It took Claire Lomas 17 days to complete the London marathon. The twist? Lomas is paralyzed from the chest down and walked the entire course wearing a bionic exoskeleton called the ReWalk. ReWalk users, most of whom never expected to take another step, can stand, sit, walk and climb stairs.
The ReWalk suit was designed by Israeli electrical engineer Dr Remit Gopher, who became a quadriplegic following an accident in 1997. Gopher devoted 10 years to developing a device which would allow a paraplegic to walk again. Such devices, like metal frames with springs, have been around for at least 50 years but required an enormous effort from the user.
“It was extremely tiring for an individual to take 10 or 15 steps. A key element of the ReWalk design was that the energy requirements of the user should be no different from that of someone who was not injured,” says Argo Medical Technologies (the company which makes the ReWalk) CEO Larry Jasinski.
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Gopher developed a robotic exoskeleton which attaches to the user’s legs and waist and can bear the weight of both the user and the device itself. The suit is controlled via shifts in the user’s center of gravity, somewhat like riding a Segway. The suit’s motion sensor can detect a very small movement of say 4 degrees and send a signal to the bionic legs to begin to move. A backpack carries the suit’s battery and software.
Patients need training to learn how to use the suit (an average of 15 sessions) but some have been able to walk unaided in the third session. The ReWalk is used with crutches purely for balance. The suit’s software includes safety features which detect if the user is about to fall.
The ReWalk doesn’t just allow users to walk again but may have a remarkable effect on their overall health. “How many of us are told by doctors to get off the couch? The health challenges for someone with a spinal chord injury are immense,” says Jasinski.
Purely because they spend their time in a wheelchair, paraplegics experience depleted bone density, rising body fat, diabetes, declining cardiovascular fitness, severe bowel problems and pain. Argo Medical technologies is involved in two clinical studies on the effect of the ReWalk suit on patient’s general health. “We are evaluating what you do to the overall metabolism of a person when you let them walk again. Our patients are almost universally showing reduced body fat, increased lean tissue and improved cardiovascular function.”
The ReWalk is currently available in Europe and costs 52,500 EUR. “We believe that we will have patients walking around the streets of the US in the second half of 2013 (pending FDA approval),” says Jasinski. The price stateside is expected to be around $65,000. ReWalks are already in use in 22 rehabilitation centres across the U.S.
The pricetag may be steep but Jasinski told me that the overall cost of care for ReWalk users drops considerably. “We believe that the health impact will more than pay for the cost of this device.” Around 100 Europeans currently have a ReWalk for personal use.
The company is developing a product for quadriplegics (patients who also cannot use their arms) which is similar to the current suit but will have crutches integrated into the system and is looking at many other medical applications where people cannot walk because of a stroke, Multiple Sclerosis or Cerebral Palsy. Users like John (featured in the video above) are, however, still waiting for the “dance mode”.