Biomedical engineering – also known as BME, BioMed or bioengineering – is a multidisciplinary STEM field that primarily applies biology and the principles of engineering to healthcare. The discipline is now more popular than ever due to society's increasing dependence on technology and machinery, resulting in increased demand for biomedical engineers.
In this article, we describe the subdivisions of biomedical engineering, what biomedical engineers do, how to become a biomedical engineer and some regular and advanced products of biomedical engineering.
What is biomedical engineering?
Generally, biomedical engineering is a broad field with several areas of focus, which combines biological knowledge with engineering principles to develop revolutionary, life-saving concepts. Thanks to biomedical engineers, some concepts like kidney dialysis, advanced prosthetics, surgical robots and artificial organs have witnessed accelerated growth in the last few decades.
The nature of a biomedical engineer's work varies depending on the biomedical engineering subdiscipline they specialise in. Some of the well-known subcategories of biomedical engineering include:
Bionanotechnology, commonly known as nanobiotechnology or nanobiology, is a discipline that combines biology and nanotechnology to solve biological problems. It also sometimes indicates the connection between biological research and various nanotechnology fields. In broader terms, bionanotechnology is a technical approach to biology that enables scientists to imagine and create systems for biological research.
Some nanotechnology concepts include the nanoscale phenomenon, nanoparticles and nanodevices.
Orthopaedic bioengineering uses engineering and conceptual mechanics to form a deep understanding of the functions of the human joints. As scientists' understanding of this discipline expands, they continue to invent new materials and techniques that improve treatments and healthcare options. The engineering concepts and techniques developed in this field are crucial in researching numerous medical problems and their solutions.
Usually, an orthopaedic bioengineer performs musculoskeletal analysis, analyses the effects of lubrication and friction, studies the wear characteristics of synthetic and biological materials and investigates motion and gait.
Medical imaging refers to the processes and techniques used in creating images of various parts of the human body for diagnosis and treatment within digital health. This field consists of numerous radiological techniques, such as nuclear medicine functional imaging and medical photography techniques, thermography, tactile imaging, endoscopy, medical ultrasonography or ultrasound, fluoroscopy and x-ray radiography.
High-quality imaging is important for sound medical decision-making and drastically eliminates unnecessary procedures. For instance, in a case where a simple diagnostic imaging service such as ultrasound is available, some surgical interventions can be avoided altogether.
Cellular, tissue and genetic engineering
Cellular, tissue and genetic engineering have gained more recognition in the last decade as they have become the foundation of human's recent attempts to address microscopic-level biomedical problems. Cell and tissue engineering include many advanced subdisciplines such as cell signalling and cellular mechanics, functional tissue engineering and biomaterials, microfluidics, nanotechnology and mechanotransduction.
Genetic engineering mainly deals with controlling the genetic materials in cells. Cellular engineering, on the other hand, studies how to regulate cell function through genetic, electrical, mechanical or chemical manipulation of cells. Knowledge in these three fields has progressed massively now that researchers can use somatic cell gene therapy to treat serious conditions.
Computational biology is a branch of biology that uses computer science and computers to understand and model the processes and structures of life. It involves using abstract methods, such as algorithms, to simulate and represent biological systems as well as interpret experimental data. This discipline studies the application of biological system models made from experimental measurements.
Nowadays, computational biologists are sought after because of their groundbreaking works. They help develop and apply conceptual simulation techniques and mathematical modelling in researching social, behavioural, ecological and biological systems.
Biomaterials engineering or biomaterials science is the study of biomaterials. A biomaterial is any substance designed to interact with various biological systems for a medical purpose, which could either be diagnostic or therapeutic. Biomaterials play a significant role in medicine today as they restore functions and facilitate healing from injuries and diseases. These materials can be synthetic or natural and are generally used in medical applications to replace, enhance or support a biological function or damaged tissues.
Specialists in this field can create biomaterials from living cells and tissue, glass, plastic, ceramics and metals. Once produced, these can then be re-engineered into modelled parts, fabrics, foams, films, fibres and coatings for use in biomedical devices and products.
