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Carleton U’s work with the Ottawa Hospital is a bit robotic – but in a good way

Researchers are using a robotic arm to improve outcomes in orthopaedic surgery

Portrait of two men standing next to an orange robotic arm
Andrew Speirs, associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton and Dr. Paul E. Beaulé, director of research and innovation for orthopaedic surgery for the University of Ottawa and chief of orthopaedic surgery at Hawkesbury District and General Hospital

Everyday we use things that rely on components to work as a team. 

Take the human body. The clever way our thigh bone fits in our hip bone like a ball in a socket makes walking possible. Or what about robots? Some of the most complex machines ever built are a cacophony of multiple parts working as one. Most importantly, sometimes we have to rely on members of a team coming together to solve a problem that’s too big to solve on their own.

In Ottawa, one such team is a strategic partnership between Carleton University and the University of Ottawa Orthopaedic program’s Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. Together they created the Ottawa Orthopaedic Biomechanical Laboratory with the goal of improving orthopaedic implants and surgical repairs, with Carleton investing $140,000 into the $560,000 lab. 

Two people on this team have been collaborating for more than a decade. Andrew Speirs, associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton, was introduced to Dr. Paul E. Beaulé, director of research and innovation for orthopaedic surgery for the University of Ottawa and chief of orthopaedic surgery at Hawkesbury District and General Hospital, in 2006 by a mutual acquaintance. 

“We’re like an old couple,” said Beaulé. And fortunately for us, this old couple’s collaboration has resulted in some robust research.

“Sometimes, clinicians think they can figure things out on their own, but their thinking is a bit too narrow,” said Beaulé. “And engineers can have a great idea, but if they don’t understand the clinical scenario it might need a little tweak to have a big impact.”

Would you believe the problem they’re trying to solve depends on a robot? Specifically, a German-made robotic arm from KUKA that will be housed at the Loeb Building of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. While similar to what you’ll find on an assembly line, this robotic arm was designed to give the researchers a way to improve orthopaedic surgery outcomes. 

Carleton researchers are using the robotic arm to research the biomechanical side of the question, while the orthopaedic surgeon researchers are taking the clinical approach, using digital imaging equipment to examine how ligaments stretch under different knee alignments and how that contributes to premature implant wear.

This research tool isn’t sentient (at least not yet), but it can simulate the way a human joint works so researchers can safely study it.

These shoes were made for walking

There’s a lot going on in our hip and knee joints when we walk or climb the stairs. Knee joints can absorb up to two and a half times your body weight, and your hip joints can weather two to three times your body weight on a single step.

The robot has six joints, so we call it a six axis robotic arm,” said Speirs. “You can program it to make the joint move in a natural way.” Meaning they can program the robot to simulate the kind of forces and motions that happen while walking or climbing.

For Beaulé, this work is about improving patient care and clinical outcomes without submitting a patient to a bad implant or a suboptimal surgical technique. “How do you do this research safely? We do some cadaver testing, but what you really need is a tool that most closely reproduces what’s happening in a human being,” he said.

Ideally this research won’t just improve surgery, but also help people avoid it altogether by simulating injury patterns to find a way to prevent them. “The ultimate goal is to improve quality of life,” said Beaulé.

Collaboration is key

Given the complexity of the task, it will come as no surprise that Speirs and Beaulé are merely two members of this intrepid team. Other contributors include allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, radiologists and physicists.

Radiologists are the eyes of the orthopaedic surgeon,” said Beaulé. “They use advanced imaging and they can look at things in three dimensions at the bone level and cartilage cell  level.” 

Some of their scans can even make chemical composition viewable, for example collagen in cartilage, which can be used as a biomarker. When you look at the joint at a chemical or cellular level you can see if you’re making a difference,” said Beaulé. 

But let’s not forget some other critical team members: students. While the university doesn’t have a medical faculty, students from various disciplines are contributing to the Ottawa Orthopaedic Program partnership, taking the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom and applying them to improve health outcomes.

“I let them choose their own projects,” said Speirs. “If it’s something that they’re interested in, they’re going to be more motivated to do a good job.”

Speirs and Beaulé agree on the basic components any team needs to build an effective research partnership.

“We want people who are curious and not afraid to be wrong,” said Speirs.“That’s how we drive innovation. We try things and if it doesn’t work, we try something else.”

Beaulé concurs, saying that being open-minded and understanding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses makes your team stronger. 

In the end it comes down to trust. “Being willing to share the accolades is important because without that trusting relationship, you can’t accomplish anything,” said Beaulé. “When you build trust, you can do amazing things.”