Upwardly mobile

Upwardly mobile

As aging baby boomers nurse their aching joints, Queen's University researchers are working to keep them moving
February 24, 2004

At an age when most people see the future through rose-coloured glasses, 31-year-old Donna Rychlo was forced to face the cold, grey reality of hers.

That’s when Rychlo was diagnosed with congenital hip dysplasia and found out she would spend the rest of her life in pain, between surgeries, and worst of all, anticipating the moment when she would have to roll through life perched on the vinyl seat of a wheelchair.

But then she met Dr. John Rudan.

Rudan—an Orthopaedic Surgeon at Kingston General Hospital and a Principal Investigator at the Human Mobility Rsearch Centre (HMRC)—is the person responsible for changing Rychlo’s life using a number of surgeries and innovative treatments to keep her on her feet. Today, 12 years after her initial diagnosis, the 43-year-old pharmacist, wife, and mother of two is an active and mobile baby boomer who’s optimistic about her future. How did it happen?

When Rudan first assessed Rychlo he warned her against signing up for hip-replacement surgery—an invasive surgery that would likely need to be repeated several times. Instead, he suggested an innovative computer-assisted surgical technique. The technique would allow her to delay hip-replacement surgery until the technology and the materials had been perfected—and became more long lasting. “The longer I waited, the more chance I’d have that technology would improve to the extent that I’d only need the surgery once,” says Rychlo. “I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair. If I had done the surgery back then, I’d probably be in a wheelchair today.”

The computer-assisted surgery that Rudan used was developed at the new $5.5 million HMRC research facility, a partnership with Queen’s University and Kingston General Hospital in Kingston, Ontario. The HMRC is providing fresh hope and alternative treatments for people who have experienced a loss of mobility due to joint problems, sports injuries, car accidents, arthritis, osteoporosis, and just plain old aging. Funded in part with a $1.7 million contribution from the CFI, the Centre is home to a unique collaboration of researchers in the disciplines of medicine, engineering, health sciences, and information technology.

First formed in 1999, the HMRC brings together some of North America's top engineers, surgeons, researchers, bio-medical scientists, information technology and computer experts, and clinicians. It gives them state-of-the-art research facilities, and challenges them to work together to find a better solutions for a long list of health and mobility issues.

“If you start with the idea that these elements have to go together, then the researchers themselves determine a way to do it,” says Dr. Bryant, a mechanical engineer and Principal Investigator at HMRC. “As soon as we saw how computers and Information Technology could affect the way we deal with mobility issues, then things went in an entirely new direction.”

The HMRC has specialized labs for connective tissue, bio-simulation, tissue processing, prosthesis design, software development, and gait analysis. It’s where they’re developing such innovations as bone cements, bone graft substitutes, and synthetic fluid lubricants used to assess the amount of wear on a knee or hip joint. The CFI is also providing funding for the Centre to construct one of the world’s first computer-assisted surgical suites.

Although the HMRC is well-equipped to handle total joint replacement, Bryant says much of the Centre’s research is focused on prevention and delaying surgical procedures for as long as possible. He says many baby boomers have hit the “55 bump” and are starting to experience joint problems. The goal is to keep their joints functioning as long as possible. That means forgoing radical and invasive surgeries—like hip and knee replacements—and using innovative, less-invasive treatments that repair damaged cartilage and bones without disturbing the surrounding areas.


More than a third of the world’s population over age 55 is affected by bone diseases and joint problems. As high as it seems, researchers believe the number could go higher. As the population ages and more baby boomers enter their “golden years,” they say there’s potential for the problem to deteriorate.

More than the generation that preceded them, baby boomers are keenly aware of the importance of good nutrition and exercise—with many of them subjecting their bodies to extreme activity like high-impact aerobics and hours on the treadmill. But as they age, the resulting problems could put a serious strain on their joints—not to mention government health care budgets. “We know that the baby boomers are aging,” says Dr. Bryant. “So there’s a lot of effort going into getting the system working and ready to deal with the mobility and joint issues that are definitely headed our way. It’s a global problem.”

As a result, there’s a renewed focus among health care researchers on creative new treatments that involve multidisciplinary approaches. And despite the success of some traditional joint-replacement approaches, the emphasis is now on less invasive methods, especially if the societal costs associated with diseases such as arthritis and osteoporosis are to be contained.

But it’s not all bad news. In 10 years, it’s expected that alternatives to total joint replacement will be commonplace. And in 20 years, it may be possible to routinely treat structurally deficient load-bearing tissues in the body through the use of minimally invasive computer-aided methods—such as those being used by Dr. Rudan.


A key aspect of the Human Mobility Research Centre is its potential to link researchers across industry sectors and to create partnerships with private companies. “In the health care sector, if you don’t have private-sector involvement,“ says Dr. Tim Bryant, “then you’re not going to get the research and the product to the patient. It’s that simple.”

Over the past decade, the HMRC and Queen’s University have established valuable partnerships and interactions with a number of pharmaceutical and health-oriented companies. The HMRC has also benefited from support from government-related organizations—including the CFI.

Ontario Innovation Trust
The Ontario Innovation Trust helps fund the capital costs of research for Ontario’s universities, hospitals, colleges, and research institutes. It invests in equipment, scientific collections and specimens, computer software, information databases, communications linkages, and other similar property used primarily to carrying out research.

Ontario Challenge Fund
The Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund promotes research excellence in the province by increasing the R&D capacity of Ontario universities and other research institutions—through private- and public-sector partnerships.

DePuy Orthopaedics
A designer, manufacturer, and distributor of orthopaedic devices and supplies including hip, knee, ankle, shoulder, wrist, elbow, and finger replacements. DePuy researchers were at the forefront of the total hip-replacement concept introduced in the early 1960s. They continue to be pioneers in new product development for innovative and less-invasive technologies that improve the quality of life for patients. In Canada, DePuy is distributed through Johnson & Johnson Medical products, a division of Johnson & Johnson, Inc.

Stryker Howmedica Osteonics
A global leader in the development, manufacture, and sale of orthopaedic products and services. The company’s hip and knee systems, as well as their bone cement and bone substitutes, are designed to help patients lead healthier, more active lives. They provide the HMRC with products that make surgery and recovery from an orthopaedic implant procedure simpler, faster, and more effective.