Some people can periodically experience an abnormally low heart rate and can loose 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. Briefly, electrical and computer engineering skills are used to design the electronics and programming logic which drive the device - all pacemakers are based on fully functioning microprocessors. The pacemaker is implanted inside the human body (a particularly hostile environment) and therefore must be impervious to the biological fluids and must also not cause a rejection reaction.
Thus 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 not brittle enough to break under the repetitive motion produced by a beating heart nor can the wires be dislodged from stable sites within the heart under these same conditions. The subsequent mechanical design of the pacemaker wires have 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 lead to the development of the lithium battery technology increasing the life span of the device from 12 - 18 months to 8 - 10 years. The lithium battery technology is now common place in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. Of significant note is the fact that 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 - 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 400,000 pacemakers are implanted annually around the world!
The above example of a Biomedical Engineering success best describes the essence of Biomedical Engineering. To be sure there are many others but the technical sophistication of the modern pacemaker and its multiple biomedical engineering solutions across a wide spectrum of disciplines and its widespread acceptance into modern medical practice is an inspiration for all who pursue Biomedical Engineering as a career.
History and Background
Many 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 lead 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 and hence 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 inside 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 as the initial medical devices were mostly electrical or imaging oriented. 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 the Biomedical Engineering has kept pace with development of tissue engineering, micro electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS), sophisticated drug delivery, and nanotechnologies.
Biomedical Engineering today
Biomedical Engineering is a vibrant and rapidly expanding field both in content and opportunities. As our technological infrastructure expands and our fundamental knowledge in the life sciences is now at the basic molecular level, Biomedical Engineers are poised to continue to make major advances. There are about 100 Biomedical Engineering Departments and Programs in the US. Most offer graduate degrees at the MS and PhD level while only about half this number offer undergraduate degree programs. ABET, Inc. lists about 25 accredited biomedical/bioengineering undergraduate degree programs. Many of these are more than 25 years old, but the fact that the number of programs has doubled in the past 5 years and that it takes at least 4 -5 years before a program is able to apply for accreditation the outlook is for a real boom in the number of accredited undergraduate programs in the coming years. This commitment to growth in Biomedical Engineering education is concomitant with the industrial and research opportunities available to well trained graduates in the field.
The interdisciplinary nature of Biomedical Engineering is evidenced by the significant number of societies in which biomedical engineers are well represented within their membership.
American College of Clinical Engineering
American Institute of Chemical Engineering- Food, Pharmaceutical, and Bioengineering Division
American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering
American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine
American Medical Informatics Association
American Society for Artificial Internal Organs
American Society for Healthcare Engineering
American Society of Biomechanics
American Society of Mechanical Engineers- Bioengineering Technical Division
Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation
Biomedical Engineering Society
Controlled Release Society
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers- Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society
Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine
International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering
International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine
Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America
Society for Biomaterials
Biomedical Engineering Society Bulletin
IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine
IFBME News and Clinical Engineering Update
Annual Reviews in Biomedical Engineering
Annals of Biomedical Engineering
Biomedical Instrumentation and Technology
Journal of Biomechanics
Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association
Journal of Biomechanical Engineering
Journal of Controlled Release
Medical Engineering and Physics
IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering
IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging
IEEE Transactions on Information Technology in Biomedicine
IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering
Medical and Biological Engineering and Computing
Journal of Biomedical Materials Research