New technology designed to prevent pressure ulcers for people with spinal cord injury

Feb. 1, 2012

(Edmonton, Alberta) February 01, 2012… When Landon Catt broke his neck during motocross racing last summer his whole life changed. “Everything below my shoulders is immobilized. I have some feeling, but no movement,” says the 35-year-old man from Stettler, Alberta. He spent the fall of 2011 in the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, and began to learn one of the major risks to his health is the risk of developing pressure ulcers (bedsores).

“People with reduced mobility, confined to a bed because of illness or dependent on a wheelchair, are at constant risk of developing pressure ulcers,” says Vivian Mushahwar, PhD, an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions senior scholar at the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. “These sores often cause infections, and can lead to life-threatening complications and even death.”

After studying pressure ulcers in the lab for 5 years, Mushahwar gathered a team of experts from across Alberta – 16 principal investigators from neuroscience, nano- and micro-technology, biomedical and electrical engineering, as well as rehabilitation medicine to develop methods for improving function and reducing the secondary complications associated with neural injuries and diseases. With $5 million in funding from AIHS (including support from Alberta Health and Wellness), the team set its sights on “Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology” and the AIHS Project SMART team was born.

In just 2 1/2 years of working together, Mushahwar’s team has invented Smart-e-Pants, custom undergarments that stimulate the backside muscles of people with spinal cord injury or stroke. “Smart-e-Pants provide an electrical current for 10 seconds every 10 minutes, stimulating the nerves and muscles to replicate what we do when we ‘fidget’ in our chair,” says Dr. Ming Chan, a rehabilitation medicine specialist for Alberta Health Services at the Glenrose. “Our aim is to prevent pressure ulcers by bringing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.”

After successful pilot testing with 20 participants at the Allen Gray Continuing Care Centre and the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, testing has begun with 5 participants at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.

“I am thrilled to offer this option to patients at Foothills,” says Dr. Sean Dukelow, a Project SMART team member, specialist with the Calgary Stroke Program and assistant professor of clinical neurosciences in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary. “Not only are pressure ulcers a serious health problem for our patients, the healthcare costs are considerable. We estimate that pressure ulcers cost the Canadian healthcare system $3.5 billion a year.”

Canadian studies show that pressure ulcers cost between $15,000 and $72,000 to treat. Barbara Stoesz, director of adult rehabilitation for Alberta Health Services at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, has seen first hand both the human costs and the healthcare costs of pressure ulcers. “Vivian’s team has been an excellent partner in working with us to tackle this problem,” says Stoesz. “From the very start we put our heads together on how best to test the new technology and how to implement the Smart-e-Pants research in the inpatient rehab phase of the patient’s journey.”

“The Smart-e-Pants project and its rapid translation into clinical testing really prove the power of partnership,” says Pamela Valentine, PhD, vice president of research & innovation, AIHS. “We are really proud of the Smart-e-Pants team, and applaud all of the wonderful partners who have worked together to bring this research to the stage of benefitting people with spinal injuries and stroke.”

Funding support for Mushahwar’s team and Smart-e-Pants has come from the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society (SCITCS), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, Alberta Health and Wellness, the Rick Hansen Foundation, and Spina Bifida & Hydrocephalus Canada.

“We have created Prev Biotech, a subsidiary of BioMotion Limited, in order to ready ourselves for producing Smart-e-Pants on a much wider scale,” says Richard Stein, PhD, co-leader of the team, and research professor in the Centre for Neuroscience at U of A. “We look forward to doing clinical studies in Alberta hospitals and elsewhere in Canada in the coming months and years.”

The $50 million AIHS Interdisciplinary Team Grants Program supports 10 collaborative teams of scientists and physicians from across the province who are investigating research questions and healthcare challenges in areas of priority for Alberta. Alberta Health and Wellness has contributed $17 million towards the program.

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