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Fred Werner: Building Better Bones At SUNY Upstate Medical

Fred Werner: Building Better Bones At SUNY Upstate Medical

It started as a simple job at a rehabilitation center in 1975, where the goal was to help people heal. Back then, there wasn’t a dedicated research building or cutting-edge materials. Or hydraulic presses. Today, Frederick Werner, head biomechanics engineer and researcher for the orthopedics department at SUNY Upstate Medical University works in a state-of-the-art lab with advanced materials and complex machines. But, the goal remains the same: help people heal and live normal lives.

Along with Dr. Brian Harley, Werner co-directs orthopedic residents’ research projects. They meet with residents eight times a year to share new data, and they mentor the research projects the doctors must complete as a part of their residency.

Orthopedic biomechanics research projects vary from a clinical focus which tests the effectiveness of different treatments, to a biomechanical focus which studies the efficiency or relative performance of materials used in various prosthetics. That variety is clearly a source of pride and joy to Werner.

One recent project from a resident tested the performance of various sizes and thicknesses of plastic bone plates. Doctors implant these plates to reinforce weak and fractured bones, and this particular research project was a search for the minimum required plate that would provide the best support for healing. Werner and the resident tested various plates by applying compressive force through MTS machines, a specialized testing and sensing  machine that applies measured hydraulic forces. The research found that there was a plate option that could be used to improve surgery.

“We’re trying to figure out what are the best surgeries for orthopedic surgeons to do to help patients. It is in general to look at orthopedic surgical problems that can be solved by different kind of surgeries or implants. When we discover new findings, we publish [them] and make [them] available to the public in medical journals,” Werner said.

A thinner but stronger plate meant that surgeons wouldn’t have to strip off as much living tissue to put into place, and the patient’s bones could be stronger and more whole.

That kind of innovation clearly makes Werner both happy and and fulfilled. He gets to exercise his engineering skills as well as help doctors improve their care.

“I’ve seen a lot change over the years from how things are tested to how companies develop products. There are always new ways to do things from manufacturing and design work, but also testing” Werner said. “And I have a lot of fun making hydraulic equipment.”

  • Frederick Werner and his handy skeleton assistant , examining the human wrist bones.
  • Examining wrist x-rays to measure one aspect of prosthetic performance.
  • The research lab has its own MTS machine, used to apply compression on plastic bone models for stress-testing materials and therapies.
  • Hydraulic wrist simulator used by Werner and is colleagues for research and data-gathering.
  • Lobby of the Institute of Human Performance,
  • The Institute of Human Performance located on Irving avenue.

Besides building testing equipment to generate and gather data for residents’ research projects, the orthopedics department is also thinking of ways to improve existing orthopedic implants. In a study to be published soon, Werner and his colleagues developed a new protocol for measuring five new stresses on knee implants.  The research began with a simple observation: there are many different ways of walking. Werner and his co-authors knew that manufacturers and the FDA tested artificial knees with a straight walking test. When Werner and his colleagues did their studies, however, they found that people only walk straight around 54 percent of the time.  The rest of the time we do things like pivot, or push off laterally, or step around and over things at sometimes awkward angles. Werner and the Upstate Orthopedics team devised a new testing protocol that measures stresses in five different directions. Their hope is that their research will improve knee implants world-wide.

“Anytime a new implant comes out, the FDA just decides whether it’s similar enough to a previous design. If it is, they don’t do rigorous tests. Our goal in publishing this result with the American Society for Testing and Materials is to develop standards for alternate profiles to be tested when examining new implants,” Werner said.

About The Author

Chantel Morel

Chantel is an NYC native and current graduate student at Syracuse University. Her interests include writing, traveling and baking.

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