Engineering and Health Care: Bridging the Divide

November 2, 2008 by Dean Shankar Sastry

According to the World Health Organization, some 10 million children under the age of five die each year. Almost all of these children could survive with access to simple and inexpensive interventions, better maternal health care and safer sanitation and drinking water. At the same time, our increasing longevity accounts for large rises in cancer, heart disease, stroke and other age-related chronic illnesses.

Engineering better health care for greater numbers of people is a grand challenge of our times. After all, our charge is to provide innovative solutions and create new scientific knowledge to solve big and urgent global problems. As I see it, engineers can address the health care crisis in two significant ways: through use-inspired technological innovation and through strategies for better delivery of health care.

A compelling example of use-inspired innovation is the work of Irina Conboy, an assistant professor of bioengineering and an investigator at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center and at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3). In a study published recently in Nature, Conboy’s team first identified two regulatory pathways that control how adult stem cells repair and replace damaged tissue. They then engineered these stem cells so that older muscle tissue in mice could repair itself as if it were much younger. This breakthrough could lead to new treatments for progressive degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

However, innovative technologies will have limited impact unless they are built on top of platforms that make health care more accessible. The Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project, led by professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Eric Brewer, has found a way to bring broadband wireless to villages in southern India that, until now, have been off the telecommunications map. By modifying current Wi-Fi technologies to meet conditions in the developing world, his group has been able to create telemedical links between patients in remote, rural clinics and specialists in central hospitals.

If we succeed on these fronts and others – and I am confident we will – we can help to bridge the translation gap between the best new medical technologies and the development of new services and health care delivery models. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean, College of Engineering
NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences
Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Email Dean Sastry

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