University of Rochester

New Department of Biomedical Engineering Created

March 27, 2000

The University of Rochester has created a Department of Biomedical Engineering that brings together the institution's historic strengths in both medicine and engineering. The move, which comes as student interest in the subject is thriving, and as aging Baby Boomers look to technology to improve their health, boosts efforts of faculty members and students interested in using engineering skills to solve medical problems and improve human health.

Faculty members and students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the School of Medicine and Dentistry will be united in the new department. In recent years the University has created seven new faculty positions in biomedical engineering; four professors have been hired, and three positions are in the process of being filled.

The additional faculty members are helping to address student demand. Biomedical engineering is the fastest growing major on campus; last fall more than 50 freshmen announced their plans to major in the subject. Four new courses have been developed over the last few years, and a new research laboratory has been built.

The recent developments build on a long history at the University. In 1961 the University was one of the first three institutions nationwide to establish a training program in biomedical engineering. Four years ago a formal graduate program was created, and one year later the University developed a new undergraduate program. Its first three students graduated last year.

"This brings the interests of the River Campus and the Medical Center together in a new and exciting way," says Kevin Parker, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "The department provides a nucleus from which to launch powerful teaching and research programs in biomedical engineering. It will help bring faculty and students together and create a unified single high-tech identity to attract the best students."

Lowell Goldsmith, dean of the School of Medicine and Dentistry, agrees. "This department will strengthen interactions between our Medical Center and River Campus, creating powerful synergies with resulting national impact."

The field of biomedical engineering has flourished as engineers continue to discover new ways to use engineering approaches to understand and aid processes within the human body. Among the issues being addressed at the University: how blood cells hold up in their journey through our veins and arteries, how medical imaging can be improved to detect ever-smaller tumors, and how our bones and joints respond to injury and disease.

"There is tremendous interest in taking basic science information and translating it into useful applications," says Richard Waugh, professor of pharmacology and physiology and director of the biomedical engineering program. "Biomedical engineering is the next emerging engineering discipline. This is a field that is growing enormously, and we're excited to be at the leading edge."

Rochester's biomedical engineering program draws on more than three dozen faculty members representing several departments in engineering and medicine. The program has received $2 million from the Whitaker Foundation, in addition to research grants to individual faculty members. The new department will be the fifth in the engineering school, joining chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and optics.

Among the accomplishments in medicine and engineering at the University:

* 1940s: Physicians are the first to understand the basic process of how oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged in the lungs. The knowledge, discovered in studies after World War II when airplanes first flew so high that pilots began to lose consciousness, provides the basis for the teaching of respiratory physiology to medical students around the world.

* 1940s: Pioneering research into the use of radioactive isotopes as tracers leads to the development of technology central to brain and bone scans as well as cardiovascular studies.

* 1958: Dental researchers discover how to make dental sealants better adhere to tooth enamel, leading to their widespread use to prevent dental decay.

* 1964: Researchers carry out the first experimental imaging of an ultrasound contrast agent and identify bubbles as the source of the strong acoustic echoes. The work opens the door to the development of contrast agents to boost the quality of ultrasound images and makes possible new and sensitive imaging of blood flow throughout the body.

* 1964: Creation of the Center for Visual Science, one of the most prominent collaborations in the world of scientists working to understand human vision.

* 1980: Working together, an electrical engineer and a physical therapist develop the Rochester Parapodium, an orthotic device that allows paraplegic children with spina bifida to walk. The device was the first parapodium to allow the children to directly control when they sit down, stand up, or walk.

* 1983: Chemical engineers and physicians develop a way to use purified calf lung surfactant extract as a treatment for respiratory distress syndrome, a common medical complication that is the leading cause of death among premature infants.

* 1986: Creation of the Rochester Center for Biomedical Ultrasound, which comprises the largest group in the world of physicians and researchers working together in medical ultrasound.

* 1994: Scientists build a special laser-based camera that snaps the sharpest pictures ever taken of the living human retina.

* 1994: The NIH establishes the National Resource Laboratory for the Study of Brain and Behavior at the University. Together computer scientists, cognitive scientists, visual scientists, neurologists, and ophthalmologists study behavior and neural function in complex settings using virtual reality and other technologies.

A Sampling of Research in Biomedical Engineering

The University of Rochester has long been recognized for its research in biomedical engineering, particularly in the areas of tissue engineering, biomechanics, and medical imaging. Among current projects:

* Chemical engineers have developed an artificial bone marrow system that is generating a variety of blood cells. The system simulates the 3-D spongy scaffolding found within our own bones and is a powerful tool not only for research but someday may also help treat patients with many kinds of blood disorders, including leukemia.

* Electrical engineers have invented and patented a new "phantom" to test the accuracy of ultrasound machines more quickly and precisely. The work takes place in the University's Center for Biomedical Ultrasound.

* A team of scientists and engineers recently received a $7.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how blood cells that normally cruise through the blood stream attach themselves to blood vessel walls where needed. The foothold is key not only to our body's ability to fight infection and damage but also to the abilities of rogue cancer cells to attack healthy tissues.

* At the Center for Future Health, physicians and engineers are working together to create new, portable technologies for use by people in their own homes to prevent disease before it strikes.

* Engineers are taking a pioneering look at the forces that shape the heart. They're developing complex computer models that measure the stresses experienced by a beating embryonic heart, including stresses from the flow of blood, the heart's pumping action, and the growth of adjacent tissue. Colleagues are using similar models to study pediatric orthopedic biomechanics, learning how mechanical forces can contribute to joint deformities.