers describe their new device – a necklace that can detect a pill being swallowed. Combined with smart pill bottle technology, this could give a more comprehensive view of a patient’s behavior.

Read the collection

You can read more about these innovations and many others in this special biomedical engineering collection, free to access until December, 31 2017:

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