The mechanics of biology: a discussion with Professor Peter Lee

“I was fascinated,” Professor Peter Lee, Department of Mechanical Engineering says of the guest lecturer who inspired his PhD in biomechanical engineering. “I suddenly realised I could apply the mechanical skills acquired in my undergraduate degree to biology.”

Today, Professor Lee is widely recognised for his work in biomechanics and rehabilitation engineering. “Once you understand the properties of muscles, bones and tissues you can do a lot,” he explains, “For example, when you start to understand why materials fail you can make advances in injury prevention. When you understand the interface between biological materials and artificial materials you can repair damage with things such as prosthetics and implants. There is even the potential to build new tissues.”

The application of this expertise has wide-ranging impact.

Professor Lee’s training in bioengineering put him in good stead to lead the Bioengineering Program at DSO National Laboratories in Singapore. Here he developed a substantial research program to apply biomechanical principles to augment performance and protect soldiers who were subjected to extreme environments.

Moving to the University of Melbourne in 2008, Professor Lee has worked across a number of research projects in the biomechanical engineering space.

In 2014, in collaboration with Dr George Dimitroulis and Dr David Ackland, Professor Lee was part of a team that engineered a customised, 3D printed titanium jaw implant that was successfully fitted to a patient. This combination of engineering, surgical expertise and 3D printing technology will transform the production of replacement joints into the future.

Professor Peter Lee , helping amputees walk in Vietnam

Most recently, Professor Lee has revolutionised prosthetics to provide low cost, high quality services and rehabilitation for patients. This will have a direct impact on lower limb amputees world-wide, particularly in at-risk communities impacted by landmines, high incidents of motor vehicle accidents and natural disasters like earthquakes. A short video on this work can be found here.

From successfully implanting a new jaw to equipping military helmets with more effective protection from traumatic brain injuries, Professor Lee’s work has had a profound impact on many patients.

He understands that while not every issue can be solved, life can be improved. “Take for example a patient who can’t walk,” Professor Lee explains, “They may never walk properly again but perhaps we can help them to walk ten steps. Those ten steps give them hope and those ten steps give the researchers involved hope. And maybe the eleventh step will come in a few years. We need to celebrate these incremental advances.”

“It can be a long process,” Professor Lee acknowledges. “We are in the lab, translating research and making small steps. But when you see a patient benefiting from your research, it’s worth it. It means a lot more than the many papers you’ve had published.”

Professor Lee will be giving a public lecture on Tuesday March 22 at the Woodward Conference Centre on Engineering Limbs. Register here.