Clinical trials of robotic legs help patients walk again

Expert clinicians and engineers at Kent are carrying out the first clinical trials of robotic legs for patients.

These legs are the only design available that allow people to move about while their hands are still available to carry out activities of daily life, like making a cup of tea while upright.

The Kent study, carried out in partnership with the East Kent Hospitals University Foundation Trust (EKHUFT) in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts (EDA), will examine the impact of these simple freedoms on the patient, both physically and mentally.

If the trial finds these ‘exoskeletons’ work, they could improve the health of patients with a variety of causes of paralysis – including people who have suffered a trauma from an accident, war injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease.

There are increasing numbers of wheelchair users who cannot walk at all and sitting for extended periods places them at risk from numerous medical complications. Walking in these robotic legs may help reduce these risks as well as improve quality of life.

The device lifts patients from a sitting position into a robot-supported standing position, allowing them to take part in a set of supported walking and stretching exercises, designed by specialist physiotherapists.

For the bionic legs to have wider use, the manufacturers need clinical trials with a variety of patients to test their reliability, as people with paralysis in rehabilitation cannot risk falling, and to find out how effective they are in enhancing patients’ quality of life

The University of Kent is uniquely placed for researchers in engineering, biomedical engineering, medicine and psychology to collaborate with doctors and patients in these first clinical UK trials of ‘bionic’ legs – first developed by the United States Army for military personnel who lost limbs.

The clinical trial is led by Dr Mohamed Sakel, Honorary Senior Research fellow at EDA and Director/Consultant Neuro-Rehabilitation and former Director R&D at EKHUFT, and Dr Matthew Pepper, Senior Lecturer in Electronics, EDA, and Consultant Clinical Scientist in the Medical Physics Department, EKHUFT.

EDA and EKHUFT have worked collaboratively on a number of assistive technology projects giving them the right skills and track-record to develop the robotic walking device using robotic legs developed by New Zealand manufacturer, Rex Bionics.

The research is supported by the National Institute for Health Research, Clinical Research Network: Kent, Surrey and Sussex and is being funded by REX Bionics.

The University of Kent plans to further develop the device to increase ease of use and reduce cost.