Systems physiology is the aspect of biomedical engineering that uses engineering tools, techniques and strategies to gain an integrated and comprehensive understanding of the function of living organisms, ranging from humans to bacteria. In this case, computer modelling is used to analyse experimental data and formulate a mathematical description of physiological events.
Robotics in surgery
Robotics in surgery involves using image and robotic processing systems to interactively assist a medical team in planning and carrying out a surgery. Robotics in surgery is a relatively new technique, which minimises the costs and side effects of surgeries through more precise, less traumatic and smaller incisions.
Rehabilitation engineering is a fast-growing specialty because its specialists improve the capabilities and quality of life of patients with cognitive and physical impairments. These engineers design assistive technology that enhances communication, mobility and positioning. They also actively create workplace and transportation modifications, home development and prosthetics.
What do biomedical engineers do?
Biomedical engineers design software, devices and instruments used in healthcare. They also apply knowledge from many technical sources to develop new procedures. Other duties and responsibilities of biomedical engineers include:
- Presenting research findings to engineers, hospital management, clinicians, non-scientist executives, scientists, other colleagues and the public
- Preparing procedures, writing reports, publishing research papers and making recommendations based on their research findings
- Collaborating with medical scientists, chemists and life scientists to research the engineering aspect of the biological systems of animals and humans
- Training clinicians and other health workers on the proper use of biomedical equipment
- Evaluating the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of biomedical equipment
- Installing, adjusting, maintaining, repairing and providing technical support for biomedical equipment
- Designing biomedical devices and equipment, such as replacements for body parts, artificial internal organs and machines for diagnosing medical problems
How to become a biomedical engineer
A biomedical engineer usually requires a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering or its equivalent. Some of these specialists even have a master's or doctoral degree. To become a biomedical engineer, follow these steps:
- Have a strong maths and science background. If you desire a career as a biomedical engineer, consider taking advanced science and maths classes in high school, including calculus, geometry, algebra, chemistry, physics and biology. It also is recommended you sign up for courses in programming or computer science.
- Earn a relevant bachelor's degree. A biomedical engineer should have a traditional engineering degree or a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering. Biomedical engineering programs include lab work in biological sciences and general engineering as well as subjects like calculus and statistics.
- Complete an internship program. While still in college or upon graduation, you should start getting hands-on skills through an internship at a pharmaceutical company, hospital or clinic.
- Pursue a master's degree. Given the high competition in the job market, obtaining a master's degree in biomedical engineering can make you a more attractive prospect. This graduate program usually consists of in-depth courses on tissue engineering, biomaterials, molecular and cellular biology, mathematical modelling and quantitative analysis.
- Acquire a doctoral degree. If you are passionate about teaching or researching health conditions, getting a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering will help you realise that dream. This advanced graduate degree typically includes high-level courses in biophysical chemistry, organ systems and physiology.
Examples of biomedical engineering products
There are a lot of innovative biomedical engineering concepts, tools and technologies that are a product of biomedical engineering. Some of these concepts are 3-D bioprinting and cell and tissue engineering, which is used to create artificial organs for transplant. The tools and technologies include:
- Computer simulations for testing new medications
- Computer software for running medical equipment
- Therapeutic devices, such as dialysis equipment and nerve simulation machines
- Rehabilitation and physical therapy equipment and devices
- Radiation therapy
- Surgical techniques, such as robotic and laser surgery
- Vital blood and sign chemistry monitoring systems
- Lab diagnostics systems
- Ambulatory devices, such as stretchers and walkers
- Prosthetic limbs and other artificial body parts, such as dentures and hips
- Implants, such as artificial organs, insulin pumps, stents and pacemakers
- Diagnostic imaging technologies, such as magnetic resonance, ultrasounds and x-rays
Biomedical engineering applies traditional engineering design procedures and principles to analyse and solve problems in medicine and biology. A biomedical engineer may be called upon in a variety of capacities, which include conducting the necessary research to solve clinical challenges, developing new procedures using knowledge from many technical sources and designing software, devices and instruments.