OSB archive
OSB archive

Where man meets machine

Pete Wilton

'Fusion' was the theme for last night's lecture in the series celebrating Oxford's Centenary of Engineering Science. But this wasn't the fusion at the heart of our sun but the fusion of ideas, techniques and talents that is biomedical engineering. Speaker Lionel Tarassenko gave us a dizzying whistle-stop tour of advances since the 1960s: everything from artificial knee joints to tumour-spotting algorithms, needle-free drug delivery to diagnosing sleep disorders. What struck me was how biomedical engineers were involved at every stage of the development of medical technologies and techniques: from the fundamental science that makes them possible to modelling and analysis to prototypes and commercial products. Biomedical engineering fuses with the work of so many other disciplines, making links here with medicine, there with computing, materials science or maths - and it is only through these 'broad and deep' collaborations that breakthroughs are made.

As well as past advances Lionel's talk also gave an inspiring insight into the future of biomedical engineering. In the future humans will be enhanced by machines not as cyborg supermen but rather as more robust, more durable versions of ourselves. At the moment we've got used to the idea that if we lose a hip we can have it replaced but soon bioreactors will enable us to grow the billions of stem cells we need to replace the soft tissues that make up tendons and ligaments. That essential organ the liver will get a new lease of life too as ultrasound bubbles clean up tumours and new techniques keep donor livers alive outside the body. A revolution in how our bodies are remotely monitored, using technology such as Lionel's BioSign, will help doctors and nurses identify those at risk of life-threatening conditions and treat them before the most severe symptoms necessitate emergency medical treatment - that's both traumatic and expensive. Thousands of lives will be saved and the quality of hundreds of thousands/millions more will be improved.

Will this vision become a reality? If it does it's likely to be, at least in part, thanks to Oxford's new Institute of Biomedical Engineering, due to officially open on 16 April this year.