What is Biomedical Engineering?


Some people can periodically experience an abnormally low heart rate and lose consciousness during critical life style moments such as physical activity, driving an automobile, or just walking up a flight of stairs.

The cardiac pacemaker demonstrates the tremendous intersection of a significant medical problem with several key engineering specialties and is a great example of a biomedical engineering solution. Electrical and computer engineering skills are used to design the electronics and programming logic which drive the device since all pacemakers are based on fully functioning microprocessors. The pacemaker is implanted inside the human body (a particularly hostile environment) and therefore must be resistant to the biological fluids and avoid a rejection reaction.

The biocompatibility issues and the subsequent solution with engineered biomaterials were crucial to the long term success of the pacemaker. Additionally, the wires connecting the device with the heart tissue must be flexible but resilient enough to withstand the repetitive motion produced by a beating heart. Further, the wires cannot dislodge from stable sites within the heart under these same conditions. The subsequent mechanical design of the pacemaker wires has solved this problem.

The battery energy source which powers the pacemaker was originally a set of ordinary mercury cells, but the need to increase energy density led to the development of the lithium battery technology. This improvement increased the life span of the device from 12-18 months to 8-10 years. Lithium battery technology is now common place in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. Significantly, the National Academy of Engineering has established an award for major engineering contributions which have significantly impacted society and has contributed to the advancement of the human condition. This aware is called the the Russ Prize. The first Russ Prize was awarded in 2001 to two Biomedical Engineers credited with inventing the cardiac pacemaker: Earl Bakken and Wilson Greatbatch. More than 600,000 pacemakers are implanted annually around the world!

History and Background

bmehistory.jpgMany disciplines are attracted to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, but his unique combination and mastery of mechanics and anatomy poised him to be the first Biomedical Engineer with a biomechanics specialty. The discovery of electricity and current led to a charged debate between Galvani and Volta in Italy in the late 18th century. Their debate was based on observations of frog leg stimulation and contraction, which led to how bioelectricity formed the initial understanding of these fundamental electrical theories. As the scientific basis of medicine progressed into the 20th century, devices for measuring and monitoring body functions required technical skills beyond a physician's primary clinical training. The use of X-rays to obtain images of the body was also a significant technological driving force for the overlap of engineering and medicine at this time. The Professional Group on Engineering in Medicine and Biology was formed in 1948 under the auspices of several professional societies. National and international conferences were held regularly and several organizations trace their origins to this period. 

Several academic Biomedical Engineering programs trace their roots to the 1950s but were housed within traditional engineering departments. Most were in electrical engineering programs since the initial medical devices were mostly electrical or focused on imaging. As the medical community took a more "constructive" role in treating disease and injuries, cardiac bypass surgery, kidney dialysis, and orthopedic implants increased the roles for biomechanics and biomaterials. Again, as medicine discovers the role of the genetic code and molecular biology for diagnosing and treating diseases, biomedical engineering has kept pace with development of tissue engineering, micro electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS), sophisticated drug delivery, and nanotechnologies.