An Orono podiatrist is on the cusp of a technological breakthrough with a new medical instrument an electronic tuning fork that hes developing with assistance from students and staff at the University of Maines Advanced Manufacturing Center.
Tuning forks are considered one of the most accurate measures of human sensitivity to touch, and are commonly used by physicians to diagnose early signs of diabetic peripheral neuropathy, or damaged or deteriorating nerves in the feet of diabetics. The condition all too often can lead to foot ulcers and eventual foot amputation, according to Orono resident Dr. Todd OBrien, a podiatric surgeon at a Health Access Network practice and Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln, Maine.
Tuning forks, however, are subjective in application, OBrien explains, since the person administering the tuning fork test and the patient work together to estimate the time in which the patient loses awareness of the diminishing vibrations.
OBriens prototype electronic tuning fork removes at least half of the guesswork. The user of the device presses an actuation button while in contact with the patients skin. This simultaneously starts the vibrations and a built-in timer. The user then releases the button when the patient indicates they can no longer feel the vibrations thereby stopping the timer. The amount of time elapsed is how long the patient was able to sense the vibrations. The user then reads the time elapsed on an LED display on the device. It standardizes the procedure, says OBrien, who has applied for a provisional patent on the device and has begun testing a prototype at his practice.
Its kind of taking this old-fashioned device and basically upgrading it with 21st century components, he says. What I hope it will be able to do is screen patients more accurately to see if they are developing neuropathy.
Early detection of diminishing foot sensitivity, he says, can allow remedial intervention such as special shoes, an insert or other foot-care options. Foot sensitivity affects an individuals proprioception, or neurological awareness of the position of parts of the body, including the feet, which affects balance. Identifying a loss of foot sensitivity can indicate a predisposition to falling, an affliction that has spawned a whole cottage industry devoted to the problem, OBrien says.
If you can identify someone who is prone to falling, you can recommend training programs, he says. Beyond that, its just a better version of the tuning fork that you can use anywhere on the body for other medical applications, he says.
As much as eight percent of the nations population is diabetic, and health studies show an alarming increase of the disease. Almost half of OBriens patients, he says, are diabetic. With an affordable electronic tuning fork, OBrien says patients could help monitor their conditions at home.
After researching whether such a device already exists, OBrien concluded one does not. He has been working on the design and components of his invention, which is about 8 inches long and an inch in diameter, for about a year. With Maine Technology Institute grant funding, OBrien contacted UMaines Advanced Manufacturing Center about making a prototype.
James Bryant, the AMCs project manager whos been overseeing the development of OBriens prototype, says staff, mechanical, and electrical engineering technology students have been working to build a device that OBrien can eventually have mass-produced and marketed.
We welcome these sorts of projects, Bryant says. They give our students real experiences solving problems and helping Maine businesses improve their operations. In this case, Dr. OBriens invention can also help people.
AMC Director John Belding adds that an increasing number of projects the AMC helps with are healthcare oriented.
Weve been developing devices, equipment and tools that can make a difference in peoples lives, in addition to those who look after them whether its family caregivers or professionals, Belding says.
OBrien, who holds patents on several other medical innovations he has designed for commercialization under a private company, OBrien Medical, LLC, says he is grateful for the accessibility of the universitys AMC.
Being up here in Central Maine, its hard for me to be able to do things like this, OBrien says. There are not a lot of resources available. If I didnt have these guys, Id have to work down south or out of state. I think its a really valuable program.