Auckland University Bioengineering Institute

I am an industry advisor to the Auckland University Bioengineering Institute and got a tour on Tuesday. It was inspirational! They sprawl over several floors of a tall concrete building in Auckland, expanding from their cramped one-floor presence. Everywhere you look there are people with soldering irons, laptops, and batteries working on devices that sit between hardware and biology.

I’ve been advising on their Physiome project, which seeks to computationally model human bodies at various levels including genes, proteins, muscles, skeleton, and skin. The idea is to develop a model such that you can “sample” a person’s key physical trait, plug it into the model, and predict the details of their body’s structure and response. I like to think of it as the OSI 7-layer stack of the human body.

You can see a list of their projects online. I saw the telemetry group‘s work on powering heart pumps, which assist a failing heart while the patient waits for a transplant. At the moment, heart pump patients have power cables sticking out of their chest and consequently many die from infection before they can receive the transplant. The telemetry group is working on wireless power transfer to the devices. It’s the same inductive power ideas that made a splash last month when Intel demoed wireless power devices at their developers forum.

I also saw a lot of very sexy hardware. They have a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and a monstrously heavy metal machining tool that had to be delivered through the window by a crane (and which required multiple engineering checks of the floor’s capability to hold it up). All these take designs from CAD diagrams, so the researchers can conceive of a part, design it, and produce it without the lengthy turnaround times and erratic tolerances of traditional machine shops. They’re actively expanding their metal shop.

I also saw an artificial muscle in the biomimetics group. It was flapping at an adjustable rate, needing a high-voltage low-current power which can be made quite small and efficient. They were still trying to find an application–candidates they’re investigating include moving small devices (the way some organisms use cilia to move around), and using may of them to form a crowd-surfing type of conveyor belt (pictured).

Artificial cilia

They have programmers, too—modelling is a big part of their work, and every model needs lots of sexy outputs. One of their coders, Duane Malcolm, came to Kiwi Foo earlier this year. He’s an open source hacker, with Sparkfun Arduino kits at home, who has been hacking in XUL, RDF databases and Ruby on Rails lately. I didn’t get to meet the programmer beside him, but she had a copy of one of O’Reilly’s Python books on her desk—good to see!

I realize medical devices aren’t new, but underlying these medical devices are sophisticated models and a lot of computational crunching. It reinforced for me the revelation I had at Science Foo Camp in August—science has always had theoreticians and experimentalists, but the days of being primarily one or the other have passed in many fields. Increasingly we’re seeing a new class of data crunching scientist, someone who can make sense of the enormous volumes of data that can now be gathered, someone who connects theory and practice with software. There’s a lot of that at the Bioengineering Institute and it was very exciting to see up-close and personal.

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