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Researchers in lab setting with prosthetic leg and foot brace
Researchers in lab setting with prosthetic leg and foot brace
Dr. Randy Schmitz, Sam Seyedin, and Dr. Sandra Shultz discuss next steps for their prototype.

Dr. Sandra Shultz’s research focuses on what may be humanity’s most problematic joint: the knee. 

Of specific interest to Shultz – and to many trainers, therapists, and physicians – is the condition of the knee’s ligaments.

Currently, Shultz and her collaborators are developing a new device to assess ligament looseness, known as knee laxity, an indicator of joint health. 

Knee laxity in young women has been of particular interest to Shultz and other researchers. 

“When force is applied to the tibia – the lower leg bone,” Shultz explains, “knee laxity dictates how much it moves relative to the femur, or thigh bone.” Too much knee laxity, the kinesiologist says, “is a pretty strong predictor of future knee injury in young athletic females.” In older adults, greater knee laxity increases the risk of – and can also be caused by – osteoarthritis.

Most investigation of knee laxity is accomplished by manipulating the knee by hand. Mastering the process requires significant training and practice, and each diagnosis of knee laxity is highly subjective. The amount of laxity detected determines the treatment regimen prescribed, which may involve exercise, a brace, or perhaps surgery to tighten ligaments.

Devices to measure knee laxity exist, but current instruments measure only one range of motion. The knee, however, has three axes of motion.

Shultz and Dr. Randy Schmitz, co-directors of UNCG’s Applied Neuromechanics Research Laboratory, saw the need for a device that could accurately measure all aspects of knee laxity. They envisioned a device that would not require intensive training to use. It would be sized to fit on a training table and be light enough for a trainer or medical technician to set up and use. The device would mechanically manipulate the lower leg and measure all three axes of motion.

Profit, Shultz says, was not a motivating factor. The real drivers were a passion for research and knee joint health.

“This was something we needed,” she says. “We needed to continue to advance the research. And then we realized that this has big commercial potential.”

Guided in their quest by LaunchUNCG, a hub for campus entrepreneurship, the researchers located talent and resources on campus to assist in developing a prototype.

Through the I-Corps program, kinesiology graduate student Elvis Foli conducted field research across the Southeast. He interviewed trainers and physicians for their perspectives on improving knee laxity diagnoses. The information Foli gathered confirmed demand for the device.

Researcher holding object with image on screen in background
Elvis Foli makes final adjustments to device components created with the University’s 3D printer.

Shultz and her team knew what the device needed to accomplish, but the team lacked the engineering expertise necessary to pull off a prototype. This time LaunchUNCG had the expertise in-house. Program manager Sam Seyedin has a background in aeronautics. His engineering expertise cost the team of kinesiologists nothing.

Other campus resources helped the team further minimize costs. Then-kinesiology graduate student James Coppock collaborated with UNCG Libraries, employing their Fusion400 3D printer to create a complex component for the device. Printing the part took more than 36 hours. Not to mention all of the design work leading up to that final step.

Internal UNCG Giant Steps seed funding and a $100,000 NC Biotechnology Center grant are currently supporting the team as they continue to develop the prototype.

It was a decade ago when Shultz and Schmitz first kicked around the idea for a knee laxity diagnostic tool. But they were scientists first, not businesspeople. Without a fertile environment to nurture it, their idea lay dormant.

The development of LaunchUNCG, which created a “one-stop shop” to access all the resources available to academicians turned entrepreneurs, breathed new life into their idea.

With UNCG’s expanding resources in place to help move transformative ideas toward commercialization, the researchers are energized.

“We want to keep people healthy,” Shultz said. “We want to keep people physically active. That’s the goal of what we do in the lab.”

A version of this article was part of a larger UNCG Research Magazine feature story about campus research and entrepreneurship. Read more at researchmagazine.uncg.edu/spring-2020/its-a-go/.

Story by Tom Lassiter
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

 
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