The Precinct’s latest ‘Queensland Fresh Scientist’ is helping to slash surgery times and improve outcomes for paediatric patients undergoing complex procedures to correct hip deformities, by modelling surgeries, and designing and 3D printing personalised anatomical models and cutting guides.
Dr Martina Barzan is the 2021 Queensland Fresh Scientist award winner, joining fellow researchers from Griffith University’s Centre of Biomedical and Rehabilitation Engineering (GCore) to secure a hat-trick with awards in 2019 (Dr Antony McNamee) and 2018 (Dr Claudio Pizzolato). No competition was held in 2020 due to Covid.
Bioengineer Martina Barzan is in good company with her GCore colleagues – all focused on improving lives through precision medicine.
In the recent Queensland Fresh Science Awards, she took on 11 other up-and-coming scientists, to describe their scientific discoveries in less than a minute.
“Imagine if your little sister, daughter, or niece could not walk, or even sit, due to hip pain caused by a severe bone deformity,” Dr Barzan pitched. “The only treatment is surgery.”
Every two days, one child in Queensland has surgery to correct hip deformities.”
Traditionally, surgeons rely on 2D scans to guide surgery planning. Dr Barzan’s approach is to create a 3D digital twin – a computerised replica of a child’s anatomy, with the bones and muscles attached. The digital twin allows surgeons to test surgery options and simulate how the child’s hip would move after surgery.
After finalising their preferred surgical approach, Dr Barzan works with Griffith’s Advanced Design and Prototyping Technology Institute to design and 3D print cutting guides precisely matching the child’s bone shape, to transfer the virtual plan to the operating room.
“Surgery times and radiation doses have been cut in half and, nine months after surgery on the 13 children in our clinical trial, all can sit and walk again,” she says.
The approach is now being applied commercially and is already saving money for hospital services through reduced theatre costs and post-surgery follow-up.
“I was really interested in the medical field, but I didn’t feel like being a doctor was for me, so I was thinking of ways I could contribute without following that career path,” Dr Barzan says.
“I found the field of bioengineering would give me this opportunity, so I really like that I can play a part in this way.”
Heartfelt research for better medical devices
Dr Antony McNamee also nailed his pitch to take out the 2019 Fresh Scientist Award for best public presentation – focused on research to improve life support machines that keep people alive, but can also cause life-threatening complications.
A blood physiologist in the Biorheology Research lab, Dr McNamee develops new and more sensitive techniques to detect red blood cell damage early, with the aim of improving heart-lung life support systems and artificial organs. He’s part of a team working with cardiothoracic surgeons and the medtech industry, including testing a world-first rotary artificial heart developed by Precinct company BiVACOR.
“This research area poses a challenging problem yet to be solved!” says Dr McNamee.
“It’s a fascinating field requiring skills in a number of areas, such as haematology, biophysics, and molecular biology. I get to work alongside some amazing teams in science, engineering, and medicine, to make discoveries that are working towards improving the lives of patients, all around the world.
In the future, artificial organs are going to be part of everyday medical treatment, and our research is helping this happen.
The opportunities are endless, as the health and knowledge precinct has amazing facilities and expertise at its fingertips!”
Meanwhile, 2018 Fresh Science Judges Award winner Dr Claudio Pizzalato, now a Senior Research Fellow, is making strides in co-leading the novel BioSpine spinal injury rehabilitation research program, alongside Queensland Australian of the Year 2021, quadriplegic physician Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM.
With plans to commence a clinical trial involving a minimum of 5-6 people next year, the first stage of research has focused on customising a brain-computer interface (and Electroencephalogram or EEG) headset, with a virtual reality program to generate patient thought-control of a rehabilitation device, such as a motorised ergometer bike.
“The idea is the one of neuroplasticity,” Dr Pizzolato explains.
“We know we can remap our nervous system. We are using a brain-computer interface (BCI) and interpreting that data using artificial intelligence. That thought is then sent to a digital twin of the person, which controls the rehabilitation device.
The person is more empowered and feels control over their rehabilitation as that missing connection is being re-established.”
Watch our video below to learn more about the exciting medtech research emerging in the Precinct.