An award from the National Science Foundation will fund research by a University of Kansas School of Engineering doctoral student that could lead to improved treatment for adolescents suffering from scoliosis.
Nikki Johnson, a graduate student in bioengineering, recently received a three-year, $90,000 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
“I’ve wanted to do research on scoliosis for a really long time, because when I was 12, I had spinal fusion for scoliosis,” Johnson said. “When I got into biomedical engineering, I became really interested in orthopedics. I thought scoliosis research would be really helpful. The treatments have gotten better since I went through it, but the products can still be improved.”
Scoliosis is a painful and debilitating condition where a person’s spine curves from side to side, leading to a twisting of the rib cage, added pressure on internal organs and stunted growth.
Johnson said there are only two treatment options widely available to scoliosis patients: wearing a brace or fusing vertebrae together. Johnson said bracing severely limits movement and is typically a short-term solution. Spinal fusion involves melding a portion of the patient’s spinal column into what amounts to one conjoined bone. The goal of Johnson’s research is to make improvements to the fusion process for adolescents.
“Only one device is cleared by the FDA to be used on adolescents,” Johnson said. “If you’re still growing and they fuse you, you can’t really grow anymore. Your legs can grow, but you’re upper body can’t.”
Johnson’s research will focus on two groups of adolescents: those with scoliosis, and those who do not suffer from the disease. Each person in each group will be attached to sensors that create an elaborate digital image of spinal movements. Each person is asked to bend forward and back, left and right, and to twist. Johnson will then study the computer models to compare the maximum range and different angles of movement of the two groups.
"That will help us determine just how a child with scoliosis is different from a child who doesn’t have it,” she said. “These children are the same height, same age, the only variable is scoliosis, so seeing those differences in movement can help lead to better product development to fix it.”
Johnson is working with fellow bioengineering graduate student Erin Lewis, who is developing a physical spine model that can serve as a testing ground for the data collected through the research with the adolescent groups. Johnson said one of the biggest challenges is developing accurate models of a scoliosis patient’s spine when each case can have wide variations.
“We’re hoping to make the model modular, so that it will work with all the different types and locations that spinal curves can occur,” Johnson said. “If we can make the curve different, or where it is on the spine, we can just switch out parts to make it work. From there, the hope is that when companies develop a product they say should work on an adolescent spine, they can put it on our model, test it out and make sure it works. Then we hope to see it used as a standard testing device, so the FDA can approve more devices for adolescents.”
Johnson is conducting her research under the guidance of Lisa Friis, associate professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the program track in biomedical product design and development in the bioengineering program in the School of Engineering.
“Nikki is an incredibly bright, energetic, and motivated student,” Friis said. “Her personal experience and work in the medical device industry gives us more insight on this project. Nikki is a wonderful addition to our lab team. I have no doubt that she will be successful in her future career and help many people through her work.”