Nature Inspires Research Ideas to Improve Medical Care

Season Osborne

November 10, 2019


David Hu, PhD, from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is studying animal biomechanics to inspire clinical innovations that can help humans

David Hu, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering and biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, wonders about everyday things that other people take for granted.

How does a dog dry itself? How long does it take to urinate? His simple questions have led to surprising discoveries that are leading to innovative medical technologies.

"A lot of fields have found inspiration in how animals move," Hu told Medscape Medical News. "Movement like running and swimming and flying requires able joint motion," he explained. "There are a huge number of degrees of freedom you need to just be an animal. If they get wet, how do they get dry? They can't get a towel; they shake to get dry. It's the range of motion of the joints."

Freedom of movement is essential for animal survival, but it can also have an effect on quality of life, which Hu has up-close experience with; his grandmother lived with lupus for 30 years. The autoimmune disease twisted her fingers and stiffened her joints so that she couldn't bend them.

Speaking at the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 2019 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Hu will discuss the biomechanics of animal locomotion during his lecture, entitled How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls.

How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls

His humorous lecture will be a departure from the other rheumatologic sessions at the ACR, but there are many lessons to be learned from animals, Hu said. The Wright brothers were looking at how birds fly, he pointed out, before the two American aviation pioneers flew the world's first successful airplane.

The field of biomechanics is the study of mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms. "A lot of research can take you to places you haven't been before and expands the breadth of society's knowledge," he explained.

In 2015, Hu won the Ig Nobel Prize for his 21-second rule — the average time it takes mammals to empty a full bladder regardless of size.

Turns out it takes dogs, elephants, and humans about 21 seconds to pee.

The Ig Nobel Prize is intended to "spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology," according to the website. Unlike the Nobel Prize, it is awarded for research achievements that make "you laugh, and then think."

However, the urination study garnered some negative attention.

Former Senator Jeff Flake named Hu one of America's most wanted scientists for conducting wasteful research.

Hu's response, published in a Scientific American blog, talked about the amazing things learned from animal research that can lead to new technologies for humans.

And the urination study did just that.

A Japanese urologist showed how the model could be used to determine the strength of the bladder muscle. And engineers who had no way to test how effective their artificial urethras would be over time were able to test durability using a 21-second flow every 2 hours.

Medical fields that use movement technologies could benefit from mimicking nature's best movements.

Hu's research on animal biomechanics provides inspiration for engineers designing objects and systems, said Daniel Chu, MD, associate professor in the Division of Gastrointestinal Surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"I am a surgeon, so my perspective veers toward surgical technologies, which is where I foresee many translations of David's work," he said.

"Animal movements are some of the most efficient, flexible, and time-tested actions on this planet," said Chu. "Medical fields that use movement technologies could benefit from mimicking nature's best movements. These include the fields of robotics in surgery, endoscopy in gastroenterology, and even prosthetic device development for those with severe rheumatologic diseases."

The frontier of innovation is always open, and applying nature's designs to health may be one such innovation," he told Medscape Medical News.

Basic science "has real utility," Hu added. It can also make you laugh, and it can make you think.

American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 2019 Annual Meeting. November 9, 2019.

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