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Professor Improving Joint Replacements With $2 Million Grant

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Lorne Fultonberg


Lorne Fultonberg


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Kevin Shelburne

One of the most common sources of discomfort for U.S. senior citizens is osteoarthritis (OA). The “wear and tear” chronic joint condition frequently requires knee and hip replacements just to mediate the pain, stiffness and swelling. According to Kevin Shelburne, a research professor at the Ritchie School of Engineering & Computer Science, the treatment is largely effective: only 5–10 percent of patients are dissatisfied with the surgery.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” Shelburne says, “until you consider that there are 860,000 of these [surgeries] every year.”

And considering that OA already affects 30 million Americans — a figure expected to rise with an increasingly obese and elderly population — Shelburne knows there is room to improve the metal or plastic pieces inserted to reduce pain.

Kevin Shelburne
Kevin Shelburne

With a nearly $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and state-of-the-art facilities at the University of Denver, Shelburne and a team of researchers are working toward a better solution. The goal is to create a new computer model of humans and their movement, providing joint replacement designers the information they need to build a better product.

Current computer software shows a simple representation of the muscles, bones and other tissues of the human body. These models simulate a single generic person and predict the impact various forces and movements will have on the joints.

“If you had computer models that were sophisticated enough and could represent a range in population, it could go a long way toward helping develop new treatments,” Shelburne says. “What we want to do is add more realism to the models. We want something that’s actually representing the true geometry, the deformability of the muscle. And not just the muscle but the ligaments as well, the tendons and some of the fat.”

Any solution must be multiscale, Shelburne says, meaning it must examine the way various parts of the body interact. “You can have a very small injury in your knee or hip or shoulder, and it’s going to affect your whole body motion,” he says. Pain in one area can cause a person to overcompensate and change the way they move, he adds. That adjustment must be taken into account.

To build these sophisticated models and make accurate predictions, Shelburne says his team needs a large data set. That’s where DU’s Center for Orthopaedic Biomechanics and its Human Dynamics Lab come in. Their complex network of cameras and computer technology can capture the particularities of movement like few others can.

Aiding Shelburne in his efforts are faculty members Paul Rullkoetter, Peter Laz, Casey MyersBrad Davidson and Chadd Clary.

“We all cross into each other’s areas quite a bit,” Shelburne says, “and we know how computer models and data must work together. But we also each have specific expertise to bring to the project. It’s going to take all of us and a large team of graduate students and postdocs to make it happen.”

The NIH grant spans four years, which, Shelburne says, will allow the flexibility to pursue the avenues that the research demands. Since cutting-edge research often has unforeseen challenges and opportunities, the grant will enable Shelburne and his colleagues to focus squarely on the public good. Ultimately, the team hopes to produce a data set that can be shared with the public, allowing other labs to work on solving similar problems.

“One thing everyone struggles with is complete data sets to build these models with,” he says. “We’re going to try to make the data and the models themselves available, so that other institutions don’t have to start from scratch. They can grab the model and try to make improvements and tune it to whatever clinical problem they have.”