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Paralysis Challenge

I'm looking forward to hearing your questions! I will be on-line when it's morning here on the East Coast of the US.

My CV

Education:

BS in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, MD and MS in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland OH

Qualifications:

Biomedical engineering training helps me understand both the technical engineering challenges of our medical device, as well as the medical challenges of spinal cord injury.

Work History:

I worked for many years at Shriners Hospital for Children, developing neuromodulation systems for children with paralysis. I also worked for many years at the Food and Drug Administration, which is the US agency that gives companies permission to sell medical devices.

Current Job:

I’m the Executive Director of the Institute for Functional Restoration

Employer:

My Institute is part of Case Western Reserve University

My work and the challenge

My team is building a neuromodulation system that will restore function to people with paralysis

Did you know that people with spinal injuries are missing a lot of their functions?  Depending on how they were injured, they may not be able to stand and walk, they may not be able to move their hands to do things like feed themselves or hold a pen, they might not be able to go to the bathroom without special equipment and help from others, and they might even have trouble breathing or being able to shift their weight in their wheelchair.

They can’t do these things because the signals from their brain can’t get past the injury in their spine to reach all those muscles needed to stand or use their hands.  But guess what?  The muscles to their arms and legs can still work – they can be activated with little bursts of electrical current!  And guess who figured that out?  A famous researcher back in the 1770’s named Galvani.  He showed that electrical current could activate the muscles of a dead frog. myimage2

But more recently, researchers in Cleveland, Ohio, in the US, showed that if you coordinate the activation of many muscles, you can create functional movement, like hand grasp, standing, and stepping.  Those electrical devices are called “neuromodulation” or “neurostimulation” systems.  Think about it – think of all the muscles in your legs that you use to stand up.  Now imagine tiny wires connecting to them and turning them on all at once.  You would stand up!  The researchers in Cleveland have been able to restore standing, stepping, hand grasp, and many more functions for many people with paralysis.

Here is a picture of Jen French, a person with paralysis, who won the silver medal in sailing at the Parlympic Games in London in 2012.  She is standing using a neuromodulation system that activates the muscles in her legs.

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Here are pictures of people with paralysis using a neuromodulation system that provides hand function.

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Here’s what neuromodulation technology looks like.

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You can imagine how rewarding this work is, how exciting it is to see people with paralysis begin to use their hands and legs again.  Now you know why I love being a biomedical engineer, and why I love doing the work I do.

If I won the £10,000,000 I'd spend it on...

With this much money, do you know how many people with paralysis could have restored function? A lot! Let’s help them out.

It takes a long time and even a lot of money to develop new medical technologies.  The teams of engineers and doctors I work with have been together trying to solve these problems for about three decades.  That is dedication!  There is a lot of science that goes into making these systems safe for the patients who use them, and these researchers have published many scientific papers about their work.  You can read more about their work here:  http://fescenter.org/index.php

So, how would we spend the £10,000,000 Prize?  Well, right now the technology is being built in small numbers by hand, by our engineers.  You can imagine how long it might take to build just one system.  But with £10,000,000, we could build a manufacturing facility so that we can make more systems, and help more people.  Also, did you know that to sell a medical device you have to get permission first?  Agencies in different countries are responsible for approving new medical devices.  In the UK, that is the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), and in the United States it is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  These agencies require testing of the systems first, so some of the money would go to finishing that testing.

My Interview

Other stuff

About

Sometimes I think I have the best job in the world!  I am a biomedical engineer.  That means I had training in both engineering and in pre-medicine, so I learned all about the human body, but also about electrical circuits and software.  What does a person do with all this training?  In my case, I’m using it to help people with paralysis.

I work with teams of world-renowned engineers and doctors who are building “neuromodulation” systems.  These are medical devices that are implanted in the human body, connecting to the parts of the nervous system that still work and substituting for the parts that don’t, giving people with paralysis restored function, like hand grasp, standing and stepping.

 

My challenge

Did you know that eight people are paralyzed every day in the UK?  And thousands more around the world?  What would it be like to be unable to stand up, or walk?  What would it be like to not be able to use your hands and someone had to feed you and dress you?  What if breathing were difficult, or you couldn’t go to the bathroom without using special instruments or without getting help from someone else?

Now you can imagine what it is like living with paralysis.

In ancient times, if a person ended up with paralysis, there was nothing that could be done.  Doctors in ancient times recommended that people with paralysis should be left to die.  Here’s a famous papyrus from 2,500 BC explaining that. myimage4

But nowadays, we can keep people with paralysis alive, and they can live for many years with paralysis.  Many of them need attendant care for basic things like feeding, dressing, going to the bathroom, getting into and out of their wheelchair.  Many of them can still go to school, or find jobs, but you can imagine how difficult it might be to do those things when your use of hands, arms, and legs are limited.

What if you could give people with paralysis the ability to restore basic functions – like hand grasp, standing, stepping, even control over how they empty their bladder?  There are ways to do this, and that is the focus of the Paralysis Prize:  finding technologies that can help restore function to people with paralysis.  Maybe one way is to give them standing and walking ability with an exoskeleton.  myimage8

Other ways might be to give them brain control over a robot arm.  And yet another way might be to activate the muscles that they already have to create functional movements, like standing, stepping or hand grasp.  There are researchers out there right now working on all those things, and these important research efforts are bringing great hope to people with paralysis.

Which challenge would you vote for if not your own

The Paralysis Prize is the underdog.  In my mind it deserves more votes than the other prizes because it is trying to help a very small population of people, and most people out there don’t know anybody with paralysis, so the problem is almost invisible.  Sometimes, the way to make an impact in the world is to get behind efforts that affect a great many people – like clean water, or environmental issues.  But sometimes, the way to make a big impact in the world is to help a small number of people who have a very great need.  That is the situation with Paralysis.  There are not as many people with paralysis are there are people with other medical conditions, but those people with paralysis are much more impacted by their condition.  They can’t do basic things like feed themselves, stand and walk, empty their bladder.  They need MORE help than most people with other illnesses.  If I had three votes to cast for a Prize, all three would be for the Paralysis Prize.

Longitude Prize Guide from the BBC - click the image

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