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NASA technology repurposed for neuro-rehab

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US start-up, Lite Run has developed a rehabilitation system based on NASA-patented technology that has the ability to half patients’ bodyweight.

The technology is based on the concept of ‘differential air pressure’; a theory that was originally explored by NASA to increase the body weight of astronauts while in space.

LiteRun adapted this technology to develop the ‘Lite Run Soft Exosuit’, which is worn like a pair of trousers and delivers a very small amount of air pressure across the cross-sectional area of the waist. The result is a reduction in body weight by as much as 68kg.

The Exosuit is currently targeting stroke, spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The company also sees potential for the product to be used in orthopaedics.

Currently, the most widely used technologies in neurorehabilitation are harness support systems and robotics systems.

In the former, a patient is strapped into a harness which is usually attached to an overhead ceiling track.

According to chief technology officer at Lite Run, Douglas Johnson, this technology can over-stabilise the patient, pulling them towards the centre. He also cites issues with robotic systems which put the legs through a rigid, straight-in-line motion.

Johnson says: “We provide a different kind of physical support. The device is a soft exosuit, meaning it surrounds your body, simply making you feel lighter. This makes it easier for the muscles to move in many different ways, such as lateral sidestepping, front and back motion and turning.”

The technology is similar to that of the AlterG treadmill, which reduces the weight of the patient through similar techniques involving air pressure.

Despite its similarities the Lite Run Soft Exosuit is a unique concept. Johnson says: “we have a very good patent portfolio.

“The Exosuit is really the only thing that is improving on harness systems and robotic systems right now.

“A lot of patients aren’t able to use robotic exoskeletons because they require a certain cognitive ability and a certain level of control.

“Therapists are finding that they can use our product on a much wider population for neurorehab, especially those who couldn’t use conventional rehab systems.”

The suit can be put on in five minutes and reduces the number of therapists needed. Harness support systems and robotic devices usually require two to three therapists, whereas therapy using the Lite Run system can be carried out by just one.

Studies have also shown that the technology can double the amount of therapy time compared to conventional systems.

Johnson gives the example of a 20-year-old patient with a severe spinal cord injury.

“He could only be upright during physical therapy for one to two minutes,” Johnson says. “It took twenty minutes to get him into the harness and twenty minutes to get him upright for only two minutes of therapy. It then took another 20 minutes to get him back down again.

“With our system he got in right away and he was able to do a full eight minutes of therapy.”

Douglas Johnson first met his future colleague and president of Lite Run, John Hauck, when taking their kids to the school swim team.

An avid runner suffering from a knee injury, Hauck struck up a conversation with Johnson about ways they could reduce bodyweight as a form of therapy.

From there, the two men began working together on various contraptions to tackle the problem until Johnson hit on the idea of a “pair of pants” that used air pressure to take body weight off the user.

The concept was originally designed for runners, such as Hauck, who suffered from leg injuries, however after taking the idea to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis, researchers at the organisation told the company they should try applying the technology to rehabilitation.

Johnson says the company “took off from there”, building various prototypes before receiving funding to design a commercial version of the product.

This summer, Lite Run introduced the technology to a number of hospitals as part of a limited local release. The company is now in a fundraising round to accelerate commercialisation of the product and expand nationally within the US.

Johnson says Lite Run is working towards a full release in 2021 and plans to bring the technology to Europe, including the UK, within the same year.

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