The 5 Top Bioengineering Trends of 2021

June 2, 2021 • Devin Partida


Biomedicine and bioengineering have often been at the cutting edge of health care. Major breakthroughs from the field — like X-rays, biosensors, IVF and cell therapies — sometimes change how doctors approach patient care in general.

Today, several new trends are reshaping the bioengineering industry. They may have a significant impact on the direction health care research takes over the next few years.

These are some of the most important new developments in bioengineering — and how care providers may use them in the near future.

1. Surgical Robotics

A new wave of robotics innovations is having a major impact across various industries. In bioengineering, AI-assisted surgical robots are providing valuable support to surgeons in the operating room.

While surgical robots have existed for decades, these new models come with AI algorithms that can provide improved support to surgeons. For example, AI-powered smoothing algorithms reduce jitters or noise in the recording of a surgeon’s hand movement, allowing for extremely careful and precise translation of their trajectory.

In some cases, robots can conduct surgery entirely on their own. The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) performed better than people in “a series of ex vivo and in vivo tasks” — all without any human intervention. It used an AI algorithm and data from a set of visual and haptic sensors to perform the operations. 

2. Telesurgery

Beyond offering improved precision and reduced recovery time, robotics could also enable the use of telesurgery or remote surgery. 

With telesurgery, the surgeon controls a robot at another medical facility using a high-speed internet connection. The telesurgery robot closely follows the hand movements or inputs of the doctor, enabling them to operate on a patient from hundreds of miles away.

Telesurgery robots have been on the market for decades, but they’ve never been widely used. In most cases, they simply weren’t practical due to the high cost of robotics and the dangers that latency could pose for patients. New telesurgery robots, enabled by improved internet infrastructure and technology like AI, could be different. Some models connected to surgeons via 5G have already been used in trial surgeries on cadavers.

Like telemedicine, telesurgery has the potential to greatly improve the accessibility of specialized medicine. Patients in need of surgery wouldn’t need to commute to a world-renowned hospital for treatments that are only available from a handful of doctors. Instead, they may be able to travel to a local hospital outfitted with the proper robotics.

3. Artificial Intelligence in Medical Imaging

Artificial intelligence is also having a significant impact on bioengineering and medicine in general. The technology is broadly applicable, making it a great fit for researchers looking to improve existing technologies, like biomedical image systems.

AI technology was put into experimental practice during the COVID-19 pandemic when radiologists were overwhelmed by the amount of chest CT scans from patients they needed to analyze. New AI algorithms, trained on data from historical CT scans, were used in various hospitals and research environments as an assistive technology. They supported doctors by highlighting potential areas of interest in chest scans and suggesting diagnoses.

According to a meta-analysis published in Nature, these algorithms were, on average, highly accurate — correctly classifying CT scans 90.8% of the time.

The same underlying AI technology can also improve the practice of creating CT scans and other medical imaging. For example, one research team has used AI algorithms to optimize radiation doses, patient positioning and acquisition parameters in CT scans, decreasing the overall radiation necessary to create a clear result. 

The approach also improves the accuracy of scans and could help reduce the risk of error in CT examinations. This could eliminate the need for follow-ups in some cases. Different AI algorithms could offer similar results in other biomedical imaging methods, helping to minimize the impact of imaging while maximizing patient benefits.

4. Bioprinting and Tissue Engineering

Bioprinting or biofabrication technology is similar to 3D printing, the additive manufacturing method that creates objects from plastic filament. However, instead of plastic, bioprinting uses “bioinks” made up of active human cells and sometimes encased in stabilizing materials. Other biologically active particles, like proteins, DNA, growth factors and drug particles, may also be used.

A specialized bioprinter deposits these cells and particles precisely into thin layers, which can create tissues. With the help of support structures, these tissues can come together to form new, bioartificial organs. The technology could be used in the future to supply artificial organs to patients without the need for a donor.

It’s more likely that this engineering will be used to support burn victims before artificial organs become practical. Many scientists see the artificial tissue produced by bioprinting as a good potential alternative to autologous skin grafting, the process of transplanting healthy skin over burn wounds. 

Researchers have already developed a handheld bioprinting tool designed especially for care providers in burn wards. The device deposits layers of skin tissue on wounds, helping to accelerate the healing process. 

The team behind the device hopes it will serve as a replacement for skin grafts, which are often unhelpful in treating especially large burns.

5. Medical VR

Over the past few years, researchers have been working to apply virtual reality — technology that uses visual displays and motion controllers to transport users to digital environments — to medicine. For example, care providers are experimenting with the use of VR in treating Alzheimer’s patients. 

These patients often have limited mobility, which makes it hard for them to access new stimuli — usually provided in the form of day trips and time spent outdoors — which is positively correlated with an improvement in Alzheimer’s symptoms. Medical VR programs can transport patients to a virtual environment, offering them new stimuli that, in one study, helped them recover old memories and improved their quality of life. 

The technology is still experimental but could be an essential tool for care providers working with patients with limited mobility. While day trips may not always be possible, virtual outings could be a viable option.

How New Technology Is Reshaping Bioengineering

Major innovations from outside the bioengineering world — like AI, new robotics, 3D printing and VR — could significantly impact biomedicine and health care in the next few years.

Technology like AI-assisted CT scan analysis, bioartificial organs and telesurgery has the potential to radically reshape how care providers approach medical practice. While some of these technologies are still highly experimental, others — like AI medical imaging — may become standard in the near future.

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