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UNM students design rehabilitation devices

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — This fall, 20 University of New Mexico graduate students are designing new rehabilitation devices to help patients recover from things like strokes, trauma and other injuries.

Four student teams are designing four different products: new exoskeletons for post-operative rehabilitation; flexible sockets for lower-extremity prothesis to allow patients to begin physical therapy earlier; tools to eliminate or reduce pressure ulcers for immobile patients in beds or wheelchairs; and a mobile system for immediate diagnosis of concussions.

The Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office, will help with patent protection and potential commercialization once the designs are complete at the end of the semester. And in December, the teams will compete for $50,000 in funding to build a prototype of their design, with judges from the UNM Health Sciences Center, the School of Engineering, STC and the business community.

It’s all part of the university’s Biodesign course, begun three years ago as a partnership between Health Sciences and the engineering school to give students hands-on training in innovation and design that applies engineering skills to medical problems, said Christina Salas, an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation with a joint appointment in mechanical engineering.

“The goal is to present a new clinical focus each year to the students,” Salas said. “This year, we chose a clinical focus in physical therapy and rehabilitation.”

Faculty from both Health Sciences and engineering guide each team of students, and many continue to work with the students on potentially promising designs after the semester ends, said Health Sciences Executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Richard Larson.

“The program teaches our students and faculty to be better innovators and inventors, which can lead to more discoveries over time to improve health and health care,” Larson said. “As a result, we now have some new inventions in the pipeline that could impact health.”

The effort by Health Sciences and engineering faculty began about five years ago with funding from the UNM’s Clinical and Translational Science Center.

“We put engineers and clinical faculty together in small teams to brainstorm on ideas that would then be pared down over months to focus on the most promising ones for funding,” Larson said. “We did that for several years just with faculty, and then we decided to move it into the classroom with student teams who compete with each other.”

Students in the Biodesign program, who come from many departments across campus, have created a variety of products in the last couple of years. That includes, among others, a new clamp or pressure device to reduce hemorrhaging in severe pelvic injuries, and a lifting device, now dubbed the “banana lift,” that allows emergency medical teams to more easily move extremely overweight patients of 400 pounds or more, Salas said.

“The course benefits students from many different engineering and clinical disciplines through applied design engineering,” Salas said. “It can also directly influence surgical or clinical practices with new, low-cost technologies that can be applied in the field.”

This year, program coordinators partnered with the Lovelace UNM Rehabilitation Hospital, run as a partnership between Lovelace Health System and the UNM Health System, to help student teams assess clinical problems they could work on.

Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation assistant professor Rebecca Dutton led students on a visit to the hospital early this semester to interview physical therapists and nurses to learn about patient needs. Dutton will also lead the process of helping the winning student team test its new design in a clinical setting after the semester ends.

“One of the goals in rehabilitation is promoting function and independence,” Dutton said in a statement. “That will hopefully be the underlying goal of any design solutions.”

UNM faculty, along with staff from Lovelace UNM, helped this year’s student teams focus on urgent needs and feasible solutions. That helped them whittle the list of potential product designs from 11 initial ideas to four concrete projects, Salas said.

Each team will do a written proposal on its product design, which is then sent to the STC for provisional patent protection. The teams will compete for funding in end-of-semester oral presentations. The winning team’s $50,000 award is funded by the Clinical and Translational Science Center and the School of Engineering.

“The winning team will use the money to develop a full prototype and test it,” Salas said. “In that process, the goal is to build enough preliminary data to seek additional funding to continue working. The STC will also reach out to investors to help move the product into commercialization.”

Larson called the program’s focused, problem-solving approach a “hallmark” of research under way at UNM. The university has pumped about $1.5 billion into research in the life sciences in the past decade.

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