Mark Staton, Lovelace UNM nursing manager
UNM students and faculty tour Lovelace UNM Rehabilitation Hospital with Nursing Manager Mark Staton.
Credit: Sara Mota

People recovering from strokes, trauma and other injuries often require intensive physical therapy and the use of special assistive devices to regain their mobility so that they can live independently.

This fall, University of New Mexico graduate students and faculty members are working with the Lovelace UNM Rehabilitation Hospital to develop new devices that could help meet the unique needs of these patients.

It’s a competitive process involving interdisciplinary teams of faculty members and graduate students from the UNM Health Sciences Center and the UNM School of Engineering. By semester’s end, a panel of judges will select the most promising design and provide $50,000 to develop and test a working prototype.

“The idea is by bringing together this variety of disciplines we can team them up as needed to solve particular problems,” says Christina Salas, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation with a joint appointment in mechanical engineering.

Salas is guiding the graduate course, which each year picks a different biodesign challenge. This year, physical medicine and rehabilitation was identified as the focus, which is where Lovelace UNM Rehabilitation Hospital comes in. The hospital, a partnership between Lovelace Health System and the UNM Health System, provides inpatient and outpatient care to people recovering from neurological and orthopedic injuries.

“This is our first year working with Lovelace UNM,” Salas says. “They are open to doing research. I believe that they would be open to working with the winning team to implement some of their technology on site.”

Rebecca Dutton, MD, an assistant professor in Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation, led the students on a visit to the hospital so they could interview staff physical therapists and nurses to gain their input into the most pressing patient needs.

Some candidate problems in search of a solution included the need for low-cost adaptable ramps, new ways of diagnosing concussion and brain injury, communication technology for people with neurological injury and exoskeletons to help people undergoing rehabilitation regain their movement.

Course participants are currently narrowing potential design solutions from eight down to three. Those candidates will be evaluated in December by a panel of judges that includes Richard S. Larson, MD, PhD, executive vice chancellor at the Health Sciences Center, and Christos Christodoulou, PhD, dean of the School of Engineering.

The team with the winning design will be awarded $50,000 – $25,000 each from the HSC Clinical & Translational Science Center and the School of Engineering – to build out their prototype, have it evaluated and potentially file for a patent on their technology.

Dutton will lead the process of testing the new design in a clinical setting to see whether it works as intended.

“One of the goals in rehabilitation is promoting function and independence,” she says. “That will hopefully be the underlying goal of any design solutions.”

Larson believes the design competition may stimulate innovations with the potential to be patented and commercialized.

“Focused problem-solving is a hallmark of the research we conduct at UNM,” he says. “The solutions that emerge from these efforts hold the potential to enhance health and well-being while contributing to New Mexico’s growing biotechnology success story.”