Balasubramanian poses alongside a skeletal scoliosis model

When one thinks of a career in the fashion industry, it is not often the word “research” comes to mind. Dr. Mahendran Balasubramanian, an assistant professor in the Texas Tech Department of Design, goes against the grain in his moves to develop a more functional, comfortable brace for children diagnosed with scoliosis. 

Dr. Balasubramanian earned his bachelor’s degree in fashion technology from Anna University in India. He went on to graduate with his master’s and Ph.D. in apparel design and product development from Auburn University and Oklahoma State University, respectively.

Balasubramanian’s research utilizes laser-based 3D body scanning technology, which allows the user to capture an image of the entire body and create a digital model. Any measurements can be taken from the model, including height, surface area and volume. 

“Traditionally, we (didn’t) have this kind of information and it was not easily accessible,” Balasubramanian said. “But with this technology, you can have more information on the human body. Using that, you can develop the product that the human is going to be using.”

The usage of this technology highlights a focus on human-centered design, a major component of Balasubramanian’s research. Human-centered design implies that a product is created for a specific person according to their body’s needs; to develop these products and gain a complete understanding of a person’s body is necessary. 

The focus of Balasubramanian’s research is on pediatric scoliosis, which he defined as a three-dimensional deformation of the spine, or when the spine is not in its normal position. Scoliosis is often diagnosed from ages 9 to 15 and is treated with physical therapy, brace therapy and, in extreme cases, surgery. 

“After a certain point, the spine is still curving and not under control because they are growing,” Balasubramanian said. “The purpose of therapy and treatment is mainly to control it, but in some cases it is not possible. When it is not possible, they have to go for the surgery.” 

While scoliosis primarily impacts the spine, the deformation can apply pressure to organs and have an impact on the body as a whole. 

“The spine is very important for treatment, but if you are going to design a product for the body then you are going to need the deformation of the body on a surface level, not just a skeletal level,” Balasubramanian said. 

Traditional X-rays allow for an understanding of the skeletal deformation, but it is the 3D body scanning technology that provides the quantified information on the surface-level impact. 

For his research, Balasubramanian has developed computational models to produce this quantification, which can then be used to develop braces. 

“Braces are the most commonly initiated treatment at the beginning stages of scoliosis,” Balasubramanian said. “The purpose of the brace is to basically minimize the deformation and stabilize the growth in a certain direction.”

These braces are essentially a shell casing the body fits into and are expected to be worn roughly 20 hours a day. Balasubramanian highlighted that this expectation is difficult, especially for kids. Functionally, the braces are working, but due to the discomfort they cause, it is unlikely a patient will adhere to the time requirement. 

“With the 3D body scanning technology, we are trying to capture the body scans of the scoliosis patients, or people affected with scoliosis, and then try to design a brace that is not only functional but at the same time more comfortable,” Balasubramanian said. “Even if you reduce the discomfort by 10 percent off an existing product, that itself is going to be a huge improvement and it is going to increase the rate of adherence.”

This body scanning technology, which provides nearly all the necessary information to understand the body, is also non-invasive.

In comparison to X-Rays or MRIs, which can only be carried out sporadically, 3D body scanning allows Balasubramanian to study how the deformation is progressing with more frequent scans. 

“With scanning, you can track the progress of the body,” Balasubramanian said. “Once you have the scans for six months or one year, you can overlap them and see how the body changes from month to month.”

Balasubramanian also intends to look at the socio-psychological impact scoliosis has on patients, specifically in kids. Although he is still in the early design and preparation stages, Balasubramanian expects to continue his research at Tech and soon will recruit scoliosis patients to begin scanning their bodies, and eventually begin personalized product development.

Throughout this process, Balasubramanian’s main goal is to better the lives of people struggling with scoliosis. 

“(The research) is something you can apply to a real problem,” Balasubramanian said. “Even if you improve at least 5 percent of the quality (of life) of a scoliosis (patient), that is a big improvement.”

As his research and development continue to progress, Dr. Mahendran Balasubramanian will continue his work to create a functional, comfortable brace for children whose lives have been impacted by scoliosis.

Supported by a university that emphasizes the benefits of research, Balasubramanian will attempt, and likely succeed, to make an impact on the lives of the people he hopes to help. 

“The overall idea is to help the community or society have a better quality of life,” Balasubramanian said. “My focus is on these people, and I’m trying to do whatever I can. And if that brings even a small improvement in their lives, then I will be happy.” 

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