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Changing the lives of young people with debilitating spine deformities

Spine deformities such as scoliosis affect children as they grow, especially young girls between the ages of 10 to 16. During these critical adolescent growing years, the spine can unexpectedly curve and twist rapidly.

First published 27 November 2018

Thanks to the support of our donor community and a generous bequest gift, QUT researchers are working on helping scoliosis sufferers and their families by developing and applying new biomechanical techniques and technologies to better understand how the spine works and what causes spine deformities to develop.

“If we understand better what is going wrong in the spine, we then have the chance to develop interventions to treat the problems and maybe even avoid the need to have invasive surgery to correct and fuse the spine,” said Ms Maree Izatt from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.

“In the spine disorders clinic at the Queensland Children’s Hospital, approximately 50 children and teenagers attend every week for care. Our specialist surgeons perform approximately 200 scoliosis surgeries every year so this is a real concern for children and parents in Queensland,” she said.

X-ray of spine affected by scoliosis (left) and after corrective surgery (right)

“The problems linked to scoliosis pile up over time,” said Professor Peter Pivonka, Chair of Biomedical Engineering and Spinal Disorders at QUT. “It can lead to pain and disability, it can impact social and emotional well-being, and this is aside from being very unhappy with how their spine looks. In adulthood, as the scoliosis continues to bend, and the ribcage continues to twist, the heart and lungs become unable to function properly under this pressure, and in the very worst cases, this can ultimately shorten the life of the individual.”

The Biomechanics and Spine Research Group (BSRG) also works to provide better outcomes for young people on the operating table.

When 10-year-old Chelsy Jones needed a lengthy operation to correct a serious spinal deformity that was beginning to harm her spinal cord, her surgeon enlisted the help of QUT biomedical engineer, Dr Paige Little, to custom design a novel support mattress.

Chelsy’s unique body shape meant she could not safely lie flat on her stomach and chest on the operating table for the 8-hour surgery she needed to stabilise her spine.

“When lying for a long time in one position, such as during a lengthy surgical procedure, a patient needs to be protected from areas of high pressure that result in damage to the skin and underlying muscles,” Dr Little said.

“Chelsy’s unique chest and spine anatomy called for something specially custom made to fit her exact shape in 3D to avoid the development of pressure areas on her skin during the surgery.

“Without this special custom made support mattress, Chelsy would not have been able to undergo the operation on her neck and back, which was vital for her to maintain her mobility.”

When QUT asked Sealy of Australia for help, they were more than willing and developed the special mattress, based on Dr Little’s exact 3D specifications, to fit Chelsy’s chest and body shape.

Chelsy Jones happy to be recovering from spinal surgery with Mum by her side

This work continues on from the vision of the former Research Director, the late Professor Clayton Adam who dedicated his life to helping children with spinal disorders, and to improving treatment outcomes for patients who undergo spinal surgery.

He brought together a dedicated team of researchers, scientists, engineers, surgeons and industry partners to perform cutting edge research – to minimise risks and improve spinal surgery results for patients with progressive spinal deformities.

It's through a signficant gift left by QUT supporter Florence Wilson in her Will, as well as the continued generosity of QUT’s donor community, his work is able to continue through the BSRG team.

To support research that helps more children like Chelsy, you can make a donation to the Biomechanics & Spine Research Group via the Clayton Adam Florence Wilson Award.

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