MERF research

Our research vision is to help create a better and fairer future for healthcare by bringing cutting-edge physics, medicine, and the humanities together.

Imagine a ‘future medicine’, not far out of reach, in which guided nanorockets will rebuild diseased and damaged tissue, robot-guided lasers and light fields will perform new precision surgeries, and new physics, engineering and materials science will let us tackle healthcare problems we don’t even know we have.  In this future billions of people have access to healthcare currently the privilege of just one per cent of the planet’s population.  In it healthcare will provide, first and foremost, the quality of life that underpins people’s freedom and depth in their own experiences, and in their contributions to society.

We can help to create this future by bringing medicine back together with the cutting edge of physics and engineering, and back together with the humanities. Reuniting with physics will provide the tools for this future.  Reuniting with the humanities will challenge us to make the right kind of future, and to build it in the right way.

This idea is of course not new. For hundreds of years from the Renaissance to the early 20th century, engineering and medicine had always progressed together; advancement in medicine was wedded to those in physics and engineering.  Perhaps the most striking example of this is nineteenth century German physician and physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz.  His enormous contributions to electromagnetism, thermodynamics, mechanics and acoustics enabled new technology for his revolution in ophthalmology, and grew our understanding of nerve conduction, hearing and vision. One hundred and sixty years later, we are still using versions of his instruments.

The more recent divergence of expertise between these two fields has opened a chasm in technological frontiers.  There is no longer a Thomas Young advancing fundamental physics and applying that understanding to the human body.  Nor is there a Robert Hooke developing pioneering instruments and exploring their potential for medical and biological application.  Instead we have remarkable work in physical sciences and incredible technological advancements yet limited application in medicine.

The Medical Engineering and Research Facility seeks to fill this gap, applying the basic principles of the enlightenment to create an environment that reforges the links between medicine, physics and engineering, and with the philosophical questions that drive them.  It will support research and development of the highest intellectual calibre to change the way we perform, and think, about medicine.

Located on the site of a nationally leading hospital and supported by a technology-focussed university, MERF already delivers outstanding training from its world-class cadaveric facility and facilitates research from its boutique, high-performance biological research unit.  In 2021-2025 we are building research and development capacity, providing platform programmes from which to launch the next generation of healthcare technologies:

  • Rockets will provide radically new ways to interact with patients on the fundamental scales at which their bodies operate, weaving tissues back together and building new ones.
  • Light, through advances in photonics, biophysics and laser science will bring a new level of precision to diagnosis and treatment, from neural stimulation to rebuilding bones.
  • Nanostructured Materials of the natural world will inform a new generation of high-performance materials for medicine, revolutionising sensing and treatment.
  • Robotics and bionics will provide the platforms for completely new approaches to surgery, and allow us to take advanced healthcare to remote and vulnerable communities around Australia and the world.

In pursuit of our vision we must also ask questions beyond the medical and technological. How, why, where, and for whom should we create and apply our new tools?  Who are we really helping, and are these the people we really need to help?  Our second goal is therefore to create a Colloquium for the Ethical Advancement of Medicine to reduce the suffering associated with medical research; deliver immediate impact through simple, low-cost technologies; and address how and where we apply it. Together, we can help to create a future that is not just better, but fairer.

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