Walking On A Journey To Clinical Reality

Associate Professor Thor Besier and Professor BJ Fregly started working together in the US in 2006, while they were collecting data for what was to become the ‘Grand Knee Challenge’. A competition which encouraged researchers around the world to validate their computational models of the musculoskeletal system to ensure that estimates of muscle and joint contact forces were accurate.

A decade later, the collaboration continues to strengthen despite BJ and Thor being located at the opposite ends of the world – with BJ now at Rice University in Houston and Thor at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute in New Zealand.

One of the factors that brings them together is their complementary expertise around computational modelling, which is not limited by geographical location, says Thor. “Now there is a direct flight from Houston to Auckland – that will make life easier too!” he adds.
“BJ and his team have also always valued my input and contribution from day one, and this made me feel like I was a part of the team. This hasn’t changed since and it has been a great collaboration.”

BJ and Thor are currently working together on a project to quantify the gait patterns of patients while they are at home to develop more effective personalised rehabilitation programmes. This work involves patients with conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s Disease and osteoarthritis. Traditional approaches for assessing a patient’s walking ability and customising their rehabilitation programme require them to make repeated visits to the clinic. This is expensive and time-consuming for patients, clinicians and the healthcare system. In addition, most patient rehabilitation occurs in their daily environment, and not in the clinical setting.

The system that BJ and Thor are developing will involve patients wearing small and lightweight inertial measurement units, which will quantify their movement as patients go about their daily routines. This data, which can be logged by a family member or caregiver using a tablet device, will be sent to a clinician. The clinician will be able to view and provide feedback to the patient in real-time about how they can alter their gait in order to optimise their rehab. The US-NZ duo were recently awarded a USD$350,000 grant by the National Science Foundation in the US for proof of concept studies.

This project is one of the foundation pieces of work underpinning the development of an academic portal between NZ and Houston. Rice University is located at the Texas Medical Centre in Houston, one of the largest medical complex in the world. Earlier this year, the MedTech CoRE and Callaghan Innovation led a fact-finding mission to the Texas Medical Centre to investigate opportunities for collaboration on medical research and product development, and pave the way for New Zealand medtech companies to scale up and bring their innovation to international markets. One of the outcomes of the mission was to formalise relationships with various stakeholders to support this vision.

By Kanmani Nbalasubramaniam

Thor with two of his children (Teo and Frida) and BJ