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Ohio State’s Spine Research Institute is redefining spinal disorder prevention and treatment

Revolutionary approaches to diagnosing and treating spine disorders deserve a revolutionary home. The Spine Research Institute has been delivering on the first promise since 2012—and in some respects, since the 1980s. Now they have a facility commensurate to their innovative work.

Launched in 2012 as collaboration between the Colleges of Engineering and Medicine, the Spine Research Institute (SRI) exemplifies its heritage every day by applying engineering principles and technology to back pain—one of the world’s most debilitating and costly health conditions.

An SRI researchers discusses the optical motion capture system with grand opening attendees.The new facility includes space for the optical motion capture system, which utilizes cameras and markers to track how people or objects move with sub-millimeter accuracy.

Its new home occupies the entire fifth floor of the Baker Systems Engineering Building on Neil Avenue. At just over 10,000 square feet, the state-of-the art facility provides more than triple the space of its previous confines.

An interconnected complex of bones, nerves, muscles, tendons and ligaments, the spine is an engineering wonder. So it would seem to make sense to apply engineering knowledge and practice to its preservation and treatment. But SRI Executive Director Bill Marras, elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2009, was among the very first engineers to focus on spine disorders. In 1982 he established Ohio State’s Biodynamics Laboratory, which today serves as the institute’s R&D backbone.

For the past three decades, Spine Research Institute experts have sought to unlock the secrets of the spine. They’ve done this by measuring spines under different loads and building models accurate enough to simulate their behavior. The models reveal more knowledge than ever before about the causes of back and neck pain.

Marras and his team of 12 R&D engineers and grad students have used the models to redesign tasks that reduce the risk of spinal injuries on assembly lines and in professions such as nursing. Their models and simulations also provide physicians with more precise ways to diagnose and treat back pain. In fact, every low back pain patient in Ohio State’s medical system is evaluated with SRI’s advanced technology.

Lower back pain is the second most common reason people visit their physicians and the world’s leading cause of disability. In the United States alone, back pain accounts for more than 100 million annual lost work days and $90 billion in treatment costs. 

“This is a unique world-class facility that has enabled the personalized risk assessment and patient evaluation,” said Marras. “It is a true testament to the power of collaboration between engineering and medicine and will not only help reduce costs in industry, but also result in more effective and cost-effective treatment.”

According to Marras, SRI has consulted or collaborated with more than 60 companies—including Honda and NCR—on workplace injury prevention and product ergonomic enhancements. It also has completed and is currently performing several studies for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

During the institute’s May 5 grand opening, Ohio State President Michael V. Drake commended the cross-college partnership.

President Michael V. Drake addresses the crowd at SRI's grand opening celebration.President Michael V. Drake addresses the crowd at SRI's grand opening celebration.

“Interdisciplinary collaborations like this allow us to find new and better solutions to problems that have been with us for years,” he said. “The convergence of engineers and clinicians is a natural marriage and I am really pleased to see that here.”

Fittingly, the view out SRI’s southern-facing windows perfectly frames the expansive Wexner Medical Center, where SRI’s primary clinical partners Dr. Ehud Mendel and Dr. Safdar Khan spend most of their time performing spine surgeries.

Recent media coverage by NPR’s All Things Considered, The Columbus Dispatch and ASME Magazine, as well as 200-plus peer-review journal articles, are generating increased national interest in SRI’s work from physicians, large employers and even back pain sufferers themselves.

“I couldn’t do what I love to do if it wasn’t for the support system here at Ohio State,” said Marras. “You can go anywhere in the world and not see anything like this in this space. We aspire to be the ‘Google of spine’ here.”

by Matt Schutte, College of Engineering Communications,