NANO-BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING—what is this up and coming technology everyone is talking about? You may think that the innovative science is only for the Silicon Valley techies, not for average college students. But what many don’t realize is how reliant we are on nano-biomedical technology—from TVs to medicines, nano-biomedical technology has already become a norm in our daily lives.
Nanotechnology: the art of the one billionths
In order to get a grasp of the seemingly complicated technology, it is necessary to understand each field of science that constitutes this technology. The first word to the bipartite science is “nano.” Used in the metric system, nano is translated into one billionth and is typically used to work with extremely small particles such as atoms and molecules*. To give you an idea of how small a nanometer is, an inch is comprised of approximately 25.4 million nanometers. The concept of nanoengineering was developed by Richard Feynman in 1959 during his lecture titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Believing that the discovery of the “room at the bottom” would bring about unprecedented changes to science, Feynman worked on inventing a nanotechnology microscope which was then perfected in 1981.
Upon the invention of the microscope, scientists could now research fields that seemed impossible before. Atoms are the smallest units that constitute a matter—essentially composing everything on Earth. Thus, manipulating elements at a molecular level meant that nanoengineers could change just about anything on Earth. From the food we eat to the houses we live in, everything could be studied and controlled at a more, if not the most, precise manner**. Most of nanoengineering is used to create substances in nanoscale to enhance the efficiency of existing technology. Since the same amount of energy and technology is equipped onto smaller devices, these devices now have faster speed, lighter weight, and more control than their large-scaled counterparts. For example, just a couple of decades back, phone operating systems could only be stored in devices as large as supercomputers. However, with nanotechnology, these complex systems are now harbored in the nanochips of our smartphones. The 4K display you have on your phone and TV also relies on nanoengineers placing nano-sized pigments upon the screens. 40 years into the world with nanotechnology, Feynman’s “room at the bottom” not only gave us more space, but also taught us to be more efficient with our existing space.
Biomedical Engineering: the art of life
Biomedical engineering is also a scientific field that was recently established and is attracting attention from the media. This field of science studies how principles of engineering can be applied to biology to enhance medical practices***. Although the concept of using engineering skills to improve medical procedures existed since the earliest periods of human history, the specific field of biomedical engineering only recently emerged as its own study. At the frontier of technology, biomedical engineering brings engineering concepts and designs into the diagnosis, monitoring, and treatment processes of health care. The close-knit relationship between the two fields have already brought breakthroughs in medical technology.
From surgical devices to therapeutic equipment, biomedical engineers have developed life-saving technologies. Laser surgery was developed when engineers incorporated the precision of laser technology into the surgical process of tissue welding. The operation used heating from the lasers to make skin incisions seal more quickly and tightly with less scarring compared to sutures done manually by doctors****. Organ printing is another milestone in biomedical engineering. Engineers synthesized their knowledge in human anatomy, medical practices, and engineering to create functional organs using 3D printing. Engineers have been working on manufacturing kidney, liver, and other major organs. For more intricate organs like the heart, scientists are primarily focused on printing a fully functioning valve or a chamber of the organ. Although 3D printed organs have not been used in conventional medical practices, experts claim that the future isn’t so far away*****.
Nano-biomedical Engineering: the art of interdisciplinary studies
Nano-biomedical engineering requires a comprehensive understanding of several fields: the space-efficient nanotechnology and the life-saving biomedical engineering. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Professor Lee Jae-hyun (Prof., IBS CNM) illustrated how experts from both fields work together to make landmark achievements. “Nanoengineers build platforms for which the technology created by biomedical engineers are carried upon,” said Professor Lee. For example, nano-biomedical engineers developed Doxil, an anticancer drug approved by the FDA in 1995. Before the creation of Doxil, chemotherapy was the main treatment for cancer. Although chemical treatment was effective in killing cancerous cells, the treatment’s lack of precision had benign cells killed as well. As a result, cancer patients went through detrimental side effects such as losing their hair and losing weight. However, with Doxil, nano-biomedical engineers were able to create a nano-sized carrier that delivered the anticancer drug specifically to cancerous areas. The science behind Doxil allowed cancer treatments to be more precise and minimized side effects.
Lab-on-a-chip is also a product of collaboration between nanotechnology and biomedical engineering. This name is derived from the fact that nanotechnology allows for a fully functioning biomedical lab to be placed on a literal chip as small as a millimeter. “Nanoengineering integrated laboratory functions on a single connected circuit,” explained Professor Lee, “allowing medics to perform on-site diagnosis for patients.” Now, lab-on-a-chip simultaneously purifies, divides, and analyzes DNA, then compares DNA material to data stored in hospitals. With this, doctors are able to diagnose the patients with the smallest sample of DNA such as a single drop of blood within seconds.
Although nano-biomedical engineering mainly deals with medicine, a variety of fields also benefit from developments of this technology. Professor Lee gave automobiles as an example to how nano-biomedical technology is used in our daily lives. Cars nowadays have thousands of hidden nano sensors that analyze the driver’s pulse, perspiration, and fingerprints at every second. With these devices, steering wheel adjusting itself to the driver’s height, doors opening with the driver’s fingerprints, and temperature and music in the car changing to match the driver’s mood were all made possible.
* * *
With the brightest minds in science working together, nano-biomedical engineers have enabled the smallest devices to carry the biggest, life-changing technologies. As a prime example of interdisciplinary science, nano-biomedical engineering has used the “room at the bottom” to make revolutionary discoveries in not only medical practices, but in our daily lives as well.
*Cambridge English Dictionary
**National Nanotechnology Initiative