Engineering Health

Illustration by Caitlin David

Illustration by Caitlin David

The realm of medical research and study is often pursued by chemists, biologists, pharmacists, and doctors. These professionals drive forward research on the human body, diseases, and treatments. However, there is one group of scientists that has worked on medical research which has largely remained in the background. From the pacemaker to the ultrasound machine, engineers have been the tinkers, supplying the tools necessary for medical practitioners to fight in humanity’s struggle against disease and conquer the seemingly never-ending quest to understand the human body,

        The secondary role that engineers fill in regards to health research and development is changing. With the rise of new biotechnologies, engineers find themselves more frequently thrust center stage, leading the charge by not only developing new apparatus and treatments that aid doctors, but by also widening the medical profession’s knowledge of the body’s workings. Engineers are now beginning to use their knowledge to present new viewpoints and research methods that can unlock new understandings of health.

        At Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), engineers are hard at work putting their knowledge and expertise to use in health-related fields. An example of one such engineer is Dr. Spencer Lake, a member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is one of several engineers in the Musculoskeletal Soft Tissue Laboratory working to better understand how human tissues work and interact. Dr. Lake has done research on a wide range of topics and is currently working on how to use polarization imaging to look at tissue microstructure. He hopes that such imaging techniques will shine new light on how ligaments are constructed, allowing orthopedic surgeons to solve clinical problems such as ACL and UCL injuries. According to Dr. Lake, his research will eventually help “better identify how to do ACL reconstruction and shorten rehabilitation times after surgery.”

        Another WUSTL engineer helping to advance our knowledge of the human body is Dr. Amit Pathak, a member of the Cellular Mechanobiology Laboratory. Dr. Pathak’s work investigates how cancer cells move through different environments in the body. His research has aided cancer research by, as he puts it, serving as “a better petri dish.” Through studying properties of tissues and cancer cells’ motility through them, Dr. Pathak has created more realistic environments for cancer researchers to test drugs and more accurately gauge their effects on cancerous cells.

        What may be more important than the specific research that Drs. Lake and Pathak are conducting is what they bring to the table as engineers. Dr. Lake characterized engineers as integral parts of multidisciplinary teams, with a valuable set of tools and skills that other team members might not have. Dr. Pathak elaborated on this idea by saying that the “reductionist approach” that many engineers use to solve complex problems helps break down complex situations in the human body so that one variable, or part of the puzzle, can be studied at a time to gauge its effect on a given situation.

        Engineering, whether it be used for treatment, development, or for providing new methods of understanding the human body, is on the rise in the world of medicine. Together, with the help of doctors, chemists, biologists, pharmacists, and other medical professionals, engineers are striving to widen the scope of humanity’s understanding of medicine and ultimately provide a healthier future for all.

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