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NIH recognizes Marras for excellence in research for ‘breakthrough’ technology


One of the most difficult challenges to diagnosing back pain is that there has never been a quantitative indicator to determine severity. That is, until now. 

Professor William Marras in the Spine Research Laboratory
Professor William Marras in the Spine Research Laboratory

Recognizing the potentially life-changing research being conducted at Ohio State, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has tapped Spine Research Institute (SRI) Executive Director and ISE Honda Chair William Marras to receive a 2024 HEAL Initiative Award for Excellence in Research.  

Marras and his SRI team are developing a digital health platform that provides data-driven metrics enabling an integrated approach to clinical evaluation and treatment. The project is so revolutionary that it is expected to receive fast-tracked Food and Drug Administration approval by the end of 2025 for the “breakthrough” nature of the technology. 

HEAL, which stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term, is a billion-dollar program intended to support research that can help control pain that often leads to opioid addiction. The award provides funding to continue the Spine Phenome Project: Enabling Technology for Personalized Medicine for which Marras received NIH Back Pain Consortium (BACPAC) grants in 2019 and 2022.  

Though he was nominated by his project sponsor, Marras said he was both flattered and surprised to learn he would receive the award, “Our project is relatively modest in cost compared to some of the others. To have an impact like that on science with a more modest project makes me feel honored.” 

Marras said back pain is the second leading reason for opiate addiction next to cancer and one of the most expensive medical conditions to treat. 

The research is being conducted with the assistance of faculty, students, physicians and clinical research associates at Ohio State and the Wexner Medical Center. Through an extension of the BACPAC project, technology developed at SRI is being tested at 12 additional medical centers across the country. 

“NIH provided the money to develop the technology to produce the data,” Marras explained. “We’re analyzing data and still collecting it. A lot of people are enrolled and being monitored over time.” 

Wearable sensors on a mannequin.
Wearable sensors on a mannequin.

The technology is embedded in wearable sensors that are put on the spines of people with back pain and those without to quantify function and identify common factors of people suffering various types of back pain. 

“Diabetes and heart disease have quantitative indicators; back pain doesn’t,” Marras said. “Only in 15% of the cases do X-rays and MRIs tell us anything. We rely on self-reports. With our technology, we can see a degree of improvement or when they are not improving, which is equally important for clinicians.” 

Marras said the test takes about 10 minutes enabling clinicians to analyze the motions and provide guidelines for treatment even determining whether people are at risk for a catastrophic injury. It’s an application that Marras noted can be applied to everyone, including workers, pilots, military personnel and athletes. 

In addition to diagnosing back pain, Marras anticipates the technology will be able to be utilized to analyze neck and shoulder pain as well. 

According to the NIH, the Excellence in Research award recognizes HEAL-funded investigators who support broad dissemination of key research and demonstrate leadership in the scientific community. 

“I’m just very excited about this,” Marras said of the recognition, “and extremely grateful to the university for enabling us to do this and put us in the position to do this.” 

original story by Nancy Richison, Integrated Systems Engineering

Categories: FacultyResearch