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New Device from Columbia Guides Recovery after Treatment for Head and Neck Cancer

Image source: engineering.columbia.edu

A new robotic neck brace from U.S. researchers may help doctors analyse the impact of cancer treatments on the neck mobility of patients and guide their recovery. Head and neck cancer was the seventh most common cancer worldwide in 2018, with 890,000 new cases and 450,000 deaths, accounting for 3% of all cancers and more than 1.5% of all cancer deaths in the United States.

Such cancer can spread to lymph nodes in the neck, as well as other organs in the body. Surgically removing lymph nodes in the neck can help doctors investigate the risk of spread, but may result in pain and stiffness in the shoulders and neck for years afterwards.

Identifying which patients may have issues with neck movement can be difficult, as the findings are often subtle and challenging to quantify. However, successfully targeting what difficulties they might have with mobility can help patients benefit from targeted physical therapy interventions.

The current techniques and tools that doctors have to judge the range of motion a patient may have lost in their neck and shoulders are somewhat crude. They usually either provide unreliable measurements or require too much time and space to set up for use in routine clinical visits.

To develop a more reliable and portable tool to analyse neck mobility, the researchers drew inspiration from a robotic neck brace they previously developed to analyse head and neck motions in patients with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). In partnership with Troob’s group, they have now designed a new wearable robotic neck brace.

The new brace was made using 3D-printed materials and inexpensive sensors. The easy-to-wear device was based on the head and neck movements of 10 healthy individuals. This is the first study of this kind where a wearable robotic neck brace has been designed to characterize the full head and neck range of motion.

In the new study, the researchers used the prototype brace, along with electrical measurements of muscle activity, to compare the neck mobility of five cancer patients before and one month after surgical removal of neck lymph nodes. They found their device could precisely detect changes in patient neck movements during routine clinical visits.

The use of the sensing neck brace allows a surgeon to screen patients postoperatively for movement difficulty, quantify their degree of impairment, and select patients for physical therapy and rehabilitation. Patients consistently identify the need for rehabilitation and guided exercises after surgery as an unmet need in their medical care. This work will lay the foundation for the appropriate identification of patients for intervention. The team additionally hope that through using the neck brace, they will be able to objectively quantify their improvement and develop evidence-based rehabilitative programs.

In the future, the researchers hope to investigate larger groups of patients and use the neck brace to follow patients through physical therapy to develop evidence-based protocols for rehabilitation. They also would like to develop similar braces for other surgical sites, such as the forearm, ankle, or knee

U.S. researchers have been creating robots for a variety of purposes, including identifying and picking up objects. As reported by OpenGov Asia, U.S. researchers have developed robotic piece-picking systems which combine unique gripper designs with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine vision to help companies sort products and get orders out the door.

The robotic system is helping companies respond to two broad trends that have transformed retail operations. The first trend is the explosion of e-commerce, which has been accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The other is a shift to just-in-time inventory fulfilment, in which pharmacies, grocery stores, and apparel companies restock items based on what has been purchased that day or week to improve efficiency.

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