According to Ferrari, however, his work was always on micromechanics and its application to biomedicine. The problem back then, he says, was that the field was young and poorly defined. Berkeley did not have a biomedical engineering (BME) department. Instead, there were graduate groups — Ferrari joined those for BE, applied science and technology and biophysics.
Contrary to what his c.v. might suggest, Ferrari seems to know exactly where he is going and to enjoy the trail he is blazing. Today, he is getting closer to what he says he is supposed to be. In 1999, he moved to the Ohio State University (OSU) — still with a split appointment as a professor of internal medicine and mechanical engineering, but now directing the OSU Center for Biomedical Engineering. He made the change to be nearer the interface of clinical work — UC Berkeley lacked clinical facilities.
It's quite a leap, though, from physical scientist/ engineer to clinical investigator. For example, says Ferrari, to get funded by the National Science Foundation, one must demonstrate 'proof of principle' for the technology. To receive funding from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), one must show some clinical evidence. Currently, the mode of funding from the NIH is not conducive to triggering great advances in technology, he says.
According to Robert Nerem, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology's Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, the time has come to bring biology formally into engineering. First physics, then chemistry, were originally integrated into engineering. Biology is following.
Nerem makes an important distinction: biomedical engineering is simply the biggest application of BE at the moment. "As we move into the twenty-first century, I think that there will be just as many applications outside the medical area where the integration of biology and engineering will be required," he says.
Douglas Lauffenburger, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), agrees. He cites three reasons: biology is now mechanistic enough at a molecular level to be accessed by quantitative engineering analysis and design methodologies; new technologies built on biological components are becoming increasingly important to society; and complex biological systems require an infusion of systems-integrative engineering for continuing advances in fundamental understanding.
Elaborating on the broader meaning of BE, Lauffenburger sees a persistent confusion over the terminology, in that people use biomedical engineering and bioengineering interchangeably. Biomedical engineering is a field of application, he points out, whereas bioengineering is a new discipline: "We want to train students to apply it broadly to medicine, the environment, to materials and to defence." At the same time, he predicts that bioengineering will soon become the central discipline for major advances in biomedical engineering applications.
Building research support
In 1997, NIH formed BECON, the bioengineering consortium. BECON has been the NIH-wide focal point for bioengineering, bringing visibility to their bioengineering needs and bridging the cultural gap between the BE community.
The NIH now seems eager to pursue BME. According to Dick Swaja, who works directly for Wendy Baldwin, NIH deputy director for extramural research and organizing chair for BECON, it is their overall responsibility "to ensure that the missions of the NIH are being met", while figuring out how BME will fit into NIH's traditional structure.
BECON concentrates its effort in four main areas: nanotechnology and nano-science; tissue engineering (which includes biomaterials and, more specifically, biomimetics, biosensors, organ-culture systems and tissue regeneration); bioimaging; and bioinformatics and computer simulations, which is only now being used in medical teaching.
According to Swaja, BECON, or something like it, will continue to be the focus of activities at NIH for the near future. There is appropriations language that indicates that an Office of Bioengineering/Bioimaging, reporting to the director of NIH, will assume responsibility and direction of BECON.
In the mid-1990s, Nerem believed that it was enough to integrate BME into the various institutes at NIH. Over the past five years, however, "I've become convinced that unless you are an institute at NIH, you're a second-class citizen — the power really resides with the institute directors". For Swaja, the current environment is one in which there are opportunities for engineers and physical scientists to show what they are capable of doing and to demonstrate that they can work with the biomedical and imaging community to foster this transdisciplinary field.
BME feeds into a better understanding of cancer, as well as better treatment and diagnosis, says Carol Dahl, one of the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) two primary representatives to BECON and director of the Office of Technology and Industrial Relations at the NCI. To capitalize on this opportunity, the NCI has been an active participant in BECON and its initiatives, as well as developing NCI-specific programmes to nurture technology development and BE.
These have been created to smooth the problems technology and BME have encountered in gaining support from what is primarily a hypothesis-driven research focus at the NIH, says Dahl. The Phased Innovation Award, developed by the NCI, allows people to move rapidly from a feasibility stage to a development stage (see NCI in the 'Institutions' panel on page 466). There is also the Unconventional Innovations Program (UIP), an NCI programme that invests in long-term, high-risk and high-impact areas.
The NCI takes a more active scientific role in the UIP, which announced its first five awards last autumn (see 'Institutions' panel for new announcements). Investigators propose the work and the NCI then negotiates with them and engages them under contract for the next few years. The five most recent contracts amount to nearly $11.3 million over three years.
James Baker, principal investigator for a group receiving $4,427,711 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, will use the grant to develop nano-scale devices for detecting and treating cancer. Although there was a lot of input from the NCI, says Baker, "I have to give them their due. They are setting their priorities, but are allowing us to direct towards those priorities in a way that makes the most sense given the specific technology."
One common aspect among the BE and BME groups that Nature has spoken to is that they have organized their departments and divisions in ways that are administratively more challenging in order to gain an intellectually richer environment.
At MIT's division of bioengineering and environmental health, most faculty members hold either 'dual' or 'joint' appointments. "We believe that joining the science of biology with engineering is so important that you do not want to do it in an isolated structure that departments often are," says Lauffenburger. Dual appointments are shared equally with the other department in terms of teaching and service duties, as well as hiring, promotion, tenure and salary review. Joint appointments are positions in which these areas are governed by another department. The departments sharing BEH faculty include chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as computer science, materials science, biology and chemistry. "Our strategic plan calls for adding another 10 to 12 faculty over the coming five to seven years, from a combination of internal transfers and external hiring," says Lauffenburger.
At the graduate level, BEH offers PhD degrees in bioengineering and toxicology. At the undergraduate level, there are minor bachelor degrees in both biomedical engineering and environmental health, and a mechanical engineering degree is in the planning stages. The goal of the graduate-level programmes is to define these disciplines, whereas the undergraduate programmes will connect traditional disciplines with problems and approaches in biotechnology and human health.
At the Georgia Institute of Technology (GT), a joint biomedical engineering department is being put together with the medical school at nearby Emory University. According to Nerem, the department will have space on both campuses, with two-thirds of faculty appointed through GT and one-third through Emory. Once appointed, they will act as a single department. A new PhD degree is going through the approval process, which will be a BME degree offered jointly by GT and Emory.
Over the next seven or eight years, Nerem estimates that GT will be hiring some 15 faculty. There are already seven faculty with primary appointments in the department, he says. They did not want simply to move the existing faculty into the new department. "I think it's important that mechanical engineering at GT is still strong in biomedical research," he says. A few of the faculty have moved into this new department, but most will be new faculty.
Generally speaking, Nerem thinks that "some of the best engineering students have an interest in biology and are excited about bioengineering". Getting biology students interested in engineering is not quite so easy, he says. The problem, he explains, is that many people who do biology as an undergraduate shy away from quantitative courses. Too often biology majors do not study calculus or ordinary differential equations.
According to Lauffenburger, bioengineering is in the very early stages of development in terms of both its definition and the identification of career opportunities for its students. "I think that it's a crucial challenge for us to help industry understand what we're trying to accomplish with this education, and how people like this will be useful to hire alongside the chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers they have traditionally hired," he says.
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Nature. The original article was written by Brendan Horton. IMAGE Credit: Nature