Pain affects everyone, and is one of the main reasons patients seek medical attention—but the study of pain is significantly restricted by methods of measurement which are rudimentary (how much does it hurt?) and unreliable because it has no accurate, consistent method or baseline off which to measure another person’s perceived pain.
Enter Dr. Steven Harte and Dr. Grant Kruger. Dr. Harte, a neuroscientist with a background in pain and upbringing in computer engineering, has been working with Dr. Kruger, an electrical engineer with mechanical engineering experience, who’s research focuses on biomedical informatics. Along with a team of undergraduate and graduate students they have been working to design a reliable method of measuring pain, called the Multimodal Automated Sensory Testing (MAST) system. It applies tightly controlled pressure stimuli to a patients thumb to accurately assess pressure sensitivity and perceived pain.
In designing a tool that can be used in the clinical setting as well as for research, aesthetics and ergonomics are vitally important. To evaluate the look and feel of their designs, Harte and Kruger used the UM3D lab to develop prototypes, a step they believe is critical to the success of the MAST system. As a researcher involved in the prototyping of various other medical systems for use in clinical trials, Kruger attests to the necessity of having a product that looks clean, is easy to clean, and is customized to fit the technology of the device safely as well as the comfort of the patient. This, he says, would be impossible to do without rapid prototyping. The plaster models allowed then to qualitatively evaluate the design and patient comfort, while the plastic models allowed then to create functional prototypes early on in this design process. Without the ability to materialize their designs cheaply, this idea would likely have remained only an idea. Their design, refined through iterations of rapid prototyped parts, reduced the manufacturing costs in producing the final low-volume cast urethane molds.
The devices are currently being used to collect clinical data in chronic pain patients at the UM Medical School and at 6 other universities nationwide. Their design is still being developed and improved, and is aimed toward eventual commercialization.
By Josephine Keenan