You probably know or have met someone who has suffered from a spinal injury. Unfortunately, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year worldwide around 250,000 to 500,000 people suffer a traumatic injury of this kind. Spinal injury has secondary complications, such as diabetes or osteoporosis. It entails high financial costs for patients and hampers social inclusion and entry into the labour market. People who have suffered a spinal injury can walk independently if they have a robotic exoskeleton to help them externally move the legs that have been paralysed by the trauma. However, most of the exoskeletons that are currently on the market are expensive, difficult to operate and are not adapted to the patient. This makes it difficult for patients to acquire them and the practice is only used in hospitals and large rehabilitation centres.
The Assistive Biorobotic Low-cost Exoskeleton (ABLE), which was designed and developed by the Biomechanical Engineering Laboratory (BIOMEC) of the UPC, attached to the Biomedical Engineering Research Centre (CREB), represents a paradigm shift in current technology. The device is cheaper, light and intuitive and adapted to the functional capacity of the patient. Its design is based on passive supports, which are manufactured in orthopedics and already owned by most patients. To these are added just the essential mechanisms and sensors to facilitate functional recovery of walking. Specifically, the device is comprised of three modular components: a knee actuator system that acts as artificial muscle, a sensor situated in the tibia region that detects the user’s intention, and a rucksack containing the electronics and the battery.
With this device, patients with spinal injuries can take an active role in their own recovery. They gain independence and a healthier lifestyle, and can continue with the rehabilitation process in their own homes. The end effect of this technology will be an improvement in quality of life and a significant reduction in individual and healthcare costs.
The Assistive Biorobotic Low-cost Exoskeleton (ABLE) is one of the 23 projects selected to receive funding in the third call for the CaixaImpulse programme, presented on 5 July at the Palau Makayla in Barcelona. In addition, due to its quality, this UPC project was one of three to be mentioned in EIT Health of the European Institute for Innovation & Technology. More information about the project and the team can be found at this link.
The current prototype was developed as part of three projects in the Spanish National Research and Development Plan, in which research groups from the University of A Coruña and the University of Extremadura also participated. To date, the device has been tested on a patient from the University Hospital Complex of A Coruña. The results showed improvements in the mobility of the patient, who was greatly motivated by the use of this technology. Currently, usability trials are planned for five further patients from the Instituted Guttmann University Institute of Neurorehabilitation, thanks to funding from the CaixaImpulse programme. Dr. Joan Vidal, head of the Spinal Injury Unit at the Institute and a member of the ABLE project team, will coordinate the clinical trials.
In addition to the trials, it is hoped that the CaixaImpulse programme will help researchers in the BIOMEC group to develop the regulatory framework for this medical device, complete a market study, and promote the dissemination and visibility of the project. This should facilitate the transfer to society of this product that has been developed to date using public funds for basic research. In the research group, we consider that this grant is a wonderful opportunity, providing tools so that the prototypes developed in the laboratory can have a real impact on society.
Josep Maria Font Llagunes
Director of the Biomechanical Engineering Laboratory
Biomedical Engineering Research Centre
Department of Mechanical Engineering, ETSEIB