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Technology creating ‘personalised digital humans’

Kathy Kruger | February 2017

Biomechanical scientists are combining the latest in health technology to personalise training, prevent injury, design rehabilitation and model surgery.

This new technology is literally creating personalised humans, assisting those from elite AFL players to young Australian footballers.

However, Professor David Lloyd gets most excited when he talks about the difference that pushing technology boundaries is making for kids with Cerebral Palsy – a disability that can cause severe mobility restrictions.

The biomechanical expert creates 3D models of young patients that precisely mimic how their lower legs function, enabling surgeons to simulate surgeries and help design custom 3D printed implants or surgical guides, prior to real-life complex operations on children.

“I’m really interested in helping people with Australian-made technology that improves patient outcomes and lowers health-care costs,” says Professor Lloyd.

While the 25-year veteran works in a scientific field that largely supports elite sport – driven by the desire and money to push performance and fast-track injury recovery – Professor Lloyd is mostly focused on patient treatment and recovery and everyday sports injury prevention.

He has been involved in some ground-breaking work, guided by Griffith colleague Doctor Chris Carty and surgeons at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.

“There have now been a couple of operations performed utilising our models – these are delicate 8-10 hour surgeries and instead of relying on more generic models to assist them, surgeons can tailor procedures to the individual child, improving outcomes and reducing complications,” he says.

Professor Lloyd has had a long and successful stint in the industry and was most notably part of the University of Western Australia (UWA) research team that first tested the bowling action of controversial Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah ‘Murali’ Muralitharan in the mid-nineties.  Tests proved Murali wasn’t a ‘chucker’ after all and Professor Lloyd’s first motion capture model for bowling was updated several times and used as the standard in international cricket for more than 12 years.

During his time at UWA, Lloyd also worked with the Freemantle Dockers AFL team and since joining Griffith University in 2011, he and his team have forged research partnerships with a host of universities, companies and sporting bodies in Australasia, the United States and Europe, to lead the way in musculoskeletal research.

Long-term research supported by the AFL recently led to the design of training programs to prevent Anterior Crucial Ligament (ACL) injuries, common in AFL, netball, rugby league, rugby union and touch football. With long-time colleague, Professor Caroline Finch, they ran trials involving more than 1600 community level AFL players and reduced the relative injury risk by an impressive 50 per cent.

“ACL ruptures commonly occur during non-contact side stepping or when landing from a mark during AFL and other sports when stepping,” says Professor Lloyd.

“Our laboratory studies and computer simulations have shown that specific technique and aggressive balance training could lower ACL loading and prevent knee injury.”

Queensland orthopaedic surgeon and knee specialist Associate Professor Christopher Vertullo, says ACL injury patients are at risk of developing premature knee osteoarthritis (OA) which may result in future severe disability, despite it being a highly preventable injury.

“Our research has suggested that an Australian youth injury prevention program targeting ACL injury via a neuromuscular agility training program targeting all 12-17 year olds and high risk 17-25 year olds, will result in future public health cost savings of $120 million over four years,” says Vertullo.

Professor Lloyd has recently turned his attention to the achilles tendon and leads a major research project, with colleagues at UWA, Latrobe University and University of Auckland.  The project, called iTraining, has $1 million funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and industry partners – all up Professor Lloyd has been involved in research projects worth close to $17 million.

Until now it’s been hard to isolate and measure the stresses and strains inside the achilles tendon during daily activities – the research aims to create wearable technology that determines the best training load for the structural regeneration and mechanical function of the tendon, to support performance and help in rehabilitation.

What makes it so exciting is that they build the data for the individual by mining the ‘big data’ of population medical imaging databases – individuals get customised training, while researchers build customised models that they can then tailor to similar patients.

“Basically we utilise our laboratory research at the individual level – and now even the cellular level – together with population data, to morph the model to suit you”, explains Professor Lloyd, adding “iTraining is just one application.”

It all culminates in the creation of the personalised digital human – his ultimate dream, fast becoming reality.

With a wealth of experience in biomechanical testing using motion capture and other technologies that have been around for many years, Professor Lloyd identified the value of combining biomechanical information with digital data from increasingly sophisticated medical imaging to not only actively monitor how joints function, but look inside the limb during exercise and daily activities.

Utilising real-time tracking of a person’s joint load and muscle activation, combined with precise computer renderings of tissues from MRI’s, CT and x-ray scans, they really are creating an accurate digital human. It’s a platform technology with a multitude of applications.

From US contacts made through his own post-doctoral studies, to supervising 33 PhD students and more than 15 post-docs of his own, Professor Lloyd now has a network of impressive researchers.  He also utilises industry partnerships with companies like Materialise – a global leader in 3D-printing technology.

A former colleague now at Stanford University was involved in developing the open software Professor Lloyd now customises, while his first Phd student and post-doc leads the Musculoskeletal Atlas Project at the University of Auckland. With other researchers in the global network investigating the hip and upper body, a full-body model will eventually emerge.

With Lloyd’s core team based within the Gold Coast Health & Knowledge Precinct, there are research and clinical partnership opportunities on the doorstep – one current pilot project is with the Defence Science & Technology Organisation which is creating 3D prototype designs to test different load-carrying systems for soldiers to minimise the impact on their knees.

“We are capable of doing many high-tech things in Australia and I’m passionate about that technology development and using it to help people,” says Lloyd.