News Brief: CTSA Program Mentoring Helps Engineers Develop Innovative Rehabilitation Therapies

Michael Fu and Jayme Knutson with their Contralaterally Controlled Functional Electrical Stimulation video game therapy

Michael Fu, Ph.D. (left), and Jayme Knutson, Ph.D. (right), with their Contralaterally Controlled Functional Electrical Stimulation video game therapy, an innovative method for training hand function in adults after stroke and in children with cerebral palsy. Erika Woodrum/Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center Photo.

After completing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, Michael Fu wanted to use his skills in medical robotics to solve problems in rehabilitation medicine and focus on helping patients recover in their homes. The challenge was that he didn’t have experience in clinical research or working with patients.

Fu found a solution through the Mentored Clinical Research Scholars (KL2) program at the Case Western Clinical and Translational Science Collaborative in Cleveland. Supported by NCATS’ Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program, the KL2 program enables early-stage investigators to conduct team-based clinical research and helps them jumpstart independent careers in translational research.

“The most valuable parts of the program included the formulation of a plan to develop my clinical research skills and the mentors who were willing to train me on the clinical side,” said Fu. For example, he learned how to design and carry out clinical trials to test whether the devices he created helped patients. He also worked with a transdisciplinary team of researchers, physicians, physical therapists and patients while developing and testing the device.

“I was able to bounce ideas off the people who assign the therapies and the patients who will use the therapy,” Fu said. “It allowed me to see the whole continuum of the translation spectrum and understand the big picture.” 

Through the program, Fu connected with former KL2 scholar Jayme Knutson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Case Western Reserve University and MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland. Knutson was working on a promising new electrical stimulation device to help stroke patients regain control of their paralyzed or weak hand. Patients wear a glove with sensors on their unaffected hand. When they open their unaffected hand, the device sends electrical stimulation to the paralyzed hand that causes it to open. The device is unique because it enables patients to control the stimulation themselves and allows them to use their hand to practice tasks, leading to better results than with other electrical stimulation therapies.

Fu was impressed — especially since patients could use the device in their own homes — but Knutson wanted to make the therapy more engaging. With KL2 program support and mentoring from Knutson, Fu created video games to use with the device, including a skee ball game where opening the weak hand launches the ball.

Getting patients to adhere to their rehabilitation therapy is a major challenge. But the patients Knutson and Fu worked with found the games were fun, which might help them stick with therapy. Additionally, the video game encourages patients to not just open and close their weak hand but also control how wide they open it in order to achieve a task on the screen. This could help re-train the brain better than electrical stimulation therapy alone, something Knutson and Fu are studying.

Both Fu and Knutson credit the KL2 program with getting this innovative therapy off the ground and launching their careers as independent investigators. As a KL2 program scholar, Fu tested the video game-assisted electrical stimulation therapy in a small sample of children with cerebral palsy and found that it helped them. Based on these promising results, Fu, who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Case Western Reserve University, received independent funding to test the therapy in a larger clinical trial of cerebral palsy patients.

Fu and Knutson recently received a grant from the New England Pediatric Device Consortium to commercialize their device. But they know their work will not be done until the device gets to market.

“The last thing a biomedical engineer wants to do is to develop a therapy that can help people but then never makes it out of the lab and into the hands of those who need it,” said Knutson.


Posted July 2017