Innovations in Biomaterials Create New Roles for Engineers

Feb 21, 2019

by Jeff O’Heir

The emerging field of biomaterials has created demand for a variety of engineers who can effectively communicate with colleagues from other disciplines when designing and delivering new biomedical tools and solutions.

Christopher Jewell, an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Maryland’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering and the author of recent papers on using biomaterials to improve vaccines and immunotherapies and in designing immune tissues, spoke to Jeff O’Heir, ASME’s senior content manager, about the need for cross-disciplinary teams of engineers and clinicians to work together in order to bring enhanced immunotherapies and vaccines into the clinic and eventually onto the market. You can hear the full interview on ASME TechCast.

JO: You write how new biomaterials are used in applications and solutions to deliver a better way to fight infection, cancer, and other diseases. What biomaterials are we talking about?

Christopher Jewell, Fischell Department of Bioengineering, University of Maryland.

Jewell: It could be a new polymer or something that is designed to give you certain features that will be useful in a vaccine orimmunotherapy.It could be taking proteins or other biological molecules and organizing them in a way that have unique features. It could even be using or engineering cells or tissues to give particular applications. I think all of these examples are being used in the field of immune engineering, synthetic and natural polymers, lipids, self-assembled materials, and even more recently integrating principles from tissue engineering, using scaffolds and cellular materials to build immune tissues.

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JO: What roles do engineers play in the creation and the deliveryof these types of applications and solutions?

 

Jewell: If you are trying to develop a new vaccine or immunotherapy, the clinical folks probably have a better understanding of what is needed to actually treat the patient, whereas the technologies that are needed to help achieve those goals are better suited for the type of problems that engineers are used to tackling. Such a broad range of expertise is needed that it's hard for any one person toreallyhave all of those skills.

JO: What type of engineers are needed in this new field of biomaterials?

Jewell: I think all the fields of engineering are involved in tackling some of these problems. On one hand, you have chemical and bio engineers who are very focused on developing these materials themselves and in figuring out the tools and systematic approaches to understand how well these new materials are working for a given application. For the mechanical engineering field, there is a huge field of evidence that mechanical properties of biomaterials have a large impact on what kinds of biological responses occur, and this is becoming evidentin the interaction with the immune system. It’s not just developing materials to certain chemical structures or stability butunderstanding what some of the properties are and how they’re going to impact the ability of immune cells to interact with or to infiltrate some of the material in these scaffolds, vaccines, or immunotherapies.

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JO: Is biomaterials creating the need for a new type of engineering skills or new types of engineers?

Jewell: It's basically driving a need for folks that have broader training across the medical, biological and the engineering sides. But I think as more evidence is accumulated for the need for these cross disciplinary skills, it helps to kind of create and establish the more formalized programs that provide this broad set of training.

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JO: Is there a talent gap in filling these roles?

Jewell: I don't know if there's a talent gap or if it's just getting people to recognize the power of bringing these skill sets together. It’s not just about bringing an engineer together with a biologist or immunologist, or clinician, but bringing together people who know about the field that they're trying to collaborate with so that they can talk effectively with each other. I think that's the main criteria: Making sure people have enough expertise in the filed they're collaborating with so that when they are interacting with their colleagues in these other fields, it's an efficient communication.

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It’s not just about bringing an engineer together with a biologist or immunologist, or clinician, but bringing together people who know about the field that they're trying to collaborate with so that they can talk effectively with each other.” Prof. Christopher Jewell, University of Maryland