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Soft robotic glove gets thumbs-up from rehab experts

Wyss devices attracted interest from industry at the world’s largest rehabilitative conference

By Lindsay Brownell

(BOSTON) — Nearly 100 booths filled the exhibition space at the American Conference of Rehabilitative Medicine (ACRM) in Chicago last month, separated by colored curtains and filled with companies showcasing their latest rehabilitation products. One of those booths, however, was staffed not by a corporation, but an academic research group: a team of members of Wyss Core Faculty member Conor Walshs lab spent up to twelve hours a day demonstrating how their Soft Robotic Glove device can help people who have suffered a stroke recover the use of their affected hand.

The team demonstrated the capabilities of their soft robotic glove and shoulder assistive devices, and got feedback from conference attendees that is being incorporated into future designs. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The response from the attendees was surprising: “Over and over and over, people kept asking us, ‘How can I buy this? How much is it?’ even though we’re still developing it,” says Kristin Nuckols, an occupational therapist who is working on the glove. “That kind of feedback really reinforced that we have a device that people want to use and that is marketable, and made us even more committed to identifying and pursuing the right commercial pathway to bring it to patients and clinicians.”

Along with Nuckols, the booth was staffed by Wyss Institute members Diogo Schwerz de Lucena, a Postdoctoral Fellow specializing in systems engineering; Diana Wagner, a Senior Functional Apparel Designer; and Chrissy Glover, a Research Fellow focusing on design and user research. Such a diverse set of skills is a major reason for their project’s success, the group thinks, because creating a soft robotic glove that not only rehabilitates users’ hands after a stroke but is also portable, comfortable, easy to use, and affordable, is difficult.

“There are robotic devices and technologies out there right now, but they really aren’t serving the patients they’re meant to help,” says Nuckols. “People have actually told us that they’ve ordered devices advertised for at-home hand rehabilitation, tried to put them on for 45 minutes, and finally gave up because the design made it too challenging for them to use by themselves.”

Over and over and over, people kept asking us, ‘How can I buy this? How much is it?’ even though we’re still developing [the soft robotic glove].

Kristin Nuckols

A major part of the team’s approach to avoiding this problem is getting input from the people who will one day be wearing their device in from day one. “When we’re developing something in the lab, we build a device that we think provides the functions that are needed, put it on an intended user, and then use that person’s feedback in collaboration with our diverse skills to iterate on the design from there,” says Wagner. “Their input becomes a factor in our process, so if they try the device on and then come back a week later, it might be entirely different based on that feedback.”

The soft robotic glove is designed to be worn and used by stroke patients in their homes, allowing them to perform many more hand open-and-close repetitions than they can do in one weekly session of occupational therapy. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The soft robotic glove is a fabric-based device that has been developed using standard textile industry practices and has inflatable chambers that gently bend and straighten the user’s fingers when filled with air. The glove’s functionality is powered by a portable and lightweight control box that can be placed on a tabletop in the comfort of a user’s home, and its simple design means it can be produced at lower cost than similar devices, making treatment more affordable and available to more patients.

In addition to being more comfortable and convenient for the user, the soft robotic glove offers significant improvements over the current state of rehabilitation that therapists are able to offer. “Research has shown that the more opening and closing of their hand a patient does, the quicker their hand recovers, but traditional rehab is only one hour with a therapist once a week, so most patients don’t get very many repetitions,” says Lucena. “With a portable device like ours, users can do hundreds of repetitions a day either in the clinic or at home, which we think will make a huge difference in recovery.”

The team decided to use ACRM, the largest rehabilitative conference in the world, as an opportunity to gather even more feedback about their devices from the thousands of attending clinicians, therapists, and medical device companies. Along with the glove, their demo booth included an assistive shoulder device, also in development at the Wyss Institute that can be used in concert with the glove to aid whole-arm rehabilitation.

In addition to the overwhelmingly positive responses from visitors who stopped by to ask about the soft robotic glove, the team gathered valuable input from therapists who are directly involved in treating patients. “A lot of clinicians suggested other conditions that the glove could be helpful in treating, like sensory loss that happens as a result of cancer, tremors, pediatric diseases, and on and on. They gave us some really good ideas for additional directions we could pursue,” says Nuckols.

The soft robotic glove system is in such an advanced stage of development that many attendees thought it was already a commercialized product, providing encouraging evidence that the market is hungry for a rehabilitative device that is portable, lightweight, inexpensive, and easy-to-use. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The team also presented a poster that highlighted promising results from a proof-of-concept study with stroke survivors in collaboration with David Lin from the Stroke Motor Recovery Clinic in the Department of Neurology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The poster also included contributions from Cameron Hohimer, Will Moyo, and Alison Cloutier.

This coming spring, the team plans to start a larger trial with more participants to continue to refine the soft robotic glove’s design and features, and are starting to look for partners who are interested in helping the push toward commercialization. They got a glimpse of what their future might look like at ACRM when they learned that, by chance, their assigned booth was down the aisle from ReWalk, a company that licensed a soft exosuit technology from the Wyss Institute in 2016 and has commercialized it as their ReStore Soft Exo-Suit.

“When people asked us about the glove, we could point to the ReWalk booth and say, ‘That device came from our lab, too,’ so they were able to see that this isn’t just a school project, but that we have been successful at translating technologies into products in the past, and we can do it again,” says Glover.

“It’s important for our technology translation mission that we put our innovations on display in the market. ACRM was a great opportunity for us to see how the rehabilitation industry responded to our glove, and it was very gratifying to find out that we are on the right track and that this device has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of stroke patients regain use of their hand and significantly improve their quality of life without requiring expensive treatments or equipment,” says Walsh, who is a Core Faculty member at the Wyss Institute as well as the Gordon McKay Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

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