Just about the time Alexander Winchell, a professor of physics and civil engineering, stepped into a classroom and taught the first engineering class at the University of Michigan, a middle-aged woman by the name of Lydia E. Pinkham was 1,000 miles to the east, throwing herbs and alcohol into a pot on her kitchen stove. The year was 1854. For the University of Michigan, it was the beginning of a new chapter in education and research. For Pinkham, a pioneer in the pursuit of women's health and social rights, it was the start of a new phase in women's health care, because she was brewing an elixir that would become the most successful patent medicine of the century, and would have profound effects on women and women's health care. She didn't have an inkling that engineering would do more for her cause than her home brew ever would.
She never could've envisioned engineering professor Mohamed El-Sayed developing "smart particles" that enter cancer cells to deliver therapeutic drugs, killing the diseased cells without damaging the healthy cells nearby. Nor could she have foreseen the work of biomedical engineering professor Shu Takayama, who's investigating technology to reduce the burden on women during in vitro fertilization procedures. "We hope that better pregnancy rates will reduce the burden on women and improve the health of embryos, which will lead to healthier babies," Takayama said. Turning to another topic, he asked, "Why do women die from breast cancer? In most cases, it's because the tumor metastasizes to other parts of the body -- that's when the tumor really becomes deadly. If we could understand how tumor cells move through the blood stream to other organs and develop methods to stop the process, we could prevent metastasis and help cure breast cancer. We developed a microfluidic model of breast cancer metastasis. Now we can watch cancer cells flow through an engineered blood vessel to sites of metastasis. The model has allowed identification of new targets for anti-metastasis drugs."
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was as unsophisticated as the doctors of her day -- they believed that almost all of women's sicknesses arose from their reproductive organs. Surgeons removed healthy ovaries for little or no reason -- a practice that had a mortality rate as high as 40 percent. So despite Pinkham's naiveté and the artless nature of her potion, when it burst on to the scene, offering an alternative to those barbaric practices, it flew off the shelves.
One hundred and fifty years ago, women pinned their hopes for better health care on an elixir that resembled a witch's brew more than it did medicine. Today their hopes lie with technology so complex and so incomprehensible to the average Joe and Jane that it too appears to be magic.
Read more about engineering and women’s health care:
Biomechanical analyses of anterior vaginal wall prolapse: MRI and computer modeling studies
Effect of Ultrasound on Penetration of Nanoparticles into Breast Cancer Spheroids
Experimental and Computational Analysis of Cancer Signaling Networks
Development of a Surgical Thermal Management System for the Elimination of Collateral Tissue Damage
Innovation for Women's Health -- the new MRI breast scanner
Platform Technology to Develop a Topical Cream to Treat Breast Pain
FDA Critical Path Initiative Can Advance Women's Health Through Modern Research and Analysis Methods