COE Doctoral Student Awarded AURIC Fellowship to Help Breast Cancer Survivors

October 28, 2015

Brandi DecouxKinesiology doctoral student Brandi Decoux has been awarded an Auburn University Research Initiative in Cancer (AURIC) Fellowship. Her focus will be on post-menopausal survivors of breast cancer who are prescribed a type of hormone therapy drug called aromatase inhibitors. Decoux’s project is the first known biomechanical study to investigate the relationship between lower extremity pain and movement using gait analysis in this population. Her study seeks to enhance the understanding of the physical functioning and quality of life deficits experienced by these cancer survivors.

The title of Decoux’s project is “Gait Analysis of Breast Cancer Survivors with Aromatase Inhibitor-Associated Lower Extremity Arthralgias.” Post-menopausal breast cancer survivors take drugs from the family of aromatase inhibitors to combat cancer recurrence and often experience joint pain in the lower extremities as a side effect. This general pain is called arthralgia.

Decoux works in the Rehabilitation Biomechanics Lab of Dr. Wei Liu in the School of Kinesiology. Wei himself won an AURIC Pilot Grant last year to fund a study using Tai Chi exercise as a potential intervention for cancer survivors.

“Typically, these AURIC fellowships go to scholars in fields such as veterinary medicine, biomedical sciences, or engineering, usually involving some sort of clinical work with animals,” Decoux said. “But we took a different approach. We are focusing on cancer survivorship research, and ways that gait analysis, or studying the way these survivors move and walk, can lead to improved quality of life.”

Health professionals do not know what exactly causes lower extremity pain in these breast cancer survivors, so they can only treat the symptoms. Decoux will be looking for atypical gait characteristics in this population, hoping to eventually devise an exercise-based intervention strategy. The knee will be of particular interest in her study.

“The knee is a crucial joint that affects a person’s walk, or gait,” she said. “We will be looking for distinct movements or actions of these breast cancer survivors as they walk that are not evident in healthy gait, taking objective measurements of biomechanical gait characteristics to add to the often-used and subjective method of patients reporting of their level of pain, commonly on a scale from one to ten. It’s a necessary step toward developing and documenting an effective intervention and promoting quality of life.”

How can the intricacies of movement analysis be measured with such objectivity? Through precise and specialized equipment. Wei’s lab is fully equipped with a truss-mounted ten-camera high-speed infrared motion capture system and two force plates embedded in a customized platform.

“This amazing set-up provides us with the means necessary to collect high quality three-dimensional and force data,” Decoux said. “Based on raw data collected with our system, any kinematic or kinetic variable can be computed, analyzed, and graphically displayed using Visual3D advanced data processing software or MATLAB. Having such elaborate lab infrastructure helped us compete for this fellowship, and is just one of many unique and innovative labs we have here in the new Kinesiology Building.”

Decoux, who hails from New Iberia, Louisiana, has enjoyed her past year in Wei’s lab.

“Some of my professors at Louisiana Tech graduated from Auburn and they never stopped talking about how great it was here,” Decoux said. “I knew I wanted to continue on in this line of research, and I knew I wanted to stay in the South, so here I am! But really, having three separate biomechanics labs in one building is unheard of in the South. Plus, I love the small town feel of Auburn. Our collegiality in Kinesiology and the College of Education is amazing, so it just adds up. A great place to do research, amazing facilities, and people who work well together. What more could anyone want?”