Biomedical Engineering: Then and Now

We often think of biomedical engineering as a new and emerging technology and, in many ways, this would be a correct assumption. But biomedical engineering has been actively involved in our medical field for over 30 years. Development of the artificial heart started in 1967 by medical doctors asking what materials would have a good flex life to sustain the rigors of pumping blood over the years. But the new developments in biomedical engineering are going much further.

Prof. Bob Langer

Prof. Bob Langer, at Cambridge Massachusetts, is one of the most inventive scientists working today. Over 100 million people benefited from his innovations in cancer and heart research. He was presented with the National Medal of Science given by the President which is the highest scientific award in the United States. Prof. Langer also boasts the Draper Prize, often considered the Nobel Prize of engineering. With over 800 awards accredited to his name Langer is easily among the most proficient scientists in the world.

Dr. Leon Bellan

Langer’s colleague, Dr. Leon Bellan, uses some rather unconventional lab equipment to convert a $40 dollar cotton candy machine into something that can make scaffolds for regenerative medicine, specifically, tissue regeneration. The machine makes the material which is used to make basically artificial capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in the body. The material is extremely cheap microfiber tissue.

Advancement through Innovation

Langer’s signature approach is to bring people from different scientific disciplines together. He states that pretty much all materials in the 20th century that have been used in medicine originated from materials that kind of resembled the tissue or organ doctors were trying to fix. But many of these materials could result in problems for the patient. Langer proposed using materials specifically designed for medical purposes rather than just taking off the shelf.

Future of Biomedical Engineering

When Langer started this project over 30 years ago his idea was to design new material polymers and could go inside the body and carry out various medical procedures before dissolving safely, like delivering drugs or acting as scaffolds for growing new skin, bone and cartilage. The problem was that it had never been attempted before. When he first started this, people said he wouldn’t be able to synthesize the polymer; it would be too difficult or wouldn’t work, arguing the materials would be too fragile and unsafe.

Saving Lives through Collaboration

It required collaboration from polymer science, chemical engineering, chemical pharmacology, pharmaceutical science, neurosurgery, and radiology and toxicology. The collaboration turned out to be a success and the polymers are actively used in medicine today. Polymer wafers are commonly placed into the brain to treat brain tumors. The use of Prof. Langer and Dr Bellan’s innovative polymers are now a staple in the treatment of cancer related tumors.

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