Engineering innovative solutions for 21st century medicine

London 25 June 2009The Wellcome Trust and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have announced joint funding for four new Centres of Excellence in Medical Engineering to transform the future of health care. Engineers have been at the forefront of medical innovation throughout the history of medicine, benefiting millions of people with tools such as implants and prosthetic limbs, devices to monitor the physiological state of patients, and instruments to maintain bodily functions, such as the implantable pacemaker. As both medicine and engineering continue to advance at great pace, it is crucial that the links between these disciplines are maintained, especially with the potential for groundbreaking advances in fields such as imaging and genetics.


In the United Kingdom, the population is ageing - people are living longer thanks to modern medicine. But as we get older, our bodies need more help to support us. Medical engineering will play an important role in meeting this growing demand.

It's estimated there are up to 4 million operations in the world each year as a result of osteo-arthritis. Better techniques to diagnose osteo-arthritis combined with more tailored interventions could mean a choice of earlier and less intrusive treatments for the most common cause of chronic pain.

In 2006 in the United Kingdom, there were 130.000 hip and knee replacement operations - but demand is growing all the time as more and more people live long enough to wear out their joints. A new generation of implants will reduce the need for further replacements, avoiding costly and painful surgery.

New imaging technologies have the potential to predict stroke and heart attack, improve early detection of cancer, help surgeons perform less invasive operations, and even play a role in the diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illness, potentially helping millions of people each year.

Tissue engineering technology has the potential to use patients' own cells to correct degenerative disease, but the processes of applying these techniques needs to be practical and efficient if they are to achieve their potential.

Four interdisciplinary research teams - at Imperial College London, King's College London, University of Leeds and Oxford University - will receive a combined total of GBP 41 million over the next five years. The funding will help to develop integrated teams of clinicians, biomedical scientists and world-class engineers with the capacity to invent high-tech solutions to medical challenges, potentially improving thousands of patients' lives.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, stated: "Research in medical engineering has been responsible for major advances in health care, ranging from ultrasound scanning in pregnancy to hip and knee replacements. The opportunities for engineers and medical scientists to collaborate are endless but all too often are missed because each community operates in its own siloed compartment. I am delighted by this collaboration between the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, which will fund four interdisciplinary teams to work on major medical unmet needs."

Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC, stated: "The Medical Engineering funding scheme has resonated with existing research programmes across the United Kingdom, but it has also stimulated new research teams to consider medical applications of emerging technology. This proves the value of the joint initiative in fostering highly potent partnerships and the new inventions that will result, which could have massive benefit for patients."

Imperial College London will receive GBP 11 million for osteo-arthritis treatment. Professor Ross Ethier stated: "Around 8,5 million people in the United Kingdom have osteo-arthritis. It is the most common cause of chronic pain and costs the country an estimated GBP 5,5 billion every year directly and indirectly. Our Centre will develop technologies to improve the lives of patients with osteo-arthritis. For example, we will create the next generation of hip and knee replacement implants that will last longer and require less invasive surgery to fit. Tissue engineering will also contribute hugely in this area, using patients' own cells to grow new cartilage for osteo-arthritic knees. A better understanding of the disease will also lead to new technologies to diagnose and treat osteoarthritis at a much earlier stage."

King's College London will be granted GBP 10 million for medical imaging. Professor Reza Razavi stated: "Our Medical Engineering Centre will break down the barriers between engineering, the physical sciences, and biology and medicine. We will conduct world-class clinical trials to show the benefit of new discoveries in imaging technology that the centre will produce. I see patients in my clinic every day, so I have a very clear understanding of what they need to make their lives better. Medical imaging has the capacity to give my patients access to new tools for earlier and more precise diagnoses of cancer and heart disease, better targeted therapies, less invasive surgery, and improved techniques for rebuilding tissue after surgery."

The University of Leeds will receive GBP 11 million for "50 more years after 50". Professor John Fisher stated: "While more of us are living longer, our bones, joints and cardiovascular systems continue to degenerate as we age. At Leeds, we are looking how to help the skeleton, muscles and cardiovascular system support our bodies as we get older, through improved prosthetic implants and technologies to help our tissues regenerate. We are also looking to understand the process of degeneration so we can accurately diagnose its early stages and deliver appropriate and timely interventions. Our work is all driven by the concept of 50 more years after 50 - making our second 50 years as healthy, comfortable and active as our first."

Oxford University will be granted GBP 8 million for personalised health care. Professor Lionel Tarassenko stated: "Much of the 20th century was devoted to developing treatments that are broadly effective in most people. However, it has become clear that long-term conditions such as asthma, diabetes and cancer are best managed by taking into account how the individual is responding to their particular therapy. We will be developing techniques and strategies to precisely measure individuals' response to their condition and therapies, and use those measurements to adjust and improve the way the person is being treated. This approach could have real impact on survival rates and improve the quality of life for people living with long-term conditions, from birth through to old age."

Source: Wellcome Trust

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