UC Irvine researchers make tests fun

IRVINE — As Anna Origel leaned back and forth in a wheelchair at UC Irvine, a soccer goalie on the computer screen in front of her danced left and right, trying to block her shots.

When Origel reclined, even just an inch, the goalie in the game went to the right. When she leaned forward, it went left.

She missed the ball every time, leaning too far back and then too far forward.

"This is really hard, this should be a video game," said the Regional Occupation Program, or ROP, nursing student from Laguna Hills High School.

Missing the ball is common when able-bodied visitors try the equipment, said Kelli Sharp, doctor of therapy.

Origel doesn't normally use a wheelchair, but for those with spinal cord or brain injuries, the system offers more than entertainment.

The chair's seat and back can read a patient's mobility, coordination and strength.

It has the look and feel of a game, making it less tedious for patients. But for researchers, it was a way to collect data from those with paralyzing injuries.

The activity illustrated what scientists are working on at UCI's Sue and Bill Gross Hall: A California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where more than 100 Orange County high school students were given a tour Wednesday.

For patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries or other ailments that affect their nervous system, UCI's stem cell researchers are finding ways to make mundane testing for things like body trunk strength and mobility fun.

Just like the other tools in the laboratory — an upper-body harness that lets you bounce weightless across the room, a controller using your whole arm to shoot chickens on a computer and a single-handed version of Guitar Hero — the unconventional tools can test patient strength and coordination.

The plan is to develop testing methods that patients enjoy and are packed with data for scientists. The goal is to eventually allow patients to do tests from home on Nintendo Wii-like devices while researchers can track results at UCI, said center Director Peter Donovan.

"It's nice to see our tax dollars go to something that actually helps people," said Brittany Jackson, a Trabuco Hills High School senior. "There's so much technology. You don't realize there's so much that goes into helping those less fortunate."

The institute houses more than 60 researchers in more than a dozen labs. It was funded by a $10 million gift from Bill Gross, co-founder of Newport Beach-based PIMCO, an investment management company, and a $27.2 million grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The state institute was created after Proposition 71 passed in 2004 with 59% of the vote.

Almost a year ago to the day, scientists from UCI injected stem cells into a person with a spinal cord injury in Atlanta, marking the first stem cell clinical trial in the world.

"It's an incredible opportunity to have a ringside seat at some of the first trials," Donovan said. "That's what scientists work for — that 'Eureka!' moment."

Though it's too early to evaluate the success of the human trials, university officials said Thursday that early results show one patient has reported increased sensation below the site of their spinal injury.

"If we can have half a dozen of these students move forward with this work, it will be worth all this," Donovan said as one of the tour groups strolled past. "This work can provide insight into the development of our own species."

Standing between a computer monitor showing color dyed stem cells under a microscope and a refrigerator growing stem cells, Christina Tu talked about why she and researchers do what they do.

One scientist is working with a bioengineer to generate cells that can help a baby recover from heart failure at birth. Tu, the stem cell core facility coordinator, moved into stem cell research from another field because of the possibilities.

"They must have this passion," she said. "A lot of times, outcome is negative. You have to overcome that to see what you want to accomplish."

Nancy Luke, a lawyer stricken with multiple sclerosis, encouraged the students to move science forward.

"What I have is the hope that [what UCI is studying] can cure MS," she said. "Researchers rock. And you guys will be the heroes."


Twitter: @JosephSerna

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