Prosthetic hands, robotic trousers and biosensors – £5.3 million for health-care tech research

Photo: Prosthetic hand

Dr Kianoush Nazarpour presents a prosthetic hand; © Newcastle University

A prosthetic hand controlled by the nervous system, robotic clothing to help people with walking, and biosensors to monitor how patients use equipment or exercise during rehabilitation are the focus of three research projects awarded £5.3 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The three research projects start work in the spring and are led by Newcastle University, the University of Bristol and the University of Warwick working with 15 other university partners. UK scientists and clinicians devised the research after being challenged to transform the design and development of assistive and rehabilitative devices using EPSRC's creative workshop approach, known as a sandpit.

Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said; "These research studies will improve patients' lives, allow greater independence and benefit patients with a wide range of mobility and co-ordination difficulties. With the UK's ageing population and a rise in disabilities, this highlights one area of EPSRC investment in healthcare research which has a national impact."

The first project is: Enabling Technologies for Sensory Feedback in Next-Generation Assistive Devices (EP/M025977/1). Research takes place at Newcastle University, University of Essex, Imperial College London, Keele University, University of Southampton and University of Leeds. Awarded £1.4 million.

The Newcastle-led team will develop a prosthetic hand which will give users a sense of feedback. The team will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch, including pressure, shear and temperature. In addition, a 'virtual hand' will provide information on the sense of the hand's position and movement, known as proprioception. Finally, the system will translate the signals to a form the brain understands and stimulate the nervous system to help the user control the hand.

Building this level of feedback into prosthetic devices will enable much higher levels of function for people who have lost their limbs, than is currently available.

Using an advanced prosthetic hand would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it. This will advance the field of prosthetics, provide enhanced function to prosthesis users and decrease the learning time involved when acquiring a new device. The technology will also have applications for patients with neurological conditions where reduced sensation is a factor.

The second project is: Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living (EP/M026388/1). Research takes place at the University of Bristol, University of the West of England, University of Nottingham, University of Leeds, University of Strathclyde, University of Southampton and Loughborough University. Awarded £2 million.

The research team will develop soft robotic clothing to enable those with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weakness to move easily and unaided and to live independently and with dignity. The end results will be easy to use, comfortable, adaptable and meet the user's individual mobility needs.

Smart trousers could help vulnerable people avoid falls by supporting them whilst walking, give people added bionic strength to move between sitting and standing positions, and help people climb stairs which were previously insurmountable. They could replace the stair lift in the home and other bulky and uncomfortable mobility and stability aids.

The third project is: Adaptive, Assistive Rehabilitative Technology: Beyond the Clinic (EP/M025543/1). The University of Warwick is partnering with Cardiff University, University of Kent, UCL (University College London), Oxford Brookes University, University of Salford and University of York. Awarded £1.86 million.

Researchers will design and develop cheap, disposable, unobtrusive bio-sensors such as temporary tattoos and smart watches to use with patients who use wheelchairs or prosthetics, patients requiring rehabilitation, as well as older people.

The study will collect data and monitor how patients use equipment provided to them, and also measure how they follow exercise advice at home, for example, after a stroke or accident. The research will also develop software that uses the biosensor information to support users with their equipment or exercises in their own home. Currently there is no picture of what happens after a patient leaves the clinic. Anecdotally, poor use of equipment or not following physiotherapy guidance on exercise can lead to more complex health problems.

The information will benefit patients and enable them to leave hospital sooner and enable clinicians and medical technologists to understand conditions, better support patients in their home environment, and improve or adjust the design of equipment for patients.

Christopher James, project lead, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Warwick said: "The new information we will gain from this research will be invaluable, and through a feasibility study, it is our aim to produce a system ready for future technical/clinical trials within the NHS."; Source: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

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