UW News

February 23, 2011

Annual faculty lecture to discuss the future of bioengineering

UW News

Many of todays humans are, in a sense, cyborgs. Its not uncommon for someone to have an artificial hip, heart or cornea implanted to replace a failed body part.

Buddy Ratner

The Percussion Ensemble will perform May 29 in Meany Studio Theater.

But if you thought this was the future of bioengineering, youd be wrong, says UW professor Buddy Ratner. He believes the real revolution in medical technology, only now beginning to get under way, will be technology that helps the body to regenerate and repair itself.

The future of bioengineering, it seems, may look less like a cyborg and more like a salamander that can grow back a lost body part.

This shift will be the subject of the 35th annual University of Washington faculty lecture, to be delivered by Ratner at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1, in 130 Kane. The lecture, titled “Regenerate, Rebuild, Restore – Bioengineering Contributions to the Changing Paradigm in Medicine,” is free and open to the general public. A reception will follow in the Walker-Ames Room.

Ratner, a UW professor of bioengineering and chemical engineering, has been at the UW for almost four decades. During that time hes published more than 400 scientific articles on biomaterials and tissue engineering. He also has participated in the launch of six startup companies based on his labs technology, and serves as a consultant for several other medical device companies.

This enormously productive career spans a time when the word “bioengineering” did not yet exist to an age when medical implants constitute a $300 billion industry.

And yet, the first slide in Ratners lecture predicts that the face of bioengineering 10 years from now will look very different than it does today.

“Things are changing quite dramatically,” Ratner said. “I think were on the cusp of an exciting change in medicine.

“Since the time of the Greek physician Galen in about 150 AD,” he continued, “medical practice has been focused on what we call palliative care – basically making the patient comfortable as possible and treating their symptoms. Medicine has rarely had the ability to actually heal, to truly cure, to get somebody back to their original condition.”

New discoveries in molecular biology have increased understanding of how the human body regenerates tissue. In the next few years, Ratner believes, engineers will play a crucial role in applying these discoveries to medicine.

To explain what this means for bioengineering, he gives the example of the artificial heart. Early bioengineers were inspired by concepts from mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, Ratner says. They viewed the heart as a pump to help circulate blood, the same way a car pump circulates automotive fluids.

Existing artificial heart valves are, in effect, mechanical pumps. These pumps keep thousands of people alive – including former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. But knowledge of cardiac function has since matured to include understanding of how the heart sends signals, responds to the body and acts to prevent blood clotting.

“The newer thinking is that theres great potential to fix a heart by not replacing it with a machine, but engineering it to re-grow heart muscle,” Ratner said.

This shift has had profound impacts on Ratners own research program. In the past, he developed durable materials that could survive for years in the body, prevent bacterial infection, and avoid the so-called foreign body response by integrating with the bodys own tissues.

Today, his lab is working on biodegradable polymers that would support natural regeneration and then disappear without a trace.

“In the future we will use new materials to rebuild lost tissue, replace lost organs, and very much change the way we think about how medicine is practiced,” Ratner said.

The lecture will be broadcast at a later date on UWTV.