Bionic man is fast becoming a reality

Hip replacements that don't need replacement. A different treatment for every cancer sufferer. Swapping body parts with bionic versions. Those scenarios may sound like the stuff of medical fiction but they could be just around the corner. Just ask a biomedical engineer.

''Students are being inspired by technological advances and how they can be applied to improve human life,'' says the head of the graduate school of biomedical engineering at the University of NSW, Professor John Whitelock.

''For example, people saw the 'Blade Runner' at the London Olympics [double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who became the first athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games]. Here you had a double amputee who years ago would have been in a hospital, classified as a patient, now labelled as an elite athlete and beating a lot of people who had no disability. It turns your thinking around.

''The imagination and creativity that sets in motion is something that will be brought to reality by the next generation of biomedical engineers. The idea of a fictional 'Six Million Dollar Man' with bionic abilities when I was growing up is a lot closer now.''

Biomedical engineering is the application of engineering principles to medical science, says the director (education) of the University of Sydney's Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, Professor Andrew Ruys.

''There has been absolutely exponential growth in the discipline,'' he says. ''The first reason for this is that it's a recession-proof career. In tough times when people get sick, they may ask what it costs to get better, but they will find a way to pay for it.

''The second reason the industry has grown is because of the ageing population. As the technology gets better, people live longer. And they need biomedical engineers to come up with the solutions to help them achieve a quality of life.''

An associate lecturer at Flinders University in Adelaide, David Hobbs, says the increased interest in the discipline is global. ''Forbes magazine in the US is predicting a 60 per cent growth in the field,'' he says.

For Salam Abbas, who has recently completed a bachelor of mechanical (biomedical) engineering degree at the University of Sydney, the attraction is all about the chance to make a difference. ''I think it's amazing how much scientists and engineers have learnt about the human body: how to manipulate, fix or repair something using materials that aren't natural and can last in your body for 20 years,'' she says.

''What impressed me most during our course was hearing a talk from a cochlear implant patient who had lost her hearing 20 years ago. She'd had two implants and did an amazing presentation of how it had changed her life.

''Just thinking that you could contribute to having that positive impact on someone's life made us all want to pursue our careers in this area.''

Biomedical engineering has a range of disciplines, Whitelock says. ''At one level, hospitals have biomedical departments that may look at motorising a wheelchair or fixing diagnostic equipment that may not be working. At another level, there are companies that are looking at the next generation of technology to improve health outcomes for people.''

Ruys says a lot of biomedical engineers spend their days in surgery alongside doctors and nurses.

''If you need a hip replacement or a pacemaker, in the surgery there will almost certainly be a biomedical engineer from the company that made the device in case there is a problem with the equipment as it is installed.''

Whitelock says some of the jobs that will be undertaken by biomedical engineers haven't even been invented yet. ''Today's job market is not what it will be in five years,'' he says.

For Abbas, 21, going into some of the companies that are at the forefront of biomedical technology during her degree ''was definitely an eye-opener''.

''We went into companies such as ResMed to see work on the ventilation machines, which was definitely a highlight,'' Abbas says. ''And we went into Cochlear to see the lines of people working on nano-devices, which was amazing.''

To do well as a biomedical engineer, Hobbs says, ''you have to like a challenge and be able to work under pressure''.

''Students who succeed are those with the ability to problem-solve, communicate well with other health professionals and be capable of working in a technical space,'' he says.

Whitelock agrees, adding: ''They should have a strong interest in mathematics and physics. The key is their interest in how the human body works, with an engineering hat on. They continually think about the question: what can I build to interface with that?''

Of course, there's also an overarching cost-benefit analysis that has to be part of the process.

''If something costs $1 million, your market is going to be very small,'' he says. ''Biomedical engineers try to look at a device to treat a group of people. The part we play is to grapple with the complexity and treat the group as a whole - it's a much more cost-effective way.''

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