As a researcher who wants to help people live better as they age, Stanford University Professor Thomas P. Andriacchi, Ph.D., not only has heart, he has sole.
His trailblazing invention – a shoe bottom designed to shift the weight of a person suffering from osteoarthritis from one side of the knee to the other – diminishes arthritis pain over time.
Andriacchi, an affiliate of the Stanford Center for Longevity. said his goal is to find a way to stave off the “wear and tear” of the debilitating disease completely. Because his special shoe changes the mechanics of knee alignment, it also changes the course of the arthritis, and studies show it reduces pain by 30 percent.
Andriacchi’s name may sound more like that of a race-car driver than a professor of biomechanical engineering and orthopedic surgery, but the Los Altos Hills resident is anything but flashy.
Speaking in his office in Stanford’s Durant building recently, Andriacchi noted that he relinquished patent rights to his employer when he licensed his shoe to The Walking Company.
“I wanted to be able to continue researching this problem” as an independent scientist, he said.
Among the questions he wants to answer is, Which biological condition causes the disease to progress?
Originally, a National Institutes of Health grant funded his project, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved a $200,000 grant for clinical
trials. He received 300 free pairs of shoes from Nike Corporation, where one of his postdoctoral students worked. It took six years to follow wearers throughout the development of the disease, which progresses slowly.
The composite material, which covers the shoe’s sole, transfers the wearer’s weight from the medial to the lateral side of the inflamed knee, so the pain lessens over time. Andriacchi developed the sole with a variable thickness, so its use is not immediately evident.
Pain is “just a symptom,” of the knee inflammation, Andriacchi said.
If the shoe fits
The shoe is as unassuming as its inventor, resembling any other walking shoe. Women’s shoes also come in a “Mary Jane” style. They can be purchased online (www.thewalkingcompany.com/abeo.htm) or at Walking Company stores for $139.95. One of his stipulations was that the company keep the price comfortable, too.
“If they were going to sell it, they had to make it reasonable to buy,” Andriacchi said.
Dubbed the “ABEO Smart System,” the shoe comes in various styles. The company began selling it in March.
Andriacchi has been on the project for more than 25 years. He came to Stanford from the University of Chicago in 1996.
“I’ve always been interested in how people walk,” he said, adding that arthritis is “the No. 1 cause of disability,” with an estimated 400,000 sufferers nationwide.
Obesity predisposes people to developing the disease, he said.
A self-proclaimed tennis fan, Andriacchi said he always liked sports and combined his interest with investigating people’s gaits. He has won numerous academic medals and awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, for his work researching the biomechanics of the human body. He also developed an artificial knee. One of his postdoctoral theses was an analysis of scoliosis and a design for a brace to reduce its effects.
Bracing older people for falls
Another of Andriacchi’s products is a medical device whose sensors alert wearers when their gait deviates from its normal pattern, predicting a fall. Hip fractures from falls leave “a lot of people bedridden, and it’s hard for them to recover,” he said.
The device, named a cellular-microelectrode hybrid biosensor, can be used as a diagnostic tool, perhaps in nursing homes, so therapists and doctors can predict how at-risk someone is for a fall.
“When I came to Stanford, I decided we should start testing people’s gaits before they really needed this device,” he said.
Because Andriacchi prefers an interdisciplinary approach, he was happy to join Director Laura Carstensen’s team at the Center on Longevity Center. He learned of the center while playing tennis with Carstensen’s husband.
“Normally I would say no to things like this, but I liked what they were proposing to do by addressing the needs of an aging population,” he said. “After all, we can now live longer, but are we living better?”
Americans are living nearly 30 years longer than their ancestors, and work like Andriacchi’s can enable people to live those years to their fullest, Carstensen said.
For more information, visit soe.stanford.edu/research/layout.php?sunetid=tandriac.