30 Oct The Role of Engineering in Health Science and Technology
Wisconsin has been a leader both in cutting-edge health care and engineering technology. With one of the nation’s leading research universities in UW-Madison, and leading-edge medical equipment companies like GE Medical Systems, the state is poised to lead again as the two fields merge more than ever.
Although science and engineering have long contributed to health care by providing technologies such as x-rays for diagnosis or radiation for cancer treatment, the scope of the scientific and engineering impact is increasing at a rapid pace. During the 20th century, the sciences and engineering were broken into increasingly focused sub-disciplines, as the scientific and engineering communities developed profound scientific understanding and powerful engineering tools. The result is a commanding scientific and engineering “toolkit” that allows interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers to address problems and opportunities that were totally beyond our capability to deal with just a few short years ago. The rapid increase in our quantitative understanding of biology and the increasing integration of science and engineering in the health care area are examples of the progress that can now be made in such areas.
When we consider the needs and opportunities in health science and technology, we recognize that the major positive impact provided to date by science and engineering in all areas of health care – from diagnosis and treatment to reduced medical errors through the use of information technology and sound engineering principles – is just the tip of the iceberg. In partnership with doctors at UW Hospital, UW-Madison biomedical engineers are creating next-generation medical diagnostics. The application of nuclear magnetic resonance, in which distributions of a given species of atomic nuclei are measured, is the basis of the powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique in wide use today. The continuing exponential growth in the number of transistors per unit area, and associated increase in transistor-switching speed, in integrated circuits provides the computing power to enable real-time three-dimensional CAT (computer-aided tomography) scans to check for diseased or abnormal organs. A similar exponential growth in communication bandwidth provides the capacity to allow the massive data files obtained from today’s state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment to be transmitted electronically to specialists for their diagnosis and recommended treatment.
The same communication technology that is enabling dramatic improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of health-related problems has enormous potential for reducing medical and medication errors. Our industrial engineers are leaders in systems to help prevent medical errors. For example, computing and communication technology permits a patient’s medical record to be kept totally up to date and immediately available to all specialists at all times and locations. As a result, physicians and medical specialists can always have access to the current medical status of their patients. Further, software programs could check all recommended medications or treatments to prevent prescription of medications that the patient is allergic to or that conflict with a previous prescription to insure that these types of medication errors are not made.
The same engineering advances that enabled the continued exponential growth of computing and communication are enabling scientists and engineers to create minimally invasive surgical techniques and on-demand drug delivery using micro-electro-mechanical systems formed by surface micro-machining. Future surgery will increasingly rely on robotic assistance to minimize the damage to healthy tissue and resulting trauma to the patient. Our nanotechnology researchers are using that technology to explore medical applications such as targeted drug delivery and more sophisticated diagnostics delivered directly to problem areas inside the body. Electrical engineers are working to develop techniques to detect breast cancer that are many more times effective than current mammogram technology.
Not only are the boundaries between the physical sciences and engineering disappearing; the boundaries between the biological and medical sciences and engineering are also disappearing. Applications of the powerful computational, scientific, and engineering tools to biological systems have allowed us to unlock the secrets of DNA and biology, and to sequence the human genome to usher in the coming Biotech Age. With the incredible rate of advance in genomics and proteomics, we stand on the threshold of a new era which holds the potential for personalized medicine and individualized health care that promises to be much more effective than today’s technology. With the ability to detect disease much earlier in its development – perhaps someday even in the precursor state – health science and technology may have the potential to eradicate some of the major diseases that plague humanity today.
With complementary, leading-edge capabilities and expertise at the Medical College of Wisconsin Medical College, the Marshfield Clinic, and UW-Madison, with its complete suite of life science disciplines and a comprehensive College of Engineering, Wisconsin is ideally positioned to be an intellectual leader in the coming revolution. The result could not only have a major, positive impact on the quality of life in Wisconsin, the nation, and around the world, but also significantly improve the economy of the state as we exploit these extensive research and engineering resources in the health science and technology area.
Paul S. Peercy is the Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering.