UVic engineers use 3-D printing to help children overseas

A group of UVic engineers is working with 3-D printers to help children in the developing world.

The bio-medical engineers use the printers to fashion corrective devices and braces to treat clubfoot and scoliosis, curvature of the spine. They will begin in Nepal.

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The group has been awarded a $100,000 seed grant, one of 20 across Canada. The federal government’s Grand Challenges Canada announced $2 million in grants on Monday.

UVic team member Nick Dechev said the two orthotic conditions are no more common in developing countries than in Canada. But a visitor to the developing world is likely to notice adults and children with disabling deformities of their feet and bent spines.

Most people with the two conditions don’t receive the inexpensive and simple corrective measures in childhood.

“In Western countries, it is relatively rare to see an adult with a clubfoot,” said Dechev. “But if you go to the developing world, it’s not uncommon to see adults with their feet rotated outwards at 90 degrees.”

With scoliosis, in countries such as Canada, children whose spines begin to curve are often treated with corrective braces. These are worn for a few years until bones stop growing.

Dechev said his team believes that for less than $50 worth of plastic and printer time, effective treatment devices can be fashioned to assist a child overseas with either of the two deformities.

That’s to make immobilizing foot platforms and braces worn by infants and toddlers to treat clubfoot, and plastic girdles worn by children, ages six to eight, for scoliosis.

Dechev is part of the Victoria Hand Project, an already successful entry into assisting people in the developing world using 3-D printers. It has deployed scanners and 3-D printers to fashion customized prosthetic hands in Nepal, Guatemala, Ecuador, Haiti, Cambodia and Egypt.

The Victoria Hand Project partners with existing clinics overseas where it sets up a 3-D printer and scanner. It trains locals to use the machines to fashion customized prosthetics. Including the cost of materials and local wages, the cost of a prosthetic hand is about $300.

That same device in the developed world runs about $3,000, largely due to higher wages.

Dechev said it’s expected the latest move to treat clubfoot and scoliosis will piggyback on the Victoria Hand Project. That group has already installed printers and scanners and trained technicians.

“Eventually, it’s expected the Victoria Hand Project will inherit the orthotic technology and deploy it,” he said.

The latest research grant will be used to test the effectiveness of the 3-D-printed, plastic orthotic braces.

To do this, the research will initially see 12 scoliosis children fitted and treated, along with 24 clubfoot cases. They will be monitored by clinicians for two to three years.

Dechev said part of the grant funding will be kept on hand so people can step in and fit standard braces if the plastic ones start to go wrong.

“It’s not just thrown over the wall to people,” he said. “There is a process of two to three years of follow-up to make sure everything is going well.”

Grand Challenges Canada was started in 2010 as an independent, non-profit agency funded by Global Affairs Canada. Its mandate is to assist with new ideas in areas of women’s and children’s health in low or middle-income counties.

Since it began, 470 ideas have received funding. Of those, 60 per cent arose from the developing countries themselves and 40 per cent arose in Canada. All Canadian ventures must partner with local people to qualify.

Liam Brown, spokesman for Grand Challenges Canada, said 20 per cent of ideas funded so far have entered a phase where they are ready to scale up to a point where they will have a significant impact by 2030.

That’s a rate significantly higher than similar venture-capital initiatives.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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