Bio engineering and how it can help with universal eye health

Posted by Professor Rachel Williams on 06 April 2018

Engineers come in all shapes and sizes

I have been interested in design and in making things from an early age and was always interested in science subjects at school, studying maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level.  My parents were medics, and I became interested in the role of engineering in medical innovation and how it could make a real difference to people’s lives. As an undergraduate student, I had an amazing opportunity to go into an operating theatre and watch open heart surgery. I saw the incredible amount of technology needed to take the blood into a bypass machine with all the pumps, filters, valves and sensors that were required to keep the patient alive while their heart was stopped so that the surgery could be carried out.

I went on to study engineering science at the University of Exeter. I knew that many parts of engineering could be helpful to me in a career in biomedical engineering and so chose not to specialise immediately. We learnt about fluid dynamics which looks at the flow of liquids and gases. Some of my peers used this experience to pursue careers in marine engineering. For me, the same fundamental knowledge was useful in understanding blood flow through artificial blood vessels and replacement heart valves.

Studying metals and corrosion led some of my peers to careers in the steel industry, but it is just as relevant to the design of joint replacements in orthopaedics, for example. Knowing how to design electrical circuits and sensors is a valuable skill in a multitude of industrial settings, as well as in medical diagnosis. An education in engineering opens doors to such a variety of career opportunities. All it takes is your ambition and enthusiasm to apply your knowledge to the area of daily life that interests you the most. In my case, that has involved discovering ways and designing materials to overcome vision loss.

Bioengineering and vision

The loss of vision is very debilitating and has significant and detrimental effects on people and society. Early in my career, I was working on understanding how materials behave when implanted in the human body and an eye surgeon asked me to help improve their treatment of retinal detachment, a condition which occurs when the retina (the layer of tissue on which light is focused) starts to come away from the back of the eye.

This started a long and productive partnership with the clinicians in St Paul’s Eye Unit at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. My clinical colleagues have taught me so much about eyes and vision and how they are influenced by disease and ageing. I have learned how best to explain to them how we can use engineering to develop solutions to their problems. This collaboration has resulted in a new treatment for retinal detachments that is now being used across the world for the benefit of patients.

A career in engineering often involves working in multidisciplinary teams and for me this has led to many exciting opportunities.

In my current position as an EPSRC Engineering for Growth Fellow, I am developing materials that can improve the outcomes for patients with conditions which affect their eye health and sight. One of these is an antimicrobial contact lens which is applied to the eye not to correct vision, but to deliver molecules which can promote the healing of eye damage or fight infection. Another is a gel material which could replace damaged corneas (the transparent front part of the eye). This could allow for more successful surgical outcomes and reduce the waiting time for those who currently have to wait for corneal transplant donations.

I am also working with clinicians and scientists in the UK and India to tackle vision loss, though the development of chemical treatments which can be used to strengthen the cornea.

The future of engineering

Engineering is part of everyday life and one of the aims for the Year of Engineering campaign is to encourage future engineers at an early age. Take a look at any object or structure around you. What is it made of? How is it shaped? Why? Its design and very existence are down to the creativity and work of engineers. These real outcomes are part of what makes a career in engineering so exciting and rewarding. The opportunities will continue to evolve as we respond to changes in society and the environment around us, and work to find new solutions to new challenges. The opportunities are limited only by your imagination.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Rachel Williams
Name: Professor Rachel Williams
Job title: Professor of Eye and Vision Science
Organisation: University of Liverpool

I am a professor of ophthalmic bioengineering with over 20 years of experience in the design and development of advanced materials for medical applications. My expertise lies in the design and characterisation of the bulk and surface properties of materials and how to modify them to optimise the properties for a specific application. I lead cross-disciplinary research projects on tailoring the properties of materials to control cellular responses. I am leading research on strategies to develop innovative ways to modify materials and their surfaces to treat sight threatening conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, surface ocular disorders and retinal detachment.

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