AUSTRALIA: BIG LANDSCAPES INSPIRE BIG THINKING

| June 7, 2017 | 0 Comments
Bionic Spine_SmartStent_person with Smartstent_Image credit University of Melbourne

SmartStent diagram. Credit: University of Melbourne



It seems like the stuff of science fiction: paralysed people learning to walk again, with the power of

the mind moving prosthetics limbs or an exoskeleton. Yet this revolutionary invention is real — a

brain-machine interface the size of a small paperclip that will be implanted in the first patient at the

Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017. A product of Australia’s soaring expertise in the medical

technology sector.

 

Few years ago, Australian neurology resident Thomas Oxley set out to design a device that uses brain

waves to power prosthetic limbs. Today, Oxley’s revolutionary invention is about to enter human

trials, giving hope that millions of people paralysed by injury or stroke will soon be able to walk again.

Oxley’s futuristic device – a tiny stent-electrode or ‘stentrode’ – also promises to predict and halt

epileptic seizures and assist people with a range of conditions, from motor neurone and Parkinson’s

diseases to compulsive disorders and depression.

 

In a nutshell, the matchstick-sized gadget will be inserted, without invasive surgery, into a blood vessel

next to the brain’s motor cortex. From there it will detect and translate neural activity, such as the

intention to walk, and send commands wirelessly to exoskeleton legs.

 

Detect, translate, transmit and walk. That’s what scientists call brain-machine interface, and it begins

with straightforward day surgery to thread the stent up the groin to the brain. Trials with sheep,

published in February 2016 in Nature Biotechnology, revealed that the animals were fine. They were

walking and eating within an hour, and had no side effects.

 

If all goes according to plan following human trials in 2017, Oxley predicts the stentrode could be on

the market by the early 2020s. “We’ve been able to create the world’s first minimally invasive brain

recording device that is implanted without high-risk open brain surgery,” says Oxley.

 

THE ROAD TO COMMERCIALISATION

Oxley is in New York to do a two-year fellowship in cerebral angiography at Mount Sinai Hospital, a

specialty which employs non-invasive procedures to visualise blood vessels in the brain. It’s a skill

directly related to his work in vascular bionics, exploiting the body’s blood vessels and veins for

technologically enhanced therapeutic ends.

 

Remarkably, Oxley co-invented the stentrode while he was a Melbourne University (MU) doctoral

student, along with MU collaborator Dr Nicholas Opie, a biomechanical engineer.

In 2012 the pair co-founded a startup company called SmartStent Pty Ltd to refine and prepare the

stentrode for market. Their goal: commercialise what promises to be one of the world’s most

important medical inventions.

 

After building hundreds of stentrode prototypes, the next step is testing the technology with people.

“We’re trying to raise A$4 million for the first human trials at Royal Melbourne Hospital,” Oxley notes.

“We’re hoping to begin in late 2017.”

 

Given the life-changing and commercial potential of the stentrode, it’s little wonder that SmartStent

moved to Silicon Valley in April 2016. There, Oxley, Opie and cardiologist Rahul Sharma, with Cedars-

Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, established Synchron Inc. as their new corporate headquarters.

SmartStent remains the Australian subsidiary.

 

SOLVING THE MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN

Medicine seemed a good choice for a kid keen to reverse engineer the brain to solve the mysteries of

human consciousness. So Oxley went off to Monash Medical School in Melbourne, finishing in 2006.

He completed his residency in internal medicine at Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital in 2009.

“Then I took a year off to go travelling,” recalls Oxley, who didn’t begin his neurology residency until

2011. “I was travelling and intellectually exploring.”

 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was on his ‘to visit’ list. DARPA is an arm of

the US Department of Defense. Located in Arlington, Virginia, the agency is responsible for developing

emerging military technologies, including biotechnology.

“I’d been reading about their prosthetic limb work for a couple of years,” says Oxley, who got in touch

with neurologist Colonel Geoffrey Ling, director of DARPA’s Biotechnologies Office. After an initial

chat, Ling was sufficiently impressed to invite his visitor to develop what Oxley claims became a “pretty

blue sky, out there” proposal.

 

The result? Oxley left Virginia with a promise of US$1.3 million and instructions to put a team together

to create and test his device. “After all that excitement, I came home and had to start my neurology

residency. It was a steep learning curve,” says Oxley, who had to tread carefully as a junior resident

with potentially large research funding coming in.

 

Fortunately, Oxley’s PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor Terry O’Brien, was Oxley’s academic

champion. He helped negotiate the occasionally challenging politics and opened doors to the range of

experts Oxley needed to set up the DARPA-inspired Vascular Bionics Laboratory at Melbourne

University. The two men even leveraged DARPA’s investment into over A$4 million, with grants from

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council and other Australian bodies.

Oxley completed his residency in 2013, and submitted his doctorate in February 2016. But the rest

isn’t history. There’s a stentrode to trial and commercialise. An invention which O’Brien calls the ‘Holy

Grail’ of bionics.

 

First published on www.australianunlimited.com

Author: Leigh Dayton

 

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