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Rory A. Cooper
Michael L. Boninger


University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Pitt Researchers, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Receive $7.5 Million Grant from Department of Veterans Affairs to Establish Center of Excellence for Wheelchair Technology

PITTSBURGH, August 4, 1999 — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) and the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation have received a $7.5 million, five-year grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct studies on the use of wheelchairs for illness and trauma rehabilitation and to establish a Center of Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technology (WaRT). The research will be done at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a joint venture between Pitt, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

The grant was awarded to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System with Pitt as its academic partner and was announced today at a news conference at HERL, one of only nine centers nationwide that has been designated a Center of Excellence. Rory Cooper, Ph.D., HERL’s director, and Michael Boninger, M.D., medical director, will serve as principal investigators.

"We are extremely grateful to receive such an important award," said Dr. Cooper, who is professor and chairman, department of rehabilitation science and technology at SHRS. "This grant will have a positive impact on the quality of life for veterans who use wheelchairs and related technologies."

Under WaRT, the research projects are divided into two main sections, application of and innovation in wheelchair and related technologies. Dr. Boninger will direct the application division, and Dr. Cooper will direct the innovation division.

"In each area, the goals are to discover new knowledge, processes and technology that directly influence the design, selection, prescription and configuration of wheelchairs and other assistive devices," said Dr. Boninger, who is the research director for the division of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Pitt and an assistant professor in the department of orthopaedic surgery.

The WaRT will address five main areas: rehabilitation for those with traumatic and other brain injuries; Parkinson’s disease; stroke rehabilitation; multiple sclerosis; and spinal cord injury and disease. Most of the research, however, will focus on multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.

More than 10 research projects will be initiated under the WaRT as a result of the funding, including:

  • An innovative study on the clinical efficacy of using telephone-based video and data systems, or telerehabilitation, for wheelchair assessment. The study is designed to address two major problems facing veterans who use wheelchairs: a shortage of qualified specialists for wheelchair prescription and lack of access to services in rural areas;
  • A study to improve the way people with multiple sclerosis are provided with wheel chairs;
  • A study to evaluate head and neck injury risk associated with wheelchair seating when exposed to rear impact motor vehicle collision;
  • A long-term study to evaluate the development of new wheelchair technology, including mid-wheel drive electric powered wheelchairs, in-hub drive systems for power assist of manual wheelchairs and integration of robotics technology with wheelchairs;
  • A study to evaluate the use of dogs to increase function and psychological well-being among wheelchair users.

Also as result of the funding, three new full-time VA positions, including a clinical, an administrative and a computer system-support position, will be created immediately, with more expected in the future. In addition, HERL will expand its laboratory space at the Highland Drive division of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System by 5,000 square feet. The center also will build research capacity by training additional Pitt graduate students and medical residents.

"The establishment of this new Center of Excellence for Wheelchair Technology will assist us in continuing to put veterans first into the new millennium. It also will make possible clinical breakthroughs that will benefit the veteran and civilian population in Pittsburgh and throughout the country," said Thomas A. Cappello, director, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

Other similar Centers of Excellence are located in Seattle; Houston; Palo Alto, Calif.; Cleveland; Portland, Ore.; Atlanta; West Haven, Conn.; and Gainesville, Fla.

Dr. Cooper founded HERL in January 1994. It is currently the nation’s only wheelchair testing laboratory outside the private sector. The laboratory tests wheelchairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Drug Administration and three large wheelchair manufacturers.


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