Have you heard of complex brain surgeries performed by robots in less than 20 minutes which once demanded 2 hours of dedicated efforts by surgeons? That’s a brief glimpse of mechanical engineering making inroads to surgical bed. Wait, I will give some more insight to help you grasp how mechanical engineering can have diverse application in medical fields.
Don’t be surprised when I say mechanical engineers are fighting cancer! Chemotherapy is an extant treatment of cancer. In laymen terms, this procedure can be explained by an analogy to treat a house infested with rodents like mice. In order to kill the mice, should you use a rat kill or should you burn the entire house? I hope you would go with the first choice. But the chemotherapy is a medical procedure in which your entire body is exposed to radiations. Drawing back an analogy from the rodent-killing story, chemotherapy is like burning the entire house just to kill rats. So, an ideal medical solution would be treating just the infected organ with radiations. Well, this is can be achieved by targeted drug delivery and the recent developments in microfluidics (a core area of research in mechanical engineering) have made this feasible.
Biomedical Engineering is an interdisciplinary area of study. This is a broad area which encompasses the applications of Mechanical Engineering, Electronics Engineering, Physics, Biology and Computer Science. There is more to the list. However, being a mechanical engineer, I was fascinated by the enormous potential of mechanical engineering in medical device development while working on an Indo-US project to develop affordable blood pressure monitoring devices based on impedance measurements on the forearm. During my summer internship at IIT Delhi, I often had to visit AIIMS Delhi in order to collect medical data. AIIMS Delhi is a very reputed hospital in India. During this internship, I realized that mechanical engineering at the crossroads of medicine can lead to the development of affordable healthcare solutions for Indians. Here are 5 applications of mechanical engineering in the medical field.
Biomechanics is the application of solid mechanics and engineering mechanics principles to develop therapeutic devices like exoskeletons. An interesting area of research has been to find the fracture toughness of human bones accurately. This would help the surgeons to come up with novel strategies for bone fracture fixation. Very often, biomechanics is regrouped under rehabilitation engineering. However, biomechanics research can delve into a more specialized area of research like blast and injury biomechanics, sports biomechanics, cellular biomechanics and neuromusculoskeletal biomechanics. Sports biomechanics is all about understanding the athletic movement to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. Blast injury is caused to sudden impulse forced by the explosives. Therefore, the blast injury biomechanics focuses on studying the effects of sudden impulses on human skeleton. The Centre for Blast Injury Studies at Imperial College London is a pioneer in this area with the research centre having numerous collaborations with military medical officers.
Mechanobiology deals with cell mechanics and biological processes at the microscopic level. Current research delves into exploring the factors responsible for DNA damage and finding alternative strategies to chemotherapy for targeted destruction of cancer cells. Application of microfluidics for effective drug delivery is a part of mechanobiology research. Mechanobiology is all about understanding the cellular response to mechanical forces.
3. Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine
Regenerative medicine deals with scaffolds and developing artificial organs like the artificial heart. Stem cell research is a key area of research in regenerative medicine and it is being carried out in almost all major universities of the world. The term “regenerative medicine” was first used in a 1992 article on hospital administration by Leland Kaiser. Kaiser’s paper closes with a series of short paragraphs on future technologies that will impact hospitals. One paragraph had “Regenerative Medicine” as a bold print title and stated, “A new branch of medicine will develop that attempts to change the course of chronic disease and in many instances will regenerate tired and failing organ systems.”
Below are some more areas about which I will write when I feel like writing.
- Medical Device Development
- Rehabilitation Robotics
However, if you look closely, many of these areas have overlapping topics and theories and maybe the distinction between them blurs out at some point. For example, developing an artificial heart requires the knowledge of biomaterials. To characterize the mechanical properties of bone may be included in biomaterials or biomechanics because both involve experimental mechanics techniques to evaluate the results.