Engineering in Medicine


Medical, biological and chemical systems research has taken a leap akin to the profound advances introduced by the development of the X-rays. Today’s imaging and sensing technology allows researchers to probe the most fundamental components of living things. College of Engineering researchers develop imaging and sensing technology to better understand the fundamental workings of biological and chemical systems; they design vaccines, repair and regenerate tissues, like cartilage, that are difficult to mend; they study heart disease to find ways to prevent or reverse damage, and advance engineering to fight cancer and many other afflictions. At the same time, they engage students in the rich spectrum of research at molecular, cellular, tissue, system and organism levels.

Such learning and discovery is made possible by the collaborative culture at UC Davis. The highly ranked life sciences research environment incorporates the work of faculty members in departments across campus, including biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, radiology, exercise science, chemical engineering and materials science, applied science, orthopedics, bioinformatics and mathematics. The breadth of activity represented in this highly collaborative environment not only supports groundbreaking research, but also allows students to find the best match between their research interests and those of our faculty.

Current research impacts the wide range of factors that contribute to quality of life. For example:

Helping soldiers with devastating wounds heal faster

Soldiers in combat suffer massive wounds to bone and tissue, mainly from explosive blasts, quite unlike most injuries civilian doctors treat. Thanks to advances in medical care and body and vehicle armor, 90 percent of these wounded soldiers survive. But their severe injuries require multiple reconstructive surgeries.

Research by biomedical engineering professor Kent Leach is tackling this problem, developing treatment using stem cells and other chemicals in a special gel that when implanted at the injury site could speed healing. This strategy could reduce the number of surgeries for these wounded soldiers.

Making AIDS testing and monitoring easier, faster and less expensive

There are more than 33 million people around the world living with AIDS, with 67 percent of those in sub-Saharan Africa. To save lives, healthcare workers and AIDS activists in the developing world desperately need faster, more portable and less expensive tests for diagnosing and monitoring HIV infection. Current methods require expensive machinery and several highly trained specialists, impossible for healthcare workers in the field.

Technology developed by biomedical engineering professor Alexander Revzin may finally offer an answer. Revzin has developed a lab-on-a-chip device made from polymer film that uses microscopic dots of antibodies specific to two kinds of T-cells or white blood cells that are affected by HIV. When a small blood sample flows over the chip, the dots grab and bind to the white blood cells and the three types of inflammatory proteins or cytokine molecules that are secreted by these cells. Counting and calculating the ratios between these two types of T-cells and measuring inflammatory proteins is the most accurate and effective way to diagnose and track HIV infection.

Giving disabled children the power to interact with their environment

Severely disabled children confined to wheel chairs have very few ways to interact physically with their environment and everything in it. Sanjay Joshi, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has created a machine interface that will make a difference. The technology, which reads electrical signals from just one facial muscle, will allow these children to control computers, wheelchairs and other devices. With funding from the Hartwell Foundation, Joshi and his collaborators – Tony Wexler, also in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Holly Zhao, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the UC Davis Medical System – will translate their basic research into devices that are compact, adaptable and simple to use.

Making diagnostic tools that are printed on inexpensive office equipment Tests that analyze blood and other biological samples often require expensive equipment and a laboratory of highly trained specialists. There is an urgent need to reduce the cost of medical diagnosis, provide tools that can diagnose more quickly, make them more easily portable and adaptable and ultimately make better therapeutic strategies possible.

Research by biomedical engineering professor Tingrui Pan uses micro-nanotechnology to create cell-analysis tools with an inexpensive customized Xerox office printer. Using unique nano-composite materials, Pan produces a lab-on-a-chip that can analyze specific cells in a complicated biological environment. A drop of biological sample, like blood, for example, is placed on this diagnosis chip and is automatically split into a large number of organized tiny droplets for individual analysis. Pan aims to eventually produce a PDA-type system that, with the insertion of a chip, could perform as an extremely portable plug-and-play diagnostic device.