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Here's how ingenuity and imagination at CU are transforming the quality of life here and around the world

The patient was an 18-month-old girl, and everything that could be wrong with her heart was.

The surgeon at Children's Hospital Colorado faced a dilemma: repair just one ventricle of her heart, or try for both, inserting tubes to reroute the blood inside her heart so it could pump the way it was supposed to. Each choice carried substantial implications for her quality of life, for the rest of her life.

Enter Jennifer Wagner. A research instructor in the Department of Bioengineering on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, Wagner creates 3D models of organs and other body parts, like the heart of the 18-month-old girl. Using one such 3D model, the surgeon practiced and planned the approach for the girl's complex double ventricular surgery, ensuring the medical tubing would indeed fit the unique curves of her heart successfully.

Basically, Wagner helps surgeons be better surgeons.

For the last decade, CU Anschutz has used 3D printing to make models of hearts, spines, skulls and even brain tumors. These 3D replicas give surgeons a true-to-life visual of what they see on the computer screen-but in the palm of their hands before they ever set foot in the operating room.

"As engineers, we live in 3D space. We're hands-on, and we love building things," Wagner says. "To me, using 3D printing in surgical planning made perfect sense. It helps remove the medical lexicon that can interfere sometimes. Having this 3D model in hand allows families, and surgical teams, to not only understand the procedure but ask questions. It allows different perspectives to converge upon the problem, and we're able to speak to a common object from various perceptions."

3D models are used by surgical teams to better plan for complicated surgeries of the youngest patients. They're used in the classroom to help surgical students get a more authentic feel of what it's like to cut into a human body before they need to. They're used to show families what is physically wrong with their loved one and how CU physicians are going to fix it.

Wagner's 3D printing lab is one example of technological innovation at CU. As the university's researchers, faculty, staff and students push more boundaries, they're discovering how their curiosity and courage are helping change the world.

A 3D-printed heart (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)
A 3D-printed heart (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)

Improving water supplies for millions worldwide

Sometimes it's something as complex as a 3D-printed heart. Sometimes it's something as simple as water.

Many people around the world lack access to clean, drinkable water, and a U.S. company that's affiliated with CU is attempting to help. SweetSense Inc. is partnering with local governments to implant remote satellite sensors in wells throughout drought-stricken African nations. These sensors alert local technicians on the ground when a well breaks, and they capture data about weekly water flows. The satellite technology gives hope for a water source that works consistently and safely for residents.

Better water management results in more usable water for communities, improved agriculture and reduced disease, says Evan Thomas, the SweetSense CEO and director of the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities at CU Boulder. Research teams are monitoring the water supplies of more than a million people in Kenya and Ethiopia using satellite-connected sensors. The goal is to reach 5 million people in the next year.

The mission of the Mortenson Center, which was founded 10 years ago thanks to a philanthropic gift, is to apply advancements in engineering to help communities. Thomas, who studied global engineering through the center as an undergraduate student, is now leading the next generation of CU students and alumni making a global impact in innovative ways.

"I'm confident that we can make a positive difference and leverage the tremendous resources of the University of Colorado for the benefit of our partner communities around the world," Thomas says.

Associate Professor Chris Yakacki inspects a football helmet in the SMAB lab at CU Denver. His startup company uses a lab-developed liquid-crystal foam technology for a better football helmet. (Photo courtesy of CU Denver)
Associate Professor Chris Yakacki inspects a football helmet in the SMAB lab at CU Denver. His startup company uses a lab-developed liquid-crystal foam technology for a better football helmet. (Photo courtesy of CU Denver)

The impact of CU's innovation, though, starts here in Colorado.

These are some of the numerous examples across the university's four campuses where CU researchers and faculty incubate and accelerate innovation, sometimes through partnerships with industry, government and nonprofits.

Innovation addressing a 'civil rights issue'

CU's talented researchers have fostered 182 startups in the last 21 years, landing the university in the top 5 percentile nationally for university business startups. CU provides competitions, prototyping labs, makerspaces and accelerators that redefine existing industries, help new economies emerge and bring innovative concepts to market.

Take, for example, a robot that helps students with autism learn social skills. Or new video captioning technology that uses embedded clickable links to assist deaf viewers.

These are two of the innovations imagined by the National Collaborative for Disability and Technology, a network of 200 engineers and people with disabilities who work together to co-develop assistive technology. This worldwide collaboration has generated 45 innovative software and hardware applications used by thousands of people around the world with disabilities.

Scott Kupferman, an assistant professor in UCCS' College of Education and coordinator of the Special Education Program, is the group's director. Earlier this year, Kupferman shared his work at United Nations symposiums in South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, and again in Japan this November. He hopes Fortune 500 companies will one day design better technology that's accessible to a broader range of people.

"Assistive technology is really a civil rights issue," he says. "It's about advocacy. People with disabilities don't need to be fixed or cured. It's the technology that needs to be fixed."

This is the driving question behind all innovative ideas: What if we can do better? Let's try.

So they do. At CU Anschutz, surgeons come to Wagner's lab with medical images and ask her to produce a 3D model in the hopes it will improve patient care. Right now, one of the four printers at CU Anschutz is backed by philanthropic funding, provided by a former patient pleased with his care at the hands of a spinal surgeon.

Using what she calls "fancy math" coupled with engineering software, Wagner can spend hours, even days, transforming slices of medical images from the hospital into usable, clean data. Then again using complex software, she restacks the information, layer by plasticky layer, into a printable 3D object.

"I don't think being a doctor would be for me, but that doesn't mean I can't contribute to medicine," Wagner says. "That's why this work means a lot to me. We're bringing problems into a space where we can talk about it."

The bioengineering lab is now in the early stages of studying the effects of 3D modeling on patient care. Wagner has noticed it gives surgeons confidence about their approach before they operate. This potentially means less time under anesthesia, something especially important for pediatric patients.

It also means a better shot at life.

Wagner works in her lab. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)
Wagner works in her lab. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)