SFU engineering students create technology to optimize brace design to help children with scoliosis

July 19, 2022

By Anson Kwan

It is estimated that 2-3% of children or teens will develop scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve and rotate as they grow. With an aim to develop technology for good, students from SFU’s School of Engineering Science came together to develop a pressure-sensing system to optimize brace designs for children living with scoliosis.

Paige Rattenberry, a computer engineering student, sought out a project that could combine her interests in medicine and engineering.

“Through a conversation with an orthotist who I met through my co-op program, I was inspired by his vision to develop a system that would enable the optimization of brace design and treatment for children and adolescents suffering from the devastating effects of scoliosis,” says Rattenberry.

She pitched her idea to a few of her classmates and from there, a team of creative and passionate engineers was formed. They include Aidan Cook, Aki Zhou, Hamza Kamal, Kirill Melnikov, and Roy Ataya. 

Current treatments for adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS) include patients receiving yearly X-rays to visualize changes in the spine and, if needed, develop a brace to prevent worsening of the spinal curvature or surgical intervention. The group aims to develop a pressure-sensing system to collect data more easily and accurately with reduced health risks associated with X-rays. This data will measure the spinal structural changes in children and be visualized as a pressure heatmap overlaid on a CAD torso model to identify regions of highest pressure. The hope is to use this information to optimize brace design and treatment.

Pictured is the pressure-sensing system, which include sensors connected to a microcontroller and visualized on a GUI.

"The pressure-sensing system, made up of a shirt with multiple sensors, is connected to a microcontroller, which then provides quantitative digital data to a computer to be analyzed and visualized on a graphical user interface (GUI)," says Zhou, a computer engineering student who focused on the firmware aspect of the technology. 

To ensure that the components interact with each other within the pressure-sensing system, Kamal, Melnikov and Ataya are implementing a printed circuit board, and software to process and visualize the data.

“The more accurate data we can collect, the better our visualization will be to show the direct pressure a brace applies to the torso,” adds Zhou.

“This information can give orthotists the ability to make a better fit of the brace for the patient to prevent abnormal curvature and, instead, help guide the spine towards normal curvature growth.”

Having yearly X-rays could mean that there is a chance that changes in the spine that occur within that year period could be missed. 

“The pressure-sensing technology could allow healthcare professionals the ability to track and visualize changes of the spine and torso more frequently without the need for X-rays,” says Cook, who aids in designing the hardware of the technology. 

“These data points will also aid in creating a more comfortable brace customized for patients.”

The technology has the potential in making strides in sustainability in the community. The pressure-sensing system can reduce the amount of waste, such as plaster of paris and foam carvings, as the number of brace adjustment iterations would be reduced. The team also hopes to help create an optimized perforated brace using environmentally friendly materials to reduce the use of plastics to make braces.  

“Sustainability isn’t just about reducing waste,” says Rattenberry. “This technology has the potential to provide medical sustainability by reducing the number of patients coming in for scoliosis surgeries, which could reduce the burden on hospitals and medical professionals.”

“A brace with improved comfort and breathability can allow children with scoliosis to enjoy an improved lifestyle without limitations and remove the social stigma associated with wearing a brace,” adds Rattenberry.

The students acknowledge their time at SFU, and credit their co-operative education program, the connections they made and the skills they acquired from their program on how far they have come along in the project.

Pictured from left to right is Aidan Cook, Paige Rattenberry, Aki Zhou, Hamza Kamal, Roy Ataya and Kirill Melnikov. The team's pressure-sensing system also won the Best Overall Project award at the 2022 ICAMES Competition.

Recently, the group received the “Best Overall Project” award at ICAMES 2022, a world-wide engineering project competition attended by engineering students around the globe. The momentum from this award motivates the group to compete for the James Dyson Award and complete a prototype that can be tested in clinic on patients to start their data acquisition process by August 2022. The long-term goal is to have a fully working prototype that can measure and map the entire torso.