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Michael L. Boninger

Rory A. Cooper

University of Pittsburgh Becomes National Model Center on Spinal Cord Injury

PITTSBURGH, December 6, 2000 — The University of Pittsburgh has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to establish a Model Center on Spinal Cord Injury that will conduct research into a new generation of wheelchairs and assistive devices to improve mobility and independence for persons with spinal cord injuries. This center, called the University of Pittsburgh Model Center on Spinal Cord Injury (UPMC-SCI), is the first of its kind for this region.

“Paralysis as a result of spinal cord injury remains one of the most elusive injuries to cure and most expensive to treat. For the 250,000 individuals who are living with spinal cord injuries in the United States, costs for hospitalization, assistive technology and home adaptation can exceed $1 million over a lifetime,” said Michael Boninger, M.D., associate professor, department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. “Through this model center, we hope to take the next step forward in helping spinal cord-injured patients achieve and maintain as much independence as possible.”

Supported by the internationally known clinical and research resources of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh, the UPMC-SCI establishes a continuum of care that begins with emergency response at the scene of an injury, continues with acute care at a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital and then rehabilitation at UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital.

“The distinction of our program as a model center is the gold standard in rehabilitation,” said Ross Zafonte, D.O., chair, department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh and vice president of clinical rehabilitation services. “The University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have long been at the forefront of rehabilitative care and mobility research, and this designation further demonstrates our commitment to improving academic rehabilitation programs and treatment of persons with disabilities. No other regional program is more comprehensive or complete for the treatment of spinal cord injury.”

Under the direction of Dr. Boninger, who also is director of the Center for Assistive Technology at the University of Pittsburgh, the UPMC-SCI will implement several different research projects that will concentrate on how innovations in assistive technology can reduce the extent of a person’s disability.

Some of these projects will include a pushrim-activated, power-assisted wheel (PAPAW), developed by Yamaha Motor Corporation, that provides mechanical assistance on manual wheelchairs; the Independence™ 3000 IBOT™ Transporter, an unapproved advanced mobility system designed to balance on two wheels and climb stairs; and the GameCycle, an upper-extremity exercise cycle attached to a computer video game that encourages aerobic activity in persons who cannot use their legs to exercise.

Model centers are awarded only to programs that can demonstrate excellence in the treatment of persons with spinal cord injuries. As one of only two new model centers designated by the NIDRR this year, UPMC-SCI will work independently and in collaboration with 15 model centers across the United States, such as the renowned Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, to improve care for patients with spinal cord injury.

“As a Center of Excellence, we’ve made remarkable advances in the treatment of persons with spinal cord injuries and are excited that this grant will allow us to expand our research and become a nationally recognized resource for information on mobility assistive technology,” said Rory Cooper, Ph.D., UPMC-SCI engineering director and chair of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS).

UPMC-SCI will incorporate and be supported by a number of programs at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, as well as organizations within the greater Pittsburgh area, including the Center for Assistive Technology (CAT) at the University of Pittsburgh, which is dedicated to enhancing the lives of persons with disabilities through the use of appropriate assistive technology devices. The CAT was established in 1995, and since has grown to serve more than 200 clients a year.

Other partners include the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a joint venture between UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh and the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and a Center of Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technologies that is renowned for its technical expertise and associations with AT manufacturers; the certified spinal cord injury unit at UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital, an 85-bed inpatient hospital; and the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Wheeled Mobility, a program within SHRS.

“Having a model center with this level of clinical and engineering resources in assistive technology will enable large, multi-center trials that will contribute substantially to improving the quality of life of patients with spinal cord injuries,” added Dr. Boninger.

The NIDRR is a division of the United States Department of Education’s Department of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services dedicated to maximizing the research, social integration, employment and independence of persons with disabilities.

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