Shriner’s Hospital photo
mobility A RACE FOR
Children with orthopaedic disabilities are benefiting from novel treatments and devices thanks to the Marquette-based Tech4POD partnership. By April Beane
It was a child with cerebral palsy who set Dr. Gerald Harris on his career path. Harris was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who had just served five years in the Marines when an interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the then-emerging field of biomedical engineering brought him to Marquette in the mid-1970s. Using his background in mechanical engineering, he soon realized he could develop assistive devices to help children with mobility issues. “I was working with these children, and my heart went out to them. Surgeons were telling me I could make a difference,” he recalls. “You think about it from the perspective of what the patients need. And the more you know about technology, the more you’re increasing the probability that you’ll form a linkage between technology and improved care.” For more than three decades, Harris has made pediatric orthopaedic research his life’s work. After a stint at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Chicago, he returned to Marquette in 1987 15 // Tech4Pod
Dr. Gerald Harris
and now is a professor of biomedical engineering and directs the university’s Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Engineering Center. Harris is the principal investigator on a $4.75 million federal grant that funds a newly designated national Rehabilitation Engineering Resource Center headquartered at Marquette. The center focuses on addressing the needs of children with cerebral palsy, clubfoot, spina bifida, spinal cord injury, brittle bone disease, and other conditions that cause mobility and manipulation problems. The partnership, called Tech4POD, includes the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Shriner’s Hospital in Chicago, both places where Harris has done extensive research and holds joint appointments, as well as the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
The engineer-clinician connection The collaboration is critical, according to Dr. Peter Smith, an orthopaedic surgeon at Shriner’s. “Engineers need the clinicians. That’s
what makes our relationship unique,” he says. “(Harris) is always getting information from us regarding what patients’ needs are to improve the care. That’s the basis for his research.” The Tech4POD grant, which includes four research and four development projects, will involve 1,500 patients during a five-year period. “Some of the processes we use have never been definitively studied or applied to patients,” Harris says. “We want to design better devices and improved protocols that will help alert doctors, therapists, caregivers and family members of joint (or bone) overload concerns. The intent is to have an impact in modifying activities and treatments to improve functional activities and quality of life.” Those devices will include the development of an elliptical machine to improve neuromuscular control and stability in children. Other development projects are a novel pediatric robotic gait trainer; a biplanar (3-D) fluoroscopic imaging system that will allow researchers to see the internal motion of the bones inside the foot; and a customized