Lab Business | Article |
Rehab In The Lab
By: Robert Price
Grandma has a problem. She needs eggs to finish baking a birthday cake for her granddaughter. But as she lifts the curtain and looks outside the window, she sees snow on the walk, ice on the road, and she wonders if it’s a good idea to leave the house. She doesn’t want to slip. And it’s very cold. Maybe it’s best to stay inside, she thinks, even though she’s been inside for days.
Such a scenario isn’t uncommon. Mobility is an issue for many seniors and fears about slipping on ice and the dangers of cold weather are a concern for many more. Making life easier and safer is one of the areas of research at the iDAPT Centre for Rehabilitation Research, a $36 million, 65,000 square-foot research lab located at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. At the core of iDAPT (short for Intelligent Design for Adaptation, Participation, and Technology), are seven simulators that replicate environments as diverse as Toronto’s downtown streetscape, a modest income home, and a hospital room. Geoff Fernie, Vice-President of Research at Toronto Rehab, says that simulation is the basis of the lab’s approach to rehab studies because simulation offers more soundness in research results.
“The thing I’ve found is that there is better research when done with simulations,” says Fernie. “We need objective testing to [draw conclusions],” and simulation is the way to create the most objective—in this case, true-to-life—scenarios possible.
But back to Grandma. She’s afraid to leave the house because she might slip. Mobility issues, including a senior’s ability to keep balance, or a stroke patient’s ability to relearn walking, are some of the real-life issues that iDAPT attempts to tackle in the Winter Lab.
From the outside, Winter Lab looks like a big box, almost like a cooler for beer. The outside panels are painted to look like a northern Canadian landscape. Inside the box, the picture changes. The floor is made of a steel mesh lined with pink tubes filled with glycol. A harness system runs along the ceiling and attached to the walls are mounts for motion capture cameras. When iDAPT researchers are ready to run experiments, they fill the floor with water and freeze it, lower the temperature inside the lab to minus 15 C, and if they want to, send a 30 km wind blasting across the landscape. In a few months, the lab will have a snow machine to add to the reality of the scenario.
When the lab is set up, a hoist lifts it into the air and sets it on a motion simulator nested in the floor of the subbasement. Then the real work begins, as scientists place a person in the harness, tilt the lab to any angle, and experiment with mobility issues in winter conditions. It’s the most real winter scenario possible, short of stepping outside in mid-January or flying to Yellowknife, and it’s a lab that iDAPT is using to gain a better understanding of how icy conditions affect a person’s mobility.
Inside Winter Lab, iDAPT researchers are working with a shoe company to design a better winter shoe. In fact, all of the labs at iDAPT represent opportunities for the commercialization of research. “They are designed to accelerate how we get things from the lab to application,” says Fernie.
Sitting on the floor beside Winter Lab is Stair Lab and Street Lab. Inside Stair Lab is a stair case where researchers test different heights and rises of stairs with the hopes of creating staircase standards that will help reduce the number of falls experienced on stairs. Inside Street Lab is a virtual reality simulation of the streets outside of Toronto Rehab, complete with everything from newsstands to city monuments, the rumble of passing streetcars to the noise of birds and pedestrian signals, all of it in stereo sound. Researchers use Street Lab to understand how stroke patients regain the ability to walk and to test functionalities of a new kind of hearing aid.
We eliminated the middle man so that researchers have a closer connection to the people developing the product.
On the upper floors of Toronto Rehab are more labs. A group of visitors stand on a balcony overlooking a simulation hospital lab, called Care Lab, where an iDAPT researcher demonstrates a new product designed to help nurses get patients in and out of bed. Next door to the hospital room is Home Lab, a fully functioning modest income home where iDAPT researchers can experiment with new products designed to help patients live independently.
Everything in the lab is made on-site, in the prototyping workshops in the basement where engineers and industrial designers work with scientists to fine-tune new products. Even though the iDAPT centre has only been open since November, Jennifer Campos, Chief Scientist, says there has been great interest among companies to work with Toronto Rehab to develop and commercialize new products. The interest among scientists is just as great.
“The whole purpose of what we’re doing is to get the products out there,” says Campos.
To get products to market, Toronto Rehab created a different kind of commercialization process. The organization has no technology transfer office. Instead, companies wishing to work with Toronto Rehab join “The Club,” an insiders’ group that lets private companies invest in new ideas. For a small subscription fee—costs vary depending on the size of private partners—companies that are part of The Club have first access to product licenses.
“We eliminated the middle man so that researchers have a closer connection to the people developing the product. Paying a small subscription fee to work directly with researchers is one method to create tech transfer in the most effective way possible,” says Campos. She explains that getting collaborators involved early in the development process is important because there is such a huge opportunity for patients to benefit from the ideas being developed in the iDAPT labs. “Ideas are ideas. If you make it into a tangible product, then you can have an impact on the world,” says Campos. “We want collaborators from everywhere. We don’t want this to be exclusive.”
Bruno Maruzzo, a Commercialization Officer at Toronto Rehab, says The Club is built around a principle of collaboration. “We have found [commercialization] works better if we work with the companies rather than handing technologies off to the companies,” says Maruzzo. “We’ll continue to do work with them—research work, clinical testing if that’s required—and when it reaches a point when it’s ready for market, then we’ll back away and the company will take it from there.”
Start-ups are another route to commercialize products. One example is Handy Audit, a hand hygiene auditing system designed to cut the spread of pathogens inside hospitals. Toronto Rehab has licensed the auditing system to Handy Metrics, a start-up operating inside the Toronto Rehab labs. Together, the company and researchers are fine tuning the product for healthcare workers.
Toronto Rehab has other technologies tested and designed and waiting for industrial partners to commercialize. One of these systems is a $100 electronic system that can sense when a person falls to the ground. In the near future, Maruzzo says Toronto Rehab plans to launch its own spin-off start-up to bring some of these products to consumers.
Fernie says the interactive environment of iDAPT has had another positive effect: it shows students just how cool rehab science can be. “Part of [what we want to do] is to be cool. Rehab was the backwater of medical science. All the cool kids went to study stem cells. Now, with students motivated to have an impact on society, they want to study applied sciences.”