Dr. Mark Towler, Doshi Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Missouri S&T, shares his thoughts on the importance of bioengineering.
How do you define bioengineering in basic terms?
Bioengineering can mean many things depending on the angle you are coming from. A bioengineer who works in the pharmaceutical industry would have a different answer than someone who works in the brewing industry, who would have a different response than someone like me, who works with medical devices. To me, bioengineering is clinical engineering: I look at deficiencies in health care and try and determine engineering solutions to these problems.
Why is it important for Missouri S&T to develop new programs in biomedical engineering and bioengineering?
We have an aging population, which will require new and innovative methods of health care. In the medical devices space, much of the innovation is developing through industrial links with university research centers. It is strategically important for S&T to be at the front of this.
What could students do with knowledge and experiences gained from such programs?
I can tell you that all of my previous graduate students have secured positions in the medical devices field pertinent to their research experience. A background in bioengineering, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, instills critical thinking, imparts an understanding of end-user needs, and sits at the interface of biology and engineering – both fields of critical importance when considering our aging demographic.
You have been a top bioengineering researcher for decades. Could you discuss some of your work related to osteoporosis and other areas?
My first spin-off company was based on an idea I had, which considered fingernail tissue, or keratin, as an adjunct to bone tissue, which, protein-wise, is essentially collagen. When people develop osteoporosis, their fingernails go “floppy.” I tried to determine ways of quantifying this. Although collagen and keratin are distinctly different proteins, they have a lot in common, so it is reasonable to assume that a disease like osteoporosis, which has such a catastrophic effect on collagen, will have a measurable effect on related structural proteins such as keratin. That germ of an idea is now the basis of a well-financed company, Crescent Ops, that licensed my four patents in the space. The resulting diagnostic test, Osentia, is commercially available in the U.K. and will be licensed in other territories soon. It is an at-home test that only requires a nail clipping.
I am now working in the field of orthopedics and trauma surgery. Most recently, I have had patents granted for an adhesive for fracture fixation and stabilization and a powder for staunching bleeding after trauma, such as a gunshot wound. These materials have successfully gone through large animal trials and are currently the subject of licensing negotiations with medical device companies.
What inspires you about the future of bioengineering education and research? Where do you see this field headed moving forward?
The bioengineering field, or specifically the clinical engineering field in which I work, can be fast-moving but is slowed down, to some degree, by regulatory constraints. For example, today’s hip implant is not that dissimilar to those used in 1960. Innovation, to date, has been constrained by very few companies operating in a closed market.
However, innovation is now driven by academia, often through the start-up route. This new approach has meant more companies have entered the space, which has led to a sea change in the clinical field — seen most recently in the use of robot-driven surgery and non-X-ray based diagnostic tools. The biomedical field is more innovative now than at any time in the past.