Running sequence of a man with a prosthetic leg

+ With engineers working alongside clinicians and medical researchers, you can reap the benefits of integrating different types of technology.

Engineers have an increasing role in the medical sciences because the enhanced performance requirements of new medical technology and procedures need our technical input. By helping to improve devices such as medical implants or scanners, I think we can enhance people’s lives.

The demands placed on medical technology are increasing. For example, it’s no longer sufficient for prosthetics to offer patients some degree of mobility. Today, a prosthetic limb might be expected to allow a person to play sport and to withstand the demands this places on it. Modern prosthetics like those used at the UK’s Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre include hydraulics to enable users to engage in high-performance activities.

Engineers can help design these devices. Take a prosthetic limb, for example. Engineers would look at the forces within the prosthetic during different activities. They would consider whether it could stand up to these forces and whether it could handle the fatigue of repeated use.

Engineers have the expertise to look at other factors too. There’s research underway at University College London (UCL) into the comfort of a prosthetic – using thermal imaging and an understanding of heat transfer to investigate materials that would keep the residual limb cool.

As techniques such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) mature, imaginative new ideas for medical applications are mooted, such as custom implants. A patient in Argentina recently received a 3D printed titanium alloy cranial implant. Getting this to fit just right and getting the bone to grow into it required a combination of manufacturing, engineering and medical expertise.

This implant used existing technologies, but the innovation came in the way they were integrated. To achieve this, you have to include engineers in a multidisciplinary approach. Yet only recently have clinicians, researchers and engineers begun to sit down together to solve these problems. 

This sort of dialogue is now happening at places like UCL and the Academy of Medical Sciences. There are challenges, of course. These are all busy professionals from different bodies, so working together is not easy logistically. But it’s something we need more of. If engineers are included in discussions about medical technology, we can help develop useful answers. 

I expect it will become increasingly important to be able to produce and analyse products that are unique to the individual patient, yet which are able to stand up to the rigours of extended daily use. And this is something that requires engineering as well as clinical and medical research expertise.