Spinal Tap

Sep 242007
Authors: Nikki Cristello

Cutting human vertebrae into 1 millimeter slices with a very precise diamond-bladed band saw is just another day in the life of biomedical researchers Dan Woldtvedt and Wes Womack.

Woldtvedt, a junior mechanical engineering and biomedical science double major, collaborated with Womack, a doctoral student researching spinal biomechanics, to research the flexibility of the human spine and the impacts that affect it. Their work won Woldtvedt the 2007 Biomedical Engineering Society Undergraduate Research and Design Award.

“This is a stepping stone to developing better disk replacement and providing the data for others to do more research,” Woldtvedt said.

Woldtvedt won after submitting his biomedical engineering research and paper on “Three-dimensional Cartilage Thickness Mapping of Cervical Facet Joints.”

According to the CSU School of Biomedical Sciences’ Web site, “biomedical engineering . advances knowledge in engineering, biology and medicine, and improves human health through cross-disciplinary activities that integrate the engineering sciences with the biomedical sciences and clinical practice.”

A biomedical engineer uses traditional engineering expertise to analyze and solve problems in biology and medicine, providing an overall enhancement of health care.

Woldtvedt and Womack studied facet joints, which link vertebrae together and allow flexibility in the spine, and were the first to create a three-dimensional map of the cartilage between the cervical facet joints by using mathematical algorithms.

To make the three-dimensional map of the cartilage, Woldtvedt and Womack took seven spines from human cadavers and sliced each vertebrae into 1-millimeter pieces. Woldtvedt then photographed each slice.

“I probably took about 1,000 photos,” Woldtvedt said.

Womack wrote a program to define the cartilage and three-dimensional coordinates. Then, a series of MathCad algorithms made a smoothed map of the distribution.

Womack said he took the massive amount of data and put it into algorithms to make sense of it all.

“It gave us a fairly good description of all the data,” he said. “This will allow others to take the equation and apply it to their work without doing all the work we had to do.”

Womack said the work he and Woldtvedt did was necessary; the information he needed simply wasn’t there.

“The information I needed was exact,” Womack said.

Dr. Christian Puttlitz, associate professor of mechanical engineering and member of the new School of Biomedical Engineering Leadership Team is whom Woldtvedt works under. Puttlitz said Woldtvedt is an outstanding student who doesn’t simply do things half way.

“He is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to.”

Womack agreed.

“Dan is a super motivated guy.”

Puttlitz said the process of cutting the seven human cadaver spines isn’t very gory. He said the spines are delivered separate from actual bodies.

“We try to maximize the amount we can do with the spines,” Puttlitz said. “We want to get the most use out of the donated spines. They are also pretty expensive.”

Woldtvedt and Womack submitted their report to the Journal of Orthopaedic Research September 5. According to Puttlitz, it is the highest ranked orthopedic journal in the world.

“Wes edited the multiple abstracts into a paper and then Christian edited it,” Woldtvedt said. “It was a combined effort.”

Woldtvedt, a 2007 McNair Scholar, traveled to San Francisco on an all-expenses-paid trip this summer to present at the 2007 UC Berkeley McNair Scholars Symposium.

Womack said at Woldtvedt’s presentation his computer carrying his PowerPoint presentation crashed. He improvised the entire thing with a marker and whiteboard.

“They really liked it, though,” Womack said. “I wish I would have been there to see it.”

His presentation, entitled “Diametral Compression: A Computational and Experimental Investigation for a New Bone Strength Test,” was his first individual research project.

Woldtvedt won the Biomedical Engineering Society Research and Design Award after submitting an abstract on the research he and Womack conducted on the spine. He was informed he won after he returned from Berkeley.

Puttlitz said Woldtvedt is highly motivated and balances pre-med courses with his research.

“He has seen so much success up to this point, any program would be lucky to have him,” Puttlitz said. “Dan is funny; he has ‘narrowed’ his choices down to graduate, medical or dental school.”

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