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Collaborating for kids

Shriners Hospitals for Children and Georgia Tech announce research affiliation

Friday, February 28, 2020
Staff member holding device

You see and want the glass of milk on the table across the room. This is no problem for most of us, who will simply walk to the table, grab the glass and enjoy the milk. Triggering all of that limb movement is a complex set of coordinated neuromuscular commands and actions, which are not so simple for that segment of the population with, say, cerebral palsy or spinal cord injury.

To help young people struggling with those conditions – or orthopaedic problems like clubfoot, scoliosis and osteogenesis imperfecta, among other things – Shriners Hospitals for Children and the Georgia Institute of Technology have launched an ambitious collaborative research effort to address these conditions, including the development of devices to facilitate limb movement and function.

The new research affiliation brings together the clinical, surgical and scientific expertise of Shriners Hospitals for Children physicians and researchers with Georgia Tech’s cutting-edge expertise in biomedical engineering, robotics and device development. The coordinated effort also will leverage the two organizations’ proficiency in big data and artificial intelligence tools for personalized medicine, according to Marc Lalande, Ph.D., vice president of research programs for Shriners Hospitals for Children.

“Our joint goals, through genetic and genomic data gathered by Shriners Hospitals for Children, are to improve patient therapeutic responses by optimizing individualized treatment regimens and reducing adverse events,” Lalande said.

Several joint projects already are underway.

Jaydev Desai, professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University, is working with Scott Kozin, M.D., chief of staff and hand surgeon at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Philadelphia, on a wearable customized robotic exoskeleton with voice recognition for children with cervical spine injury.

“This is a patient-specific system for kids with spinal cord injury,” explained Desai, who is director of the Georgia Center for Medical Robotics and associate director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. “The system is designed to translate voice commands into actions, meaning the exoskeleton will conform to the proper shape and posture of the fingers, so to speak, depending on the task. The idea is to enhance the child’s ability to perform the activities of daily living.”

Dr. Kozin expects his patients with spinal cord injuries will benefit from Georgia Tech’s innovative pediatric prosthesis development – its utility, actuation and dexterity. “Alternative pathways for the recovery of sensation will enhance their function and independence. We are excited about this new collaboration combining institutions with similar missions and visions devoted to improving the lives of children,” said Dr. Kozin, who also is collaborating with Georgia Tech’s Frank Hammond (assistant professor of BME and mechanical engineering) on wearable sensory transfer devices for patients with diminished peripheral sensation or amputations, improving their ability to use intuitively-powered prostheses and orthoses.

Additionally, Aaron Young, assistant professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, is working with David Westberry, M.D., pediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Greenville, on a smart robotic exoskeleton designed to address excessive knee flexion (crouch gait), a condition common in patients with cerebral palsy, which can lead to permanent joint deformity if untreated, as well as reduced independence and locomotion capability.

“The device is basically a lightweight, wearable robot designed to assist physical therapists working on pediatric mobility – the idea is to essentially retrain the child’s neuroplasticity,” said Young, who is testing the device with Dr. Westberry at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Greenville in South Carolina. “The exciting thing about Shriners Hospitals for Children — Greenville is it has an advanced motion analysis center where Shriners’ physicians and researchers are looking at not just the child’s gait, but also at the internal mechanics. It’s very rewarding to collaborate with the Shriners team – they are very quantitative in their approach to treatment.”

That quantitative approach includes the integration of biomedical informatics, big data and artificial intelligence into the clinical research programs of the Shriners Hospitals for Children network of 14 pediatric motion analysis centers and the health care system’s newly launched Genomics Institute. As part of this process, researchers at these 14 pediatric motion analysis centers and at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Genomics Institute are collaborating with Dongmei Wang, professor of BME at Georgia Tech, where she is director of the Biomedical Informatics and Bioimaging (Bio-MIB) Lab.

“This collaboration is extremely important for us because not only have we committed to work on a major national need in youth health, but also because we have been planning to establish a pediatric big data center using advanced IT and AI,” said Wang, whose collaborators at Shriners Hospitals for Children include Gerald Harris, Ph.D., PE, (motion analysis, Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago) and Kamran Shazand (Shriners Hospitals for Children Genomics Institute, Tampa, Florida).

“Our lab has piloted multiple pediatric projects,” Wang said. “But this project represents a quantum leap, taking our work to the next level, in a real-world pediatric care setting. Shriners Hospitals for Children is a perfect fit for us.”

Leanne West, Georgia Tech’s chief engineer of pediatric technologies, said she’s looking forward to, “the unique research opportunities this relationship with Shriners Hospitals for Children will provide. It will be exciting to see what is possible for us to achieve together.”

Patient testing device on treadmillStaff members, patient in background