Pitt, CMU get $15 million grant to create institute for aged, disabled

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Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette

Lauren Hatcher, 15, of Franklin Park, pulls her wheelchair up to University of Pittsburgh student Erica Authier, left, whose GameCycle Exercise System allows wheelchair users to play a video game (here Need for Speed Underground) as they exercise on the hand bike. Ms. Authier is developing the project as her master's thesis project in Pitt's bioengineering program.

By David Templeton
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Twenty percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older in 2030, and 75 million Americans will have some sort of disability.

With such large percentages of the population involved, it's become a national health care priority to help them remain independent and productive and prevent or delay their entry into nursing homes.

Success in that effort could not only improve lives but save billions in health care costs, officials say.

For those reasons, the National Science Foundation has awarded a $15 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University to establish a center to improve the quality of life for disabled and aging populations.

During a news conference yesterday at Carnegie Mellon, that university's president, Jared L. Cohon, and Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg announced that the schools are using the grant to create the Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center.

The center will develop technologies to improve the lives of disabled and elderly Americans; allow them to live longer, happier lives at home; and improve prospects that they can continue working or enter the work force for the first time.

New technologies could include improved wheelchairs, electronic devices to assist people in their daily lives, and robots that can communicate with people and remind them to take their medications.

"In a phrase, we will improve the lives of millions of people, and nothing short of that, in Pittsburgh and across the nation," Dr. Cohon said, noting the grant will benefit both universities and Pittsburgh.

The grant covers five years, with hope that funding can be extended for years afterward. The center initially will employ as many as 15 people. The universities still must decide where in Oakland it will be located.

Once in operation, the center will include laboratories for research and technology development.

"We also expect this work to be a catalyst for startup companies that will bring jobs to the region and further strengthen Pittsburgh's reputation as a center for development and commercialization of health-related technology," Dr. Cohon said in a news release.

Lynn Preston of the science foundation could not be reached for comment about the grant. But university officials said proposals for the grants were highly competitive because of the size of the grants. Only five proposals received funding.

Dr. Cohon and Mr. Nordenberg said the universities already have research under way in this area, making it possible to enter the project on the run.

Center directors will include Takeo Kanade, Carnegie Mellon's Helen Whitaker university professor of computer science and robotics, and Rory Cooper, distinguished professor and chairman of Pitt's School of Rehabilitation Sciences and Technology.

It's not the first time for such a partnership. The two universities received science foundation funding in 1986 to establish the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, then received a $25 million grant in 2004 to create the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center.

Carnegie Mellon also established two other science foundation engineering research centers: the Engineering Design Research Center, established in 1987 and now known as the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems, and the Data Storage Systems Center, established in 1990.

Pitt serves as the lead institution for the foundation's Center for e-Design and Realization of Engineered Products and Systems, established in 2003 to revolutionize product development by incorporating information from consumers and manufacturers into the design process.

After the news conference, the school officials demonstrated some of the technologies that are already used to assist aged and disabled people.

They included a robotic walker that steadies people as they walk and helps them find their destinations; a social robot that can speak with people, follow them and use elevators; technology that customizes wheelchairs to the strength and abilities of the user; a driving game wheelchair users can use to develop arm strength and coordination; an "eWatch" that can monitor a person's location and health; and a device that reads bar codes to help the visually impaired shop.

Technology to be developed includes intelligent systems to monitor health and activities of people, prompt failing memories and control household appliances. Mobile systems will be developed for people to ride and robots to accompany them in daily activities.

Advancements can be installed in homes to help them function and in the workplace so disabled people can work.

"We will use innovative technology to prolong, preserve and improve the quality of their lives," Mr. Nordenberg said. "I don't know what could be a more noble venture."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578


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