A Backbone for Training

Seniors in mechanical engineering Joshua Bailey, left, and Chris Frank, right, prepare the pediatric spine model for a practice surgery at Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

By Frank Radosevich II
August 15, 2012

Joshua Bailey and Chris Frank are taking some of the high-stakes pressure out of spinal surgery.

The Bradley seniors haven’t developed a new painkiller or surgical tool; instead they are running a simulation to better prepare medical professionals for a difficult procedure. The mechanical engineering students are having doctors, students and medical residents operate on a realistic model of a pediatric spine.

The replica, built by Bradley students and complete with synthetic skin, fat, muscle, scar tissue, bone and pressure sensors, allows doctors and students to practice the challenging surgery of detaching a spinal cord tethered somewhere in the lower back. The model mimics the feel and density of a child’s lower back with the birth defect of myelomeningocele, a condition where the backbone and spinal cord do not form or close normally.

“The goal is to make it as realistic as possible and I think we’ve achieved that,” said Bailey, a Morton, Ill., native. “You need to have as much finesse as possible for this surgery.”

If the spinal cord is left tethered in a child, it can lead to pain, difficulty walking or a curved spine. Usually surgery detaches the cord but cutting it free requires a delicate touch. Too much pressure can damage or sever the cord, which can lead to paralysis.

“I actually ended up cutting the spinal cord,” Frank, from Springfield, Ill., said about his first attempt on the model.

That’s why the pressure sensors, wired into a computer by the students, provide feedback on the surgery. They let the surgeon know if they are putting too much force on the scalpel. And the more practice on the anatomical model, the better prepared students and doctors will be before setting foot in an operating room.

Each operation is filmed, too, allowing Bailey and Frank to show surgeons visually where and when they were slicing too rough or just right.

Although engineering students, Bailey and Frank are pursuing Bradley’s biomedical engineering concentration, which gives students an interdisciplinary education to apply their engineering skills in the fields of medicine and biology. Both said they are applying to medical school in the fall.

The pair is carrying out the work of Matt Lesniak, Edna Lesle, Alyssa Macuk and Ankit Patel, Bradley mechanical engineering students who designed and built the model for their senior design project in May.

Bailey and Frank are running the experiment with Dr. Juilan Lin, a neurosurgeon at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Peoria. They were put in touch with Dr. Lin by their advisor Dr. Kalyani Nair, who coordinates the biomedical engineering concentration.

So far, undergraduate students, medical students, surgical residents, a surgical fellow and a pediatric neurosurgeon have all taken a stab at the practice model inside a research laboratory at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.

“The medical students have enjoyed practicing on it,” Frank said. “They say the feel of it is very realistic.”