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NU Prosthetics-Orthotics Center Integrates Research and Education

The Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center (NUPOC) recently moved from two floors in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to 680 North Lake Shore Drive. The new location will allow for greater cross-fertilization between the education and research arms of the center, which has completely absorbed the Northwestern University Prosthetics Research Laboratory.

“During the past few years, we’ve made progress operationally and administratively toward greater integration between our two missions,” says Steven Gard, PhD, research associate professor in the Feinberg School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PMR) and executive director of NUPOC. “We’re excited about the opportunities that will occur as a result of increased communication between our research and teaching faculty.”

Moving forward, Gard visualizes all NUPOC faculty having some level of involvement in both education and research efforts. “Ideally, educators will help steer research, since they are current with clinical practice. By doing so, NUPOC educators influence the direction of our research program, while staying informed about cutting-edge research,” he says.

Gard serves as director of the center’s Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Chicago Motion Analysis Research Laboratory, the hub for most of NUPOC’s research. The newly designed and equipped lab uses advanced technology to characterize human movement.

“The Motion Analysis Lab contains complex systems for measuring pressure, effort, and force as they relate to standing, walking, reaching, and grasping, and the corresponding utilization of prosthetics and orthotics devices for these activities,” says Gard. “It’s really at the heart of our research activity.”

While the center performs dozens of studies simultaneously, all of its research aims to achieve one of two objectives: to better understand how prostheses and orthoses assist human movement; or to improve technology to increase functionality for people with prostheses and orthoses.

Returning Farmers to the Fields

One NUPOC study attempts to assess and respond to the unique prosthetic needs of farmers and ranchers. Working with the National AgrAbility Project, Gard and co-principal investigator Stefania Fatone, PhD, research assistant professor of PMR, aim to provide disabled farmers and ranchers with more independence and the ability to return to work.

“Farmers and ranchers suffer a great deal of accidents, yet they remain an underserved group due to their geographic isolation and need for durable limbs that can withstand weather conditions and chemicals,” Gard says.

Now in the early stages of the five-year grant, NUPOC researchers Kathy Waldera, MS, and Craig Heckathorne, MS, are gathering information to identify the major issues for this demographic, such as: Are different prostheses needed for farm versus city use? How are farmers’ current prostheses breaking or failing?

A Better Prosthesis for Soldiers

The center recently embarked on a new United States Department of Defense (DoD)-funded grant that aims to further the development of more functional prostheses for highly active above-the-knee amputees. Current prosthetic socket designs encase the hip joint and portion of the pelvis, limiting range of motion at the hip and compromising comfort.

“The military would like to offer wounded soldiers the opportunity to return to service in some capacity,” says Fatone, adding that service persons have higher expectations for post-amputation function since they are generally young and in excellent health prior to their injury.