Engineering the Human Body
They say health is wealth, and where your body is concerned, NTU researchers have found in engineering, science and their imagination the answers to everything from eye problems and clogged vessels to a broken heart
By Lester Kok

“The human body is like the engine of a car,” says NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson. “You go to the garage now to get spare parts for your car. Maybe in future, you get spare parts for cells. Many health problems – deemed to be death sentences 20 years ago – can now be solved with the help of medical devices.”

At NTU, the interface between medicine, engineering and technology has proven to be fertile ground for clinical breakthroughs such as drug-releasing stents and a healing bandage made from human hair.

“We recently started human trials on a fully biodegradable plug as a remedy for congenital hole-in-the-heart cases. The plug encourages natural cell growth to eventually cover the hole,” says NTU’s Provost, Prof Freddy Boey, whose breakthrough commercial biomedical applications over the years have put Singapore – and NTU – on the world map.

Across the campus, other novel solutions are being presented and turned into actual healing aids. NTU’s new medical school will further boost these eff orts that are fast blurring the distinction between fiction and reality.

"Singapore's population is ageing and there is a demand for better and more sophisticated medical devices and equipment. Doctors working with engineers – that’s the most powerful combination for yielding futuristic devices and solutions that prolong or save lives,” says Prof Andersson.

Red-eye no more
By: Prof Mary Chan, Chair, School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering

This anti-bacterial coating prevents eye infections caused by wearing contact lenses. Easily coated onto any material, it kills bacteria and fungus by using nano-sized pores to tear their cell walls apart. It is now being applied to contact lenses and animal care products and can be coated onto medical devices such as catheters to minimise the risk of infection.

Fixing a broken heart

By: NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey and Prof Subbu Venkatraman, Chair, School of Materials Science & Engineering
Start-up company: AdComp

This double-umbrella device patches a hole in the heart. It travels to the heart via a thin wire and opens up like an umbrella on each side of the hole, clamping and sealing it. Made of biocompatible material, it dissolves in due time and leaves nothing except a healthy heart wall in its place.

Patchwork belly
By: NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey
Start-up company: Medlinx Acacia

Hernias or holes in the abdominal wall are a pain in the gut, especially when the intestines protrude, causing a lump to stick out of the belly. To patch up such tears, which can be caused by injury, pregnancy and ageing, Prof Boey came up with a new type of hernia mesh. Made from a unique material called PVDF, this mesh has been approved for sale by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The mesh lowers the risk of inflammation and infection, while staying strong over a longer period of time as compared to conventional meshes.

Opening up blocked vessels
By: NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey and Prof Subbu Venkatraman, Chair, School of Materials Science & Engineering
Start-up company: Amaranth Medical

When blood vessels are clogged up by fatty plague build-up, the flow of blood slows to a trickle and may cause a heart attack. Stents are then used to widen the passage, allowing more blood to pass. However, typical metal stents carry risks of reblockage and rejection by the body. Enter the biocompatible and biodegradable polymer stent from NTU which not only lowers the chance of rejection, but also disappears once the job is done. Newer versions of this biodegradable stent can also be coated with drugs, to treat the blood vessel while widening it, killing two birds with one stent. The stents are now undergoing human trials in Colombia to unblock coronary arteries.

Your blood can predict heart attacks
By: Asst Prof Newman Sze, School of Biological Sciences
Start-up company: Amaranth Medical

Doctors now rely on blood pressure and body mass index to predict the chances of a heart attack or stroke. However, a team led by Asst Prof Sze has found a more precise indication. In our blood stream are certain proteins, known as biomarkers, which when detected in large quantities, indicate a higher possibility of a heart attack or stroke. Asst Prof Sze is now working towards choosing the best biomarkers to make a detection kit tailored for Asians.

Snipping stomach tumours with a pincer
By: Assoc Prof Louis Phee, School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
Start-up company: EndoMaster

Small stomach tumours can be removed in minutes without any scars with this pair of mini-pincers that enters through the mouth to reach cancerous growths in the stomach.

Pumping above its weight
By: NTU Provost Prof Freddy Boey
Licensed to: Orqis Medical

Prof Boey invented the world’s smallest heart pump to keep the blood flowing, giving overworked hearts a break. Despite weighing only 50 grams, this small pump is able to take on most of the pumping load from the strained heart, giving it time to recover. Since it is so slim, it can also be slipped into the body without open heart surgery, sparing the patient unsightly scars.

Virtual twist on your spine
By: Prof Teoh Swee Hin, School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering

To repair fractured spine segments, doctors have been using bone cement to seal up the cracks. With this virtual spine developed at NTU, doctors can now better predict the flow of cement to improve treatment for patients.

Developing your virtual hip
By: Prof Nadia Thalmann, Director, Institute for Media Innovation

Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, motion capture sensors and a specialised computer programme, a 3D model of hip joints can be made so doctors can better visualise and diagnose problems. Prof Thalmann is now working with professors from the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine to build a database of virtual patients so students can use them for learning real-life physiological conditions.

Healing patches made from your hair
By: Asst Prof Ng Kee Woei, School of Materials Science & Engineering

Made from human hair, these healing patches and gels mimic the natural structure of the scab that usually forms after an injury to the skin. Besides protecting the chronic wounds of diabetic patients and skin wounds of burn victims, they speed up the healing process.

Goodbye to daily eye drops
By: Prof Subbu Venkatraman, Chair, School of Materials Science & Engineering

One for glaucoma patients, this single painless injection does the trick of reducing eye pressure for up to three months. Here, nano-sized particles are used to release a drug slowly over time to combat glaucoma, a disease where the optic nerve is damaged by high eye pressure. Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in Singapore.

Security bugs to protect your gut
By: Asst Prof Matthew Chang and Asst Prof Poh Chueh Loo, School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering

Bad bacteria hide in the body until they have enough in numbers to become a full-blown infection. Such pathogens include Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause a variety of infections and is resistant to antibiotics. However, with the new “suicide bomber” bioengineered by the two NTU assistant professors, the end of the nasty super bugs is near. The professors took a common strain of E coli and turned them into P Aeruginosa killers. When the modifed E coli meets the nasty super bug, it bursts open with killing molecules, taking down the bad bug.