Engineering healthier humans

Drawing on their knowledge of algorithms, design and materials, engineers can help improve healthcare in many arenas.

1. High-precision robot for cochlear implantation

Medical challenge: Cochlear implants perform highly complex signal processing, but their accuracy depends on ultra-precise placement within the cochlea.

Solution: Researchers at Bern University Hospital and the University of Bern have combined surgical planning software and a robotic drill to access the cochlea via a 2.5 mm diameter tunnel behind the ear.

Engineering innovation: The size and scale of the procedure means the robot drills without direct operation. Just as avionics allows pilots to fly planes based solely on cockpit read-outs, the surgical robot can perform procedures a surgeon cannot execute manually.


2. Solar cells that restore sight

Medical challenge: Retinal diseases are the most common cause of visual loss in developed nations, due to the degeneration of retinal photoreceptors.

Solution: Rasmus Schmidt Davidsen’s team at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is building an implantable chip that may be able to reverse blindness caused by this deterioration.

Engineering innovation: The chip will contain thousands of specially developed nanostructured silicon cells. “When illuminated from outside the eye, each cell produces a current”, says Schmidt Davidsen. “If the electrodes are in close proximity to neurons in the eye, this current may activate the neurons, generating an electrical signal directly from light hitting the eye.”


3. DNA computers that deliver drugs

Medical challenge: Traditional blood tests can’t persistently monitor antibodies, which are important in providing better control of medication for conditions such as rheumatism, Crohn’s Disease, influenza and AIDS.

Solution: Researchers led by engineer Maarten Merkx at Eindhoven University of Technology have discovered a novel way to control drug delivery using DNA computers.

Engineering innovation: The work exploits a process called hybridisation, in which a single strand from one DNA molecule attaches to another DNA molecule. Certain DNA combinations can only occur in the presence of an antibody,
so combining the right molecules creates a signal when hybridisation occurs.

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4. Pacemakers powered by the human heart

Medical challenge: Vibration harvesting systems are useful for extracting and storing energy. The process works well at the scale of large machinery, but can’t be used in implantable medical devices that typically operate below 100 Hz, due to the limited stiffness of conventional silicon.

Solution: New engineering techniques have helped the EU-funded MANPOWER project extract and store energy from vibrations as tiny as the beating of a human heart, opening the door to self-powered pacemakers.

Engineering innovation: “The main innovations were the development of materials and electronic structures for the two core components of a low-frequency energy harvester: the energy harvester and the charge storage device”, says coordinator Dr Cian Ó Murchú from the Tyndall National Institute in Ireland.


5. Portable ultrasound scanners

Medical challenge: Ultrasound scanners are highly effective, non-invasive tools for understanding internal body functions in real-time. Unfortunately, they’re cumbersome.

Solution: To make handheld ultrasound instruments, the electronics and signal processing in the scanner must be radically changed. DTU’s Jørgen Arendt Jensen is working on just such a solution: “We have developed a new way to create images called synthetic aperture imaging”, he says.

Engineering innovation: “Instead of looking in one direction at a time, we look in all directions simultaneously. We can display up to 1,000 images per second, allowing us to precisely observe heart beat and blood flow.” The hope is that these devices could become ubiquitous in ambulances, as well as in trauma and labour wards.


6. A prothesis with feeling

Medical challenge: Human skin is an incredibly complex organ capable of detecting pressure, temperature and texture through neural sensors. Recent innovations have aimed to recreate this sensitivity for amputees.

Solution: Stéphanie Lacour and her team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed tiny sensors implanted in a glove, which can be worn on a hand prosthesis and linked to the user’s nervous system to restore a sense of touch.

Engineering innovation: The researchers put an electronic circuit on an elastic material called elastomer and added a thin layer of gold to maintain conductivity when the glove is stretched. The result is a critical step towards hand prostheses with the ability to feel.

Schmidt Davidsen (Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology, DTU), Cian O’Murchu (Tyndall National Institute in Ireland), Jørgen Arendt Jensen (Department of Electrical Engineering, DTU)