Skip to main content
Local News

UBC Erases Boundaries between Engineering and Health

By September 6, 2017No Comments

A deceptively simple device invented at the University of B.C. is saving lives in the world’s most impoverished places.

Called the Phone Oximeter, it clips onto a person’s fingertip and is connected by wire to a smartphone’s audio port. By measuring blood-oxygen levels and heart and breathing rates with unprecedented simplicity, portability and affordability, it’s enabling easier diagnosis of illness in Mozambique, Pakistan and Uganda.

How it came to be at UBC reveals the magic of universities.

Fifteen years ago, electrical engineer Guy Dumont, an expert in creating “intelligent” automated systems, met Mark Ansermino, an anesthesiologist who wanted to improve measurement of vital signs during surgery. From that first encounter between two complementary faculty members, a string of inventions followed.

The Phone Oximeter’s genesis at a university was no accident. UBC, like so many of its peer institutions, attracts experts in diverse fields. Brought together into a larger community, they sometimes share ideas and wind up doing things they could never achieve — or even dream of achieving — on their own.

But when that lightning does strike, it’s often by accident or the result of occasional get-togethers. If only we could make such interactions a regular feature on our campuses, imagine the ingenuity that would spring forth.

Now we are now doing just that, with UBC’s latest creation: a school of biomedical engineering.

This new cluster of faculty and students, a joint venture of the faculties of medicine and applied science, will break down antiquated academic boundaries. We want to replicate many times over the genius of the Phone Oximeter — applying an engineering mindset to disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

That could mean medical devices like the Phone Oximeter. But it also means extending engineering into realms that most people have a hard time grasping: the splicing of genes, the rearrangement of proteins and the cultivation of stem cells, which can be coaxed into repairing or even replacing damaged tissues or organs.

This is a squishier world than many engineers are used to. But it’s governed by the same physical principles that all engineering students must master. And it’s just as yielding to their quantitative approach and creative design skills, which offer new solutions to society’s major health challenges, including cancer, neurological disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

UBC is the first university in Western Canada to recognize the importance of this burgeoning field with a school of its own. And we are doing it at a propitious time, as B.C. diversifies its resource-based economy by cultivating a vibrant tech sector, and as the province joins the University of Washington in creating the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative, emulating the success of such regional tech hubs as Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Boston’s Route 128 Corridor.

To fulfil even part of that tech-based vision, higher education must position itself several steps ahead by preparing students to readily enter that economy from the moment they graduate, and to play leading roles in both established companies and new ventures. Playing catch-up isn’t an option — we need to cultivate the talent now or risk having that vision wither for lack of local talent.

Clearly, there is a demand for such training. The faculty of applied science started offering master’s degrees and doctorates in biomedical engineering a mere seven years ago, and applications have increased steadily to almost 200 in 2016.

The new school will provide those students — expected to number about 90 this year — with a distinct, high-profile “home,” signalling to future students our commitment to be a leader in this field. In the years ahead we hope to extend the talent pipeline even further by offering bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering as well.

That higher profile will also help attract the most promising or sought-after biomedical engineering faculty. In fact, it already has: Peter Zandstra, most recently of the University of Toronto, has joined UBC to become the school’s first director.

Zandstra won’t need much help finding his way around — he spent five years at UBC earning his doctorate in biotechnology and chemical engineering. But we recruited him for his ingenuity in growing stem cells, his mathematical modelling to predict how stem cells behave and how they can be controlled, and his success in generating human tissue for drug testing or treatment. On top of all that, he has proven leadership skills, honed from his experience steering large academic research groups and startup companies.

Joining him in the months and years ahead will be seven other new faculty members, along with 20 current faculty members jointly appointed from their current departments, including electrical engineer Tim Salcudean, who has proudly ignored the obsolete divisions that once separated him from his medical colleagues.

Salcudean is advancing two innovations that have already transformed patient care: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound. He is making those technologies more revealing by bringing digital analysis to images that are now mostly “eyeballed.” He is also making them more useful by superimposing MRI and ultrasound images onto magnified images of a surgical field, so surgeons can see underneath the tissue on which they’re operating, and thus spot patches of cancer that would normally be hidden.

These aren’t an academic’s theoretical musings. Thanks to UBC’s partnerships with the province’s health system, Salcudean has been able to team up with UBC urologist Peter Black to successfully test ultrasound and MRI image-guided techniques on 27 patients with prostate cancer. Based on those results, there are plans for more.

We can’t simply leave those kinds of advances to the random happenstance of the occasional symposium or accidental meeting. The stakes — in terms of lives saved or quality of life — are too high.

Our new school of biomedical engineering will bring health scientists, clinicians and engineers together on a daily basis and provide them with the space and the tools to collaborate. Just as important, it will bring graduate students and medical students into that collaboration — to learn from it, emulate it and, we hope, take it in directions that we haven’t yet imagined.