Areas of Specialization
- Sports injuries
- Medical imagery
- Pain disabilities
Dr. David Wilson is a Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at UBC. He received his D. Phil. in Engineering Science from the University of Oxford for work on the 3-dimensional kinematics of the knee, followed by a fellowship in orthopaedic biomechanics. His research interests include sports medicine, joint reconstruction/ replacement, and medical imaging. Dr. Wilson is renowned for his research on the links between joint mechanics, clinical symptoms, and the success of orthopaedic procedures. His team has expertise in non-invasive assessments of cartilage health, including the use of emerging MRI techniques, such as delayed gadolinium-enhanced MRI of cartilage (dGEMRIC), to detect changes in osteoarthritic joints much earlier than conventionally possible. Dr. Wilson was awarded a Canadian Arthritis Network New Investigator award.
Even as a child, Dave was fascinated with the way things worked. When he wasn’t building something—tree houses, go-carts or electronic gizmos—he was taking them apart to study their inner workings. Today, his fascination with all things mechanical remains intact, but it’s much more than child’s play.
While earning his PhD in Engineering Science from England’s Oxford University—and as a member of the school’s competitive rowing team—Wilson decided to focus on biomedical engineering. “I saw lots of injuries and joint problems in my teammates,” says Wilson. “And I thought what a good application of engineering, to study the mechanics of the joints.”
On his return to North America, he did post-doc fellowships at John Hopkins University and Harvard University in orthopedic biomechanics. He’s now applying that knowledge to demystifying the joints, which he dubs the most interesting mechanical structures in the human anatomy. And he hopes his work will lead to early diagnosis and early interventions that prevent osteoarthritis, a painful, degenerative joint disease that often requires knee or hip replacements.
“Osteoarthritis really slows people down,” Wilson says. “It forces them to be less active at a time in their lives when it’s critical to stay active.”
Understanding the links between clinical symptoms such as pain and joint mechanics is the best way to develop effective interventions, says Wilson. And he and his team were among the first to use medical imaging such as X-Rays, CT Scans, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) and ultrasound to study joint function and understand why some people develop osteoarthritis and others don’t.
Recently, an exciting new weapon was added to the arsenal of imaging equipment at Wilson’s disposal. The new machine has led to more “aha” moments than even he could predict. It’s called an Upright Open MRI scanner and of the dozen around the world, this one is the only one dedicated to research.
“This machine is special,” says Wilson, “because it allows us to look at the joint in action—while it’s bearing weight. We can get images while patients are sitting, standing or squatting, impossible with a conventional MRI, which requires patients to lie motionless inside a tube. And we’re seeing things with that scanner we’ve never seen before. Every month, we see something new.”
Of course, machines are only part of the equation, says Wilson: “At the Centre, we have such strong links to clinicians—orthopedic surgeons, rheumatologists, physical therapists, physicists and radiologists—and they help shape the most interesting questions.”
That combination of people and technology is allowing Wilson to test the theory that debilitating hip osteoarthritis is the progressive result of subtle hip bone deformities present in people as young as 20 to 50—rather than a condition that just happens to some people as they age. “It’s believed that these bone deformities are present in as much as 25 percent of the population,” Wilson says.
As part of his five-year study, the research team will scan and monitor 140 young and middle-aged patients with hip pain in the Upright MRI. “The more we can learn about the cause of that joint pain, using the unique capabilities of this machine, the better able we are to design effective treatment and preventions strategies for osteoarthritis,” he says.
And that’s good news for the more than one million British Columbians projected to be treated for osteoarthritis in the next 25 years—and for the 85 percent of Canadians over the age of 75 currently living with the disease.