In an innovative move to link world class engineering, life science, and medical schools, NC State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) are laying the groundwork for a single joint department in biomedical engineering, merging existing departments on each of the two campuses. This first-ever shared department within the UNC System will combine existing education programs in biomedical science with engineering from nano to macro scales.

The department will serve as an interface between medical applications and the new technologies emerging in basic scientific and engineering fields. "Nanotechnology is a key area for future emphasis in biomedical engineering research, and will be an important part of our academic curricula," says Dr. Troy Nagle, interim head of the existing department at NC State. "In the next few years, all of our biomedical engineering students will need to understand the fundamentals of nanotechnology as advances in electronics, optics, materials, and miniaturization accelerate development of more sophisticated devices for diagnosis and therapy."

“Cooperation between the major research universities can leverage scarce resources and avoid duplication of efforts," says Nagle, who holds doctorates in both medicine and engineering. "But more importantly, it will allow our students to take advantage of active research and education accomplishments on both campuses, and to benefit from faculty collaborations involving instrumentation for diagnosis, therapy, rehabilitation, and cell and tissue engineering."

Nagle explains that nanotechnology is changing the way we design and build medicaldevices. Just as nanotechnology is being used to make biosensors more specific, sensitive, and reliable, it is also improving the durability and biocompatibility of artificial joints and other orthopedic implants. New nanoscale structures will precisely control the time release of pharmaceuticals, and biomedical engineers are exploiting nanotechnology to interface electronic devices to living cells. Researchers are even inserting nanoscale sensors and actuators into living cells to monitor and control their behavior.

“Our goal is to develop nationally recognized research and academic programs that will support the growing biomedical industry in North Carolina and the nation,” says Nagle. The U.S. medical technology industry boasts 6,000 companies, $78 billion in production, $17 billion in exports, and a $7 billion trade surplus. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the 300,000 U.S. jobs in the industry will increase by 31.4% through 2010. R&D expenditures in the sector are 13% of sales-over four times the U.S. industrial average. North Carolina is ranked eighth nationally in medical technology businesses, providing a positive outlook for graduates of the new department.

Biomedical engineering will be the focus of the next issue of RESULTS.

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