Many people think of biomedical engineering as high-tech 21st-century science, but early medical engineering technology such as X-ray machines actually stretches back to the first decade of the 20th century. Biomedical engineering is defined as the application of engineering principles to research on medical and biological issues. Biomedical engineers come from a variety of engineering backgrounds, and a growing number of colleges and universities offer biomedical engineering degree programs.
Rapidly Growing Career
To say that biomedical engineers are in great demand is a serious understatement. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, biomedical engineer jobs are anticipated to grow by 62 percent from 2010 to 2020. This is more than four times the 14 percent growth rate projected for all occupations. Much of the demand will be driven by aging baby boomers, who will need more medical care and equipment as they get older. The highly interdisciplinary nature of biomedical engineering will also contribute to growth in the field. Biomedical engineers with appropriate industry-specific backgrounds are in demand in virtually every life science and health care sector. The BLS does point out, however, that the projected 62 percent growth rate only represents 9,700 new jobs, given there were only around 16,000 total biomedical engineers employed in the U.S. as of 2012.
Developing a functional, implantable artificial organ is one of the holy grails of biomedical engineering, and one of the most active areas of research. Biomedical engineers have developed dozens of artificial hearts, but as of 2013 all have had serious limitations. Penn State University has an active artificial heart research program. Other bioengineering researchers are involved in projects to develop artificial kidneys or skin.
Microtechnology and nanotechnology use semiconductor fabrication and 3-D printing methods to create tiny medical devices. As of 2013, research in biomedical micro/nano technologies includes lab-on-chip devices that can perform sophisticated analyses and diagnoses, implantable biomedical microdevices, biodegradable scaffolds to support tissue growth, nanoscale biosensors and various nanoparticles for imaging and drug delivery.
Biomaterials research is of critical importance to many facets of biomedical engineering. Advances in biomaterials underlie advances in many areas of biomedical research, particularly artificial organs, prostheses and wound healing. Biomaterials research focuses on the interactions of biomolecules and cells with materials. Biomaterials researchers study the properties of materials and develop new materials for biomedical applications.
Engineered Bacteria Creating Vaccines
Cornell University has an active biomedical engineering research program. One interesting project involves creating specially engineered bacteria to develop vaccines for human use. Researchers have genetically modified bacteria to create new vaccine candidates based on proteins that are usually poorly antigenic.