Fairfield University engineering students awarded Connecticut Space grant for bone density monitor to help astronauts and the aging


Image: Space grantFairfield University School of Engineering students are working on a medical device that will alert astronauts and the aging to problematic bone mineral density loss, a condition effecting many Americans that can lead to fractures and loss of mobility.

Called an 'Infrared Bone Densitometer and Photoplethysmograph,' it's a wearable, non-invasive and compact device that uses infrared light to monitor bone mineral density loss and blood flow. It can be equally beneficial to the many men and women who suffer chronically from osteoporosis that leads to brittle and easily fractured bones, those needing to monitor bone healing, and people suffering from Celiac disease. It can also be a helpful device for astronauts living for extended periods in a weightless condition, a situation that causes bone density loss.

Undergraduates Stephanie Sutherby, of Ipswich, Massachusetts; Robert Garrone, of the Town of Islip, New York; Michael Raymond, of Amityville, New York; and Joseph Musubire recently received a $1,000 grant to develop it from the West Hartford, Conn.-based Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium, a NASA supported group encouraging research and education in space, aerospace science and engineering. The students are working on the device for the 'Senior Design Course,' in which undergraduates majoring in different disciplines of engineering (mechanical, electrical, computer, software, automated manufacturing) come together to design a tool, vehicle or system that is needed in the marketplace but hasn't been invented yet. Eamonn Grant, Daniel Liashek, and Rafique Vahora who all graduated from the School of Engineering last year, initiated the project in 2012.

"It has the potential capability of transmitting data [wirelessly] to an Excel spreadsheet, an email or some other form of media," said Garrone, an electrical engineering major. "We hope to market it toward osteoporosis patients as an alternative to hospital visits with specialists."

The device can be crucial. Everyone loses some bone mass as they age because bones naturally become thinner. A bone mineral density (BMD) test measures how much calcium and other vital minerals are in bones, and knowing that data can help health care providers detect if someone is at risk for bone fractures.            

In effect, the Fairfield students' device can provide key info so that people will know whether they need to take precautionary steps to increase their bone strength by taking vitamin supplements or by doing weight-bearing exercises like walking, for example.

For astronauts, the situation of living in space can lead to fractured bones, other serious bone problems and loss of mobility. The standard medical exam for bone mass density involves either X-Rays or radioactive tracers. Both of these procedures require big heavy equipment and the patient needs to lie still in a machine for about 30 minutes. This scenario is not something practical for monitoring astronauts on the Space Station. The students' idea is to use small infrared LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) and non-invasive IR (Infrared Radiation) sensors in a small package that an astronaut could wear on his or her arm.

"This device measures the bone mineral density of astronauts to track the depletion, so when astronauts return to Earth we can determine if their bones are strong enough to sustain their own body weight when exposed to the force of gravity again," said Shah Etemad, Ph.D., chairman and associate professor of mechanical engineering, who is serving as the students' mentor with Ryan Munden, Ph.D., assistant professor of electrical engineering. (E. Vagos Hadjimichael, Ph.D., professor of Physics and Engineering, mentored the previous student team.)

The engineering students recently received additional funding to develop the device when Garrone won $1,000 for best overall pitch on Startup Day, part of Fairfield University's student Business Plan Competition (fairfield.edu/businessplan). For more information about the School of Engineering, visit http://www.fairfield.edu/soe/.

Image: Fairfield University School of Engineering students recently received a grant from the Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium. (L-R) Stephanie Sutherby, of Ipswich, Massachusetts; Robert Garrone, of the Town of Islip, New York; and Michael Raymond, of Amityville, New York. Not pictured Joseph Musubire.

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on January 28, 2014

Vol. 46, No. 162