Bioengineering Promises Help to Patients, Cost Savings

Posted: July 19, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 19, 2010 at 8:36 am

By Marjorie Musick

Students Michael Kane and Fiona Lu work on a project in their Bioinstrumentation by Design course taught by Nathalia Peixoto. Creative Services photo

Do engineers hold the key to cutting health care costs? By inventing new technologies that will help the sick and disabled to live more independently, they just might.

Bioengineering applies engineering tools and approaches to solve problems in biology and medicine and has already had a substantial influence on medicine.

Mason’s new bachelor of science in bioengineering will begin this fall, allowing students to be a part of the health care technology revolution. The program is the only undergraduate bioengineering degree available in Northern Virginia.

“Bioengineering is all about using technology to help people overcome disease, ease pain and improve the quality of life,” says Joseph Pancrazio, director of the bioengineering program and professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“It’s also about contributing to fundamental understanding of biological systems through engineering and computational tools.

“Our students will have the opportunity to be part of this, and, whether they discover the next pacemaker or biomarker, or ensure that patients are receiving a safe and reliable exam, they will have affected the lives of people in need of these technologies.”

As the demand grows for new technologies to combat rising health care costs, bioengineers’ work may also result in cost savings over time.

Pancrazio explains that a lot of health care costs result from patients who need help performing everyday tasks. By increasing their level of independence through technology, the need for and cost of assistive care provided by caretakers decreases.

For example, for a paralyzed individual, the ability to control their own wheelchair, such as the one designed by Mason bioengineering researcher Nathalia Peixoto, means that the patient does not have to pay for someone else to help them move around their home.

“I’ve met a number of engineering students who want to do something that goes beyond building new routers for computers or building the next iPod,” says Pancrazio.

“They want to provide meaning in their lives and in the lives of others by building new prosthetic limbs, robotic arms and other types of assistive technologies.

“I don’t think there’s any question that this is a wonderful way in which students who are quantitatively and technically inclined can contribute to relieving the burden of disease.”

Although the program’s main emphasis is on developing engineers, students will leave with a strong background in the fundamentals of biology and physiology, as well as biomedical measurements and instrumentation, biomedical signal processing, computational analysis and modeling of biological systems.

This training will allow graduates to contribute to the discovery of new imaging technologies, diagnostic tools and other medical innovations.

“Think pacemakers, MRIs and prosthetic limbs,” says Vasiliki N. Ikonomidou, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the bioengineering program.

“We are currently living longer than ever before, and are able to combat diseases that were not treatable in the past. Bioengineering is at the heart of this, providing technology to support diagnosis, monitoring, treatment and quality of life.

“With an aging population and rising health care costs, bioengineering will need to provide even more solutions to sustain this trend.”

Mason’s program is supported by federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and features faculty collaborations with nearby federal laboratories and clinical centers.

Housed in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, the four-year undergraduate program leverages Mason’s established bioscience programs to train students for biomedical engineer positions — careers for which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, demand is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2012.

The degree will also fulfill pre-med requirements.

“Bioengineering is a field that allows professionals to ease the pain of another human being by developing technologies that assist diagnosis and treatment of disease and quality of life. It provides challenges at the interface of engineering and life sciences,” says Ikonomidou.

“Our students will have the opportunity to work in this field, whether they choose to practice engineering or to go to medical school, and their work will likely make life better for a lot of people.”

For additional information, see the website or call 703-993-4190.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu