We have the biology

People working in the engineering profession could have a starring role to play in the personalised healthcare revolution.

Last week, UK scientists announced the results of the most detailed study yet into the genetic basis of disease.

According to Nature magazine, which reported the groundbreaking investigation, researchers across the UK helped build a database of DNA samples from 17,000 people, and have already identified a number of mutations in the human genome that could lead to people developing particular disorders.

The scientists involved claimed that the study, which was coordinated and funded by the Wellcome Trust, could pave the way for a new era of personalised medicine – where treatments could be specially tailored to an individual’s needs.

Inspiring stuff, but somewhat outside the remit of The Engineer’s area of interest, right? Well, wrong actually. Because according to an increasingly vocal group, people working in the engineering profession could have a starring role to play in this healthcare revolution.

In the face of increasingly stiff competition in traditional manufacturing from low labour cost economies, the results of cross collaboration between Engineering, Medicine and the Physical sciences could be set to become a huge area for UK plc.

Prof Richard Kitney, who heads up ImperialCollege’s newly formed institute of systems biology is at the sharp end of this emerging cross-disciplinary world. Talking to the Engineer earlier this month, Kitney, senior dean of the college’s engineering school suggested that the application of core engineering techniques to medical problems could kick-start nothing less than a new industrial revolution.

From imaging systems and new types of sensor, to mathematical tools that could be used for modelling the sub-cellular world, Kitney believes that Engineering has the answers. He even suggested that this merging of disciplines could ultimately lead to the development of DNA-based engineering parts that could be used to develop tiny biological computers.

It sounds like a long way off. And while some areas of research will reap immediate dividends, others have their goals set further into the future. But Kitney is convinced on a number of points. Systems biology will be huge. The UK is home to much of the world’s core expertise. And if Engineers can sustain and foster the dialogue with other disciplines, as well as communicate their ideas to politicians, the UK could position itself at the forefront of a whole new industry.

Jon Excell

Features Editor