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LEBANON — Although WesternU COMP-Northwest is only 4 years old and will graduate its first class of 100 osteopathic physicians Friday, already some two dozen students in Dr. Brion Benninger’s laboratory already are knee-deep in research projects that could have big ramifications for health care.

Benninger, who has had a distinguished career on two continents in the field of health care and anatomical sciences and is executive director of the medical school’s anatomy center, is proud of the research projects his students are tackling.

Students are working on everything from developing a computer program that can be used to teach students and others how to use ultrasound equipment to other projects that use high-tech tools help train medical students and give practicing physicians insights into patients.

They are linked with private companies and other universities, such as the Johns Hopkins University and Vail-Summit Orthopedics medical office in Vail, Colorado, where broken bones due to skiing accidents are commonplace.

Although neither COMP-Northwest nor the students are rolling in royalty income, they are reaping the benefits of working with state-of-the-art equipment and technology that other first- and second-year medical students rarely see, let alone get their hands on.

“Most of our research projects are pilot studies, beta testing if you will,” Benninger said. “Most of our research is very edgy. Often, when we go to conferences and our students present research, it is extremely fresh and new to all those attending.”

For example, Ian Blandford, a 34-year-old student at Johns Hopkins University, is working toward a masters degree in biomechanical engineering while doing imaging research with Benninger at WesternU COMP-Northwest.

His wife, Stephanie Eonta, is a first-year student at WesternU COMP-Northwest, who is also conducting research with Benninger.

Benninger and Blandford are now working with a company called 7D Imaging.

Their goal is to create a thorough — but simple to use — computer program that allows novices to learn how to operate ultrasound equipment.

The two men say the program will be useful to students, but also extremely helpful to family practice doctors who might not have time to attend a training seminar. Benninger believes that in a weekend, doctors could be brought up to speed in their own offices or homes and consider adding ultrasound technology to their in-house medical tools.

 “There aren’t enough ultrasound teachers to meet the demand,” Benninger said. “We believe this program will take a student from zero to 100 mph in terms of education in a rapid period of time.”

Blandford said the difference between this program and others is its depth.

Using numerous photographic images and color coding, Blandford and Benninger walk users step-by-step through the process of taking ultrasound images of virtually every part of the human body. Instead of telling the user how to do something, the program shows them exactly where to place probes to get the best images.

“It is extremely comprehensive,” Blandford said.

Students also provide valuable, unbiased feedback, which has been used to tweak the program as it is being developed.

Blandford said he has used the program to take ultrasounds on himself numerous times.

“I had a technical knowledge of ultrasounds, but I’ve learned so much more,” he said.

Benninger said a family doctor could spend a weekend working with the program and come away with a working knowledge that he could use in his or her practice.

The program could be on the market in only a few months.

WesternU COMP-Northwest students are also working on a wide range of other research projects.

Many other WesternU COMP-Northwest students are also involved in research regarding human anatomy with emerging technologies. Here's a rundown of some of the projects:

Sectra Visualization Table

Oregon State University student David Horn, 24, has been working with Benninger for a couple years and hopes to enter medical school after graduation in a year-and-a-half.

They have worked extensively with numerous projects involving Google Glass and a variety of ultrasound probes with a company called Sonivate.

“No other medical school offers first- and second-year students as much time with ultrasound probes as we do,” Benninger said. “We do not lock up our ultrasound machines. They are available to students virtually all of the time.”

Benninger, Horn and Daniel Barrack, an OSU graduate, are now working with a 48-inch screen called a Sectra Visualization Table that Benninger said is one of very few in the United States at this time.  

The $140,000 unit was donated by Jim and Heather McDaniel, strong supporters of WesternU COMP-Northwest and Samaritan Health Services.

The tool allows doctors to input data from a CT scan or MRI and to view the scanned image from virtually any angle.

“And it allows us to use an on-screen scalpel and dissect portions of the image,” Benninger said. “This is a wonderful anatomy teaching aid.”

At WesternU COMP-Northwest, every donor body has been scanned, Benninger said, so student groups can review those images on screen as well as hands-on.

“The scanned image data is sent to Sweden where it is rendered into 3D form in less than three minutes,” Benninger said. “They can do in minutes what takes up to hours with other computer systems.”

The tool allows the students “to cut, slice and expand every part of an image. They can shade an area or highlight an area.”

Trans cavity probes

Students are also learning how to use ultrasound cavity probes, one of which is being used to research a novel ovarian screening protocol being developed by Benninger.

Benninger said this could be useful to teach students how to place catheters by using donor bodies.

“No one else is doing this,” he said.

Ultrasound technology

Students are also researching the use of ultrasound to review the healing process of broken bones.

Benninger and student P.J. Bevan are working with a Vail-Summit (Colorado) orthopedic practice on this project.

 “A doctor from that clinic flew here at his own expense to talk to our students,” Benninger said. “For years, people thought ultrasound did not show enough detail with bone issues. But, today, it clearly shows not only the break area, but how well a break is healing around what we call the collar.”

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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