Dr. B.J. Fregly

Dr. B.J. Fregly is a mechanical engineer by background, but his work has affected the medical field as much as that of some medical doctors. Dr. Fregly has spent decades building computer models that predict how patients will function after surgical or rehabilitation treatments. Using motion capture technology similar to that used by the film industry, he and his team build customized computer models of each individual patient to simulate post-treatment function for a variety of procedures that a physician might be considering.

Thanks to a new $5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), Dr. Fregly will be bringing his research to Rice University, where he and his lab in the mechanical engineering department will use 3D imaging to create patient-specific computational models of bone cancer patients waiting to undergo pelvic surgery at the Texas Medical Center.

“My research program has always had a heavy orthopedic, human movement prediction and computational treatment design focus, and developing my CPRIT research plan in collaboration with surgeon Valerae Lewis at MD Anderson (Cancer Center) helped me realize how relevant my research toolbox is to orthopedic oncology,” Dr. Fregly said. “I am extremely grateful to CPRIT for giving me the opportunity to take the innovative personalized treatment design methods I have been developing for other orthopedic conditions and apply them to cancer surgeries, where every patient is truly unique and requires a truly unique treatment plan. I am enthusiastic to explore a broad range of orthopedic oncology applications with Dr. Lewis and her team in the years to come.”

While any cancer surgery is going to be difficult, operations involving the pelvis are some of the most invasive and difficult to recover from. Removing parts of the bone can leave a patient unable to walk for more than a year, and the results are so variable that patients often don’t know what to expect before they go in for surgery. Dr. Fregly plans to work with Scott Tashman, director of the Biomotion Lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center, to gather 3D images as well as gross body movement and fine bone movement data from cancer patients.

Walking motion predicted for a hemiparetic subject using a subject-specitic computational model controlled by five muscle synergies per leg (Meyer et al., Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, 2016) [Image via B.J. Fregly Lab]

Using that data, Dr. Fregly’s team will not only be able to build individual computer models that predict how well patients will be able to function after surgical procedures, but will actually be able to help them function better. The computer models will help to identify which type of procedure will allow each patient to regain mobility most quickly, and will also provide force and stress data that will enable Fred Higgs, director of the Particle Flow and Tribology Lab at Rice University, to 3D print custom prostheses that will help the patients to get back on their feet sooner.

“Custom pelvic prostheses have the potential to both maximize walking ability and minimize recovery time, but they are not available clinically because of low reliability,” Dr. Fregly said. “That’s an engineering problem that Rice is in a good position to tackle…Our hope is to improve the postsurgical functional outcome and recovery time for pelvic sarcoma patients in the Texas Medical Center, regardless of which surgical method a patient receives.”

Dr. Fregly, who has been employed with the University of Florida, earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a doctoral degree from Stanford University. He spent some time working for a Silicon Valley startup before joining the University of Florida, in 1999, and since then has published more than 75 refereed journal articles. He has also won multiple research grants from institutions such as NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for his work in personalized medicine. He will join the Rice University (which isn’t new to using 3D technology to treat bone cancer) faculty on August 1.

“This project could not have happened without a collaborative team,” Dr. Fregly said. “I’m pulling it together and leading the modelling, but without Valerae Lewis we would have no clinical problem to address and no patients. Without Scott Tashman, we couldn’t do pretreatment testing or assess how patients are progressing. And we need Fred Higgs’ expertise to create custom implants using additive manufacturing. It really will take all of us to make this project go.”

Since being approved to allocate $3 billion to statewide cancer research by a ballot initiative in 2007, CPRIT has so far provided $1.8 billion in grants to researchers and institutions. The grant bringing Dr. Fregly to Rice University was one of 10 totaling more than $25 million awarded this week. Discuss in the 3D Printing for Cancer Patients at 3DPB.com.

 

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