For stroke survivors who have lost the ability to stand or walk, a purpose-built bionic robot can help them take their first precious steps on the road to recovery.
Called HELLEN, an acronym for Hunter’s Exoskeleton for Lower Limb Exercise and Neuro-rehabilitation, ‘she’ is being used in a world-first clinical trial underway at the University of Newcastle.
The study is seeking people with severe mobility impairments to provide exercise therapy and potentially rebuild the neurological pathways affected by the stroke.
According to senior researcher Jodie Marquez, HELLEN is giving people a chance at therapy when there are no other cost-effective rehabilitation options.
“Prior to HELLEN, physiotherapists like us would have to drag people up,” she said. “It’s very labour-intensive, requiring three or four therapists, so patients are often denied the option of ongoing upright therapy.
“HELLEN takes all the work away from us, and the patient. Also, we can often get a better alignment and posture than what three or four physiotherapists can achieve.”
PhD candidate Nicola Postol says that participants who are otherwise confined to a wheelchair or scooter can be overwhelmed with emotion when they first get to stand.
“We don’t know what the final outcomes of this trial will be, of course, but people certainly feel motivated and excited by the opportunity to get better and stronger. The flow-on effect is they try harder at their exercises at home.”
The trial, which began earlier this year, has so far recruited three participants. It takes nine months from the first to last assessment, with the intervention component running for 12 weeks.
As a feasibility study, the researchers are collecting a wide range of functional, health and quality-of-life measurements, including MRI imaging. There limitations on height and weight, and the patient must be able to verbalise their wishes.
The researchers have now turned to the Hunter Stroke Research Volunteer Register (HSRVR) to help find more participants. Launched earlier this year, the HSRVR has more than 130 registrations and is now feeding its first members into clinical trials such as HELLEN.
The Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation donated $100,000 towards HELLEN. Jodie Marquez and Nicola Postal are from the University of Newcastle, researching in conjunction with HMRI’s Brain and Mental Health Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the Community.