The Marriage of Biology and Engineering

Bioengineering’s most visible branch is the development of medical innovations such as prosthetics and high-tech implants, but genetic, stem cell and tissue engineering are all set to become key fields in the medicine of the future.

For example, to help prep a surgeon who needed to close the hole in an infant’s heart, a biomedical robotic expert at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington, DC created a model heart with a 3D printer. He used a mix of hard and soft plastics to replica the feel of a real heart.

A model heart created by 3D printer Photo: Carolyn Cochenour/Washington Post

In China medical doctors at the Orthopedic Hospital in Zhengzhou City created a 3D model of a dislocated spine. This allowed them to practice a complicated surgical procedure ahead of time…isolating and opening the problem area, resetting the dislocation and then screwing everything back together without damaging the patient’s actual spinal cord.


Model of a spine with a 3D-printed vertebra devise in Beijing Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

To rescue babies born with congenital breathing condition which caused their airways to collapse, the University of Michigan has customized tracheal splints made from biocompatible material.   The splints support the collapsed trachea and then get reabsorbed within two years.

Trachea splints Photo courtesy of Leisa Thompson, Photography/UNHA

Using bioengineering to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person, is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.

Scientists at Northwestern University created prosthetic ovaries for mice. The prosthetic ovaries were printed using liquid gelatin made from broken-down collagen, a natural material, which is found in ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and skin.

A scaffold for a bioprosthetic mouse ovary 3D-printed with gelatin Photo by Kristin Samuelson

The research team built the ovaries by printing various patterns of overlapping gelatin filaments on glass slides—like building with Lincoln Logs, but on a miniature scale: Each scaffold measured just 15 by 15 millimeters. They then carefully inserted mouse follicles—spherical structures containing a growing egg surrounded by hormone-producing cells—into these “scaffolds.”

After punching out 2-millimeter circles through the scaffolds and implanting 40–50 follicles into each one, they created a “bioprosthetic” ovary. The team showed that blood vessels from each mouse infiltrated the scaffolds. This process is critical because it provides oxygen and nutrients to the follicles and allows hormones produced by the follicles to circulate in the blood stream. The result was a fully functional bio-prosthetic ovary that not only restored hormone function, but also allowed the mice to get pregnant, deliver pups and lactate after birth.

In the future ready-to-implant organs should be possible in humans with 3D bioprinting. Scientists are excited that this technique could restore function in cancer patients who have lost their fertility.

Bioengineering is also being used to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

Illustration of synthetic biology by Eric Proctor and Autumn Kulaga

Synthetic biology gives scientists unprecedented control of living cells at the genetic level. This field encompasses both plant and mammalian cells.

MIT biological engineers have created a programming language that allows them to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits to give new functions to living cells. The circuit runs inside a bacteria cell.   It’s like they are hacking living cells to program a new language.

Illustration of programing bacteria Image by Janet Iwasa

The MIT team plans to work on several different applications using this approach: bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose; bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack; and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts in a fermentation reactor. In the future the bacteria could be programmed to release cancer drugs when encountering a tumor.

Biomedical engineering and biological programming are exciting, expanding new field of research with unlimited possibilities.

 

 

 

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