Claremont secondary Grade 11 student Nicolas Fedrigo is the 2018 national champion of the Canada Wide Science Fair held in Ottawa earlier this month. Photo submitted

Claremont student’s spinal probe earns nation’s top science award

Invention to recognize tissue density for spinal surgery resembles the popular 1960s game Operation

Every spring Claremont Grade 11 student Nicolas Fedrigo brainstorms the idea for his next entry into the annual science fair.

It starts the same as most of the other 139 or so entries into the Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair held at UVic.

Except that Fedrigo, who is a three-time Island winner and 2018 national champion, starts his an entire year in advance.

“As soon as the science fair is over I begin the process for the following year,” Fedrigo said. “It’s usually a lot of work so I get started early.”

This year, Fedrigo wowed judges at the Island level, winning first place at the VIRSF and made his third straight trip to the Canada Wide Science Fair in Ottawa with his pedicle probe (pedicle is a section of bone that makes up the spine), a tool that can warn the user, a surgeon, if they’re tapping into the wrong part of the spine.

He took the top prize, the Platinum Award for senior students at the Canada Wide Science Fair, a prize awarded to one of the 10 gold medal winners.

Allow Fedrigo to explain it like only a Grade 11 could in his report.

“Twenty-nine per cent of patients who undergo spinal fusions suffer from vertebral breaches from the improper placement of pedicle screws,” he states. “This causes complications such as infection and paralysis. I addressed this through developing the first pedicle probe that uses tissue-type navigation through quantifying the density gradient and cannulation force to prevent breaches.”

In other words, if a surgeon is poking the probe into the incorrect section of the spine, the tool’s LED readout lights up and its internal 100-RPM motor will vibrate. It’s kind of like the popular 1960s kids’ game Operation, but for real.

Pedicle probes already exist. They are medical devices used by surgeons to create “pilot holes” which guide the placement of pedicle screws for spinal fusions, Fedrigo explained. In fusions, the target vertebrae are connected by a metal rod to stabilize the spine for patients with conditions such as scoliosis and spinal fractures.

When Fedrigo learned nearly one-third of these procedures go into the wrong part of the spine, he was hooked.

“Once I established there are two densities of tissue in the spine, I worked out that I could create a probe to recognize the tissue density,” Fedrigo said.

With the pedicle probe, Fedrigo upped his game once more, despite already carrying a strong reputation for producing university grad-level bio-mechanic projects such as the hand-cooling glove (Grade 9) that improves athletic performance, and the exoskeleton robotic that promotes stroke rehabilitation (Grade 10), both VIRSF award winners.

Winning is always the goal, Fedrigo loves science fairs and he was chasing gold. He was awarded the platinum while standing among the 10 gold medal winners on stage.

“I was happy to win gold and I never thought I’d win the platinum, that was a real surprise [and real honour],” he said.

In addition to winning first place overall at VIRSF and the Platinum Award and Innovation Award at the Canada Wide Science Fair, Fedrigo picked up a series of offers from universities across Canada.

Should he eventually choose to attend one of the following schools, there will be scholarship money awaiting him at the University of British Columbia, Carleton University, Dalhousie University, University of Manitoba, University of Ottawa and Western University.

Fedrigo will also exhibit his pedicle probe as one of two Canadians at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists hosted in Dublin, Ireland in September.

He was also offered the chance to study this summer at the University of Toronto, though he’s already scheduled as a research intern in the Deeley Research Centre of the BC Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre here in Victoria.

“I would like to thank Mr. Sean Hayes and Mr. John Vucko of Claremont secondary school for their continuous support throughout my experiences in science fairs and inspiring me to compete in VIRSF three years ago with my first innovation,” Fedrigo said.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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