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UC Irvine researchers make tests fun

UCI's Institute for Regenerative Medicine gives high school students a peek at its lab.

October 06, 2011|By Joseph Serna
  • Christina Tu, who runs the core facility for the Stem Cell Research Center at UCI, talks about how the equipment in the tissue cultural clean room facility works during a tour of the labs for high school students.
Christina Tu, who runs the core facility for the Stem Cell… (STEVEN GEORGES,…)

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.

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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."

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