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  • Project No: iCASE 2022 project 6
  • Intake: iCASE 2022

Co-supervisor: Prof Andrew Carr, Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences and  Prof Perla Maiolino, Engineering Science

Commercial partner: Devanthro GmbH, Munich, Germany

Injuries of tendons at the shoulder joint represent a growing medical and economic burden. Surgical repair is commonly performed but, due to the poor ability of the tissue to regenerate, about 40% of shoulder tendons still fail to heal within the first few months after surgery.

Tissue engineering is a promising repair strategy that involves the development of bioreactors that generate tendon tissue in vitro using the patient's cells, scaffolds and mechanical stimulation. However, more advanced bioreactors are needed to provide functional tendon grafts. Current bioreactors mostly provide uniaxial cyclic loadings, while evidence suggests that they should provide multiaxial stresses, similar to those found physiologically. In this context, we have recently developed a unique bioreactor system that uses a musculoskeletal (MSK) humanoid robotic arm to mimic the motion and forces observed at the human shoulder joint and actuate cell-materials samples (EPSRC-funded Humanoid Bioreactor project, EP/S003509/1). 

MSK humanoids aim to replicate the inner structures (muscles, tendons and bones) and the biomechanics of the human body using string actuators. They have seen major developments in recent years but have not been originally designed for biomedical applications and therefore need improvement. For instance, MSK humanoid shoulders offer a limited range of motion, in part due to the fact that the scapula has not been replicated. Mimicking more closely the human shoulder’s biomechanics and anatomy would be greatly beneficial to our investigation of the potential of these robotic systems for biomedical applications.

This PhD project will focus on the development of a clinically relevant shoulder model that is compatible with our bioreactor system

The main goals of the project are including:

  1. Understand the hardware and software involved in Devanthro’s robotic platform.
  2. Develop a biomimetic shoulder joint taking into account the anatomy and biomechanics of the human shoulder. Involving the scapula as part of the shoulder joint and achieving the human shoulder range of motions and forces will be key considerations.
  3. Develop and integrate stretchable sensors that provide information about the position of the shoulder components and about stresses applied by the different robotic muscles.
  4. Evaluate the performances (range of motions and forces) of the novel biomimetic shoulder and compare them to human shoulder and original robotic shoulder using the stretchable sensors. Improve the biomimetic shoulder design if necessary.
  5. Define loading regimes for bioreactor experiments.
  6. Demonstrate the potential of the biomimetic robotic shoulder by using it in combination with the bioreactor system under development in the research group. This will involve the culture of human cells in collaboration with group members.

This is a highly multidisciplinary project that involved various aspects of mechatronics and biomechanics. Although a clear end medical application is proposed here, a much wider range of biomedical applications might benefit from this work, including biomaterials testing and mechanotransduction studies. In addition, this project will be of benefit to Devanthro more directly by contributing to the development of better MSK humanoid joints.

For more information and to apply visit the Medical Sciences Division website