Engineering that cures

Barcelona 16 June 2009Major challenges and opportunities will arise in the health sector in the future. Research in technology that can be applied to this sector is being carried out by several Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) teams. Although sophisticated medical technology is already available in health systems in developed countries, further advances are constantly being made. As a result of the addition of medical nanotechnology to existing knowledge of molecular and cellular biology, it seems likely that new, more personalised, more accurate and more rapid diagnostic techniques will be devised in the future, as well as new treatments that are also more personalised and promote regeneration of the organism.


Clearly, as areas of research such as biomaterials or tissue engineering are developed for use in regenerative medicine, the range of opportunities will increase dramatically. Josep Anton Planell, the director of the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC), which was formed by the University of Barcelona, the UPC and the Generalitat - Government of Catalonia - and has its headquarters in Barcelona Science Park, considers that "in the future, it will be possible to design intelligent biomaterials that, when placed where damaged tissue needs to be regenerated, will be able to stimulate the stem cells to do what we want them to do". However, more knowledge is needed to perfect the process. He stated: "We are beginning to understand which biochemical, biophysical or mechanical signals activate cells to regenerate tissue. To be able to intervene, therefore, we first need to be able to quantify and assess the signals that generate the cell response and form a language."

These processes occur at the molecular level or involve very low intensity stimuli. However, nanotechnology is contributing to the emergence of the tools needed to study them. Such technology includes lasers to identify the proteins expressed in the cell membrane, nanosensors that determine whether the cell is uptaking or excreting an ion such as potassium or calcium, biosensors to detect cancer markers, and atomic force microscopes that enable material to be handled on nanometre and nanonewton scales. In short, a wide range of diagnostic systems have been designed that can more accurately detect the physiology and localization of a specific disease.

The Technical Research Centre for Dependency Care and Autonomous Living (CETpD), which is attached to the UPC and located in Vilanova i la Geltrú, has been working in the health sector for almost nine years. Its research is focused mainly on the field of dependency and care for the chronically ill. Andreu Català, the director of the Knowledge Engineering Research Group (GREC), stated: "We do not aim to replace carers, but we do believe that technology can be a very useful complement, as it can help dependent people to feel more comfortable and more secure. Our aim is to develop innovative technology to improve their quality of life."

From the beginning, one of the main lines of work has involved analysing and monitoring human movement. Inertial sensors have been developed that can detect falls and characterise different types of movement. This research has applications in monitoring and preventing the risk of falls in elderly people or people recovering from a fracture.

Currently, the CETpD is participating in two research projects on Parkinson's disease: one Ministry of Health study and one European project. Parkinson's disease is the second most significant neurodegenerative disease in the world, after Alzheimer's. It affects over four million people. The first project is titled "Monitoring the Mobility of Parkinson's Patients for Therapeutic Purposes" (MOMOPA), and is focused on detecting and monitoring various stages in the activity of people with this disease. The other project is titled "Home-Based Empowered Living for Parkinson's Disease Patients" (HELP). Its objective is to design a system for administrating the exact drug dose that a patient needs for his or her daily activities by means of an infusion pump, which is controlled by a movement sensor.

There is growing demand for monitoring or periodically supervising people's state of health in any environment. In this field, the Instrumentation, Sensors and Interfaces Group of the UPC's Department of Electronic Engineering in Castelldefels is working on the design of systems that enable patients' vital signs to be monitored in domestic environments.

The researcher Oscar Casas reminded that "not so long ago, houses were only equipped with a thermometer, and, with a bit of luck, a set of scales. Now it is not unusual for people to have portable equipment for measuring blood pressure or devices for testing blood sugar levels at home. Our aim is for this growing range of health systems for individual, rather than hospital, use to be available to everyone".

The Group has designed a system for simultaneously detecting heart and respiratory rates that functions with force sensors, which are used to measure weight, even in conventional electronic scales. This domestic application can measure the aforementioned parameters faster than current systems, which tend to be uncomfortable for the patient due to the direct contact between the sensor and the skin and whose measurements can be affected by the movement of the sensor. Work is currently being undertaken on a chair that enables the measurement of these and other physiological parameters.

The future of these systems, which are useful for monitoring and supervising elderly or disabled people, involves making sensors that do not require contact, so that they can be concealed from the person who is being supervised and have the least possible impact on their daily activities. This enables action to be taken only when strictly necessary.

The development of information and communication technology that is adapted to the hospital environment and remote health care has great potential for the future. One application of this technology that is already being introduced in Mataró Hospital is a project in which the Wireless Networks Group (WNG) of the UPC's Department of Telematics Engineering has participated. One of the aims of this project is to reduce the probability of drug administration errors, through a secure patient identification system that uses radiofrequency technology and also enables patients to be located in the health centre.

The researcher Josep Paradells explained that "the most interesting feature of these sensors, which are being placed in the hospital rooms and connected to each other by a mesh network - a wireless network with no infrastructure, is the fact that they configure themselves and collaborate with other sensors. In fact, this communications system can easily be installed in a hospital environment and does not require any extra cables". This same idea of a network has been applied to developing a remote health care system for deaf people, which is connected to the telephone line.

Medical robots are used with increasing frequency in the medical field. Surgeons no longer operate on the basis of their skill and experience alone. An example of research that is focused on resolving scientific and technological problems in this field is the study carried out by the Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB) to measure forces on the humeral joint, according to the type of suture used after implanting prostheses.

"During the rehabilitation process, exercises are undertaken to prevent ankylosis of the bone. However, the force on the stitches is sometimes enough to break them. The design of a robotic test, of an anatomic model that behaves in the same way as a person's arm, enables repetitive, systematic methodology to be applied to quantify the independent measurements of external factors. With tests like these, surgeons can learn how to improve surgical procedures. In this case, the aim is to identify the most suitable stitching method", explained the researcher Alícia Casals, who is the leader of the IBEC's robotics research group.

This line of research is complemented by the development of tools to help and support surgery, and to ensure that surgery is more precise, as well as tools that enable operations to be carried out at a distance using a robot.

Source: Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya

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