Biomechanics researcher uses artificial intelligence to detect injuries and improve treatment
Vincent Wang, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics (BEAM) in the College of Engineering, is not only passionate about research in injury detection and treatments, but interdisciplinary collaborations as well.
“Collaborations are vital,” Wang said. “I pursue what I regard to be highly important and timely clinical topics, but I’m not a physician. Combining expertise is how we address these challenges and hopefully improve others’ lives.”
A member of the Virginia Tech faculty and director of the Orthopedic Mechanobiology Laboratory since 2015, Wang has received more than $6 million in research funding to support a variety of projects related to skeletal soft tissue biomechanics, repair, and healing, including a National Institutes of Health grant for development of mechano-biologic therapies for skeletal soft tissue healing.
“It's difficult to convey all the research I do in one word or short phrase,” said Wang. “Musculoskeletal injury is the umbrella term under which it all falls, but it encompasses so much. Since joining Virginia Tech, I wanted to incorporate artificial intelligence into orthopedic research, so I’ve pursued collaborations to propel my research – to combine expertise and identify novel solutions.”
Wang conducts research in biomechanics specifically related to musculoskeletal injuries. His research in biomechanics can be further categorized as tendon healing, surgical repair, and clinical imaging. He uses both in vivo – in the body – and ex vivo methods in his research.
“The focus on biomechanics in our research represents a quantitative approach to the assessment of tissue integrity,” said Wang, who is also director of BEAM’s Industry Partners Program. “In ex vivo studies, we quantify the mechanical performance of devices and soft tissue surgical repair constructs. However, these approaches don’t allow us to consider healing. I dive deeper into that with in vivo models to assess healing at the cellular level in response to treatments such as physical therapy. Within our clinical imaging studies, we are fortunate to have diagnostic tools, which provide quantitative information related to tissue stiffness. We hope the knowledge gained in all these studies will inform and improve treatments for injury.”
His research tackles a variety of questions: What is the best way to fix a torn tendon? Are there physical therapy modalities that are more effective for healing than others? Can artificial intelligence analysis of medical images improve clinical diagnoses and predict healing?
Musculoskeletal injuries, such as small tendon tears or tissue degeneration, can be challenging for the human eye to detect on ultrasound images. Wang’s interest in artificial intelligence, coupled with his expertise in biomechanics, inspired him to use machine-learning algorithms to address this problem.
Alongside students in his lab, Wang is using clinical ultrasound images to train computers to detect these injuries with the goal of facilitating more accurate medical diagnoses. He is developing algorithms to identify features unique to injured tendons in ultrasound images provided by local clinical collaborators. The goal is to use these algorithms in clinical settings where machines can identify injuries in real-time. These analyses may assist with clinical diagnosis and injury prevention.
Initial funding for this project was received from the ICTAS Targeted Opportunity for Proposals program, which supported a new collaboration between Virginia Tech computer science for creation of algorithms and code and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) for acquiring the tendon images.
In collaboration with VCOM, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, supported by the Center for One Health Research, Wang is using in vivo models to study mechanisms whereby rehabilitative muscle loading – or exercise – results in therapeutic effects to injured tendons. When an injury occurs, not moving it could impede healing, but moving it too much could cause further injury. An injured Achilles tendon, for example, responds positively to “heel drop and raise” exercises, but the reasons why are not well understood. His research seeks to understand the reasons why.
Coupling in vivo methods with ex vivo provide a fuller understanding of soft tissue, the injuries, and a foundation for therapeutic options.
In a project funded by Carilion Innovation, conducted by a senior design team in biomedical engineering and mechanics, Wang guided students in the design of a novel medical device for the foot as a solution to plantar plate injuries. The team, also co-mentored by Jennifer Wayne, department head and professor in BEAM, and Randy Clements at Carilion Clinic, developed an implant for use in surgical repair of a patient’s plantar plate, a structure deep in the foot that assists in stabilization. The team’s design, patent-pending, is intended to reduce suture-bone abrasion and, thus, would reduce post-operation complications.
“When we showed the surgeon our design and pilot tests, the surgeon was amazed at how easy it was to use,” said Zach Kozar, a member of the senior design team and 2021 Virginia Tech alumnus. “That was really satisfying.”
“With the surgical repair projects, in a sense I return to my research roots,” said Wang. “At the beginning of my career, I worked extensively with orthopaedic surgeons to help them answer questions related to repair techniques used in the operating room. Seeing the research applied in the operating room is so rewarding – these findings are improving someone’s life and contributing to healing.”
Wang conducts research to improve lives, and he also brings this view to the classroom and to service opportunities. He was recognized by BEAM for his teaching excellence in 2022.
“Wang’s passion for his role in academics extends to teaching as well as research,” said Wayne. “He delivers required courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels where his lectures are filled with hands-on projects and applications.”
In 2015, for his excellent research and teaching, Wang was awarded the five-year Kevin P. Granata Fellowship, established in memory and honor of the eponymous tenured professor who died during the tragic shooting on April 16, 2007. Currently, Wang serves as a steering committee member for the Regenerative Medicine Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program at Virginia Tech and as a co-chair for the Virginia Tech Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus.
He received his bachelor's degree, master’s degree, and Ph.D. from Columbia University.