Engineers put bones together in new lab

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Screwdrivers, socket wrenches and cans of 3-in-1 oil litter the counters.

No, this isn't a scene from your local garage. These are some of the tools to be found in the new Orthopedic Engineering Research Laboratory.

"Orthopedic surgery can sometimes be viewed as carpentry for the body," says lab director Thomas Oxland, an associate professor of Orthopedics and Mechanical Engineering. "As orthopedic engineers, our role is to develop the best tools and methods to help the surgeons."

Researchers at the lab aim to devise better treatments for bone and joint problems.

"This lab is a long-standing dream for our department," says Dr. Clive Duncan, head of the Dept. of Orthopedics. "Having a dedicated unit will allow us to fulfill many of our research goals."

A partnership of UBC's faculties of Medicine and Applied Science and the Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre, the lab covers about 225 square metres in a newly converted site at Vancouver General Hospital.

Large rooms flooded with natural light contain the lab's first equipment purchases. These include equipment to simulate joint movement and the pressures or loads on joints and an opto-electronic camera system to precisely measure joint motion.

On almost every surface of the lab are segments of fractured bone held together with wire, pins or metal implants and skeletal models of feet, hips, shoulders, knees and the spine.

Researchers also experiment with plastics and ceramics to repair damaged joints.

Oxland was instrumental in designing a device called a spinal cage which holds together fractured or degenerated vertebrae.

Made of titanium, the cage ranges in length from 20-30 millimetres and is about the diameter of a ballpoint pen. It can be inserted into the spine without the major surgical invasion of a bone graft from the hip which was the previous remedy.

Researchers are also looking at how to stabilize a fractured bone that already holds an implant.

Screws to hold the fracture would disrupt the implant so researchers experiment with alternative methods while mechanically duplicating the stress the joint.

"This area of research is amazingly interdisciplinary," says Oxland. "To solve orthopedic problems we use the expertise of biomechanical engineers, physicists and doctors."

Engineering graduate students participate in orthopedic grand rounds with physicians to better understand the problems patients and surgeons face.

Among the many devices pioneered by UBC orthopedic researchers are antibiotic-impregnated cement used in hip and knee implants to treat infections. Researchers also developed the first microprocessor-controlled automatic tourniquet system for surgery.

A Canada Foundation for Innovation grant recently funded the purchase of equipment for a study of reconstruction of massive skeletal defects. These range from joint deterioration due to osteoporosis to polyethylene implants worn out over time.

A Natural Science and Engineering Research Council grant funds the lab's study of cervical spine injuries.