Strokes, diseases, congenital deformaties can all lead to disabilities beyond the scope of current medicine. But tomorrow’s treatment is being developed today via a multinational scientific initiative: doctors and engineers are creating advanced electronic implants to cure the incurable. The Healthy Aims project – this week on Futuris.

Anthony Batchelor, patient: “I’m not frightened a bit, I want it done – it’s a new life for me. When I’m fit enough, I’ll be able to see my granddaughter married (coughs). And she’s only seven.”

After several heart attacks and triple bypass surgery, 70 year old Anthony Batchelor is about to receive a defibrillator implant to regulate his heart rate in line with his physical activity. The accuracy of pre-surgery measurements is vitally important.

Paul Roberts, consultant cardiologist, Southampton Hospital: “One of the difficulties that we’ve found is trying to measure patient’s activity, then compare it to physiological responses – such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation. And so we have the technology and the ability to record those physiological parameters, but the only way we can assess activity is by asking the patient. And that’s a very subjective measure, by definition. What we want is an objective measure.”

Such objective data of a patient’s daily activity levels can be collected using a new device, developed in Codicote, north of London.

After successful tests on horses, the Activity Monitor is now being used for the medical monitoring of patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or obesity.

The single lightweight device, worn on the person’s waist, uses a three-axis ac sel-a-rom-iter to measure the type, intensity and duration of activity throughout the day. It can run for up to 24 hours, storing data directly onto a flash memory card. The records can then be uploaded to the PC for analysis using algore-ithms developed within the project. No more need for relying on a patients’ own estimates if his or her activity levels.

The Activity monitor is one of numerous devices, developed by 25 partners from 10 countries participating in the Healthy Aims project.

Diana Hodgins, Healthy Aims project coordinator: “The common theme from the technology point of view is that we’re using electrodes and strain gauge technology which is very simple, but can be fabricated in the nano scale and then you can make systems what are micro scale what can fit in or on the body without causing any detrimental effects to the human, so you can treat things that previously you could not envisage treating.

Marci Lelliott, STIMuGRIP implant recipient: “It’s jet-ski, it’s my favorite thing in the whole world, I have to say! Any chance I get to to out on the water, we go out into the harbor and then into the ocean. I can jump waves, I can do all sorts of things, and it makes me very happy.”

After surviving a stroke at the age of 12, Marci Lelliott was left paralysed on one side. Today she lives an active life, works as a teacher of disabled children and is gradually geting movement back in her left hand.

John Spensley, Managing Director, FineTech Medical: “We’ve developed an implant what goes into the forearm, where two sets of electrodes are attached to muscle bundles and nerve bundles, which operate two functions: the first function is to extend the wrist, and the second function is to open the fingers.”

The implant in Marci’s forearm is powered and controlled wirelessly by the removable box strapped over it. Like the Activity monitor, the STIMuGRIP system uses accelero-meters to detect its position. A specific arm movement triggers electrical stimulation of muscles and nerves to open and close the wrist and fingers. Marci has become one of the first patients to use the newly developed device.

Paul Taylor, Biomedical Engineer, Salisbury Hospital: “Up until this point there has been very little that could be done for the upper limb in stroke. To large extent it’s been ignored by the medical profession, and people had just been left to get on with it. We now have a possibility of offering a new treatment for people who have not been able to use their hands, and this really is the first.”

The device has several programmed modes to control or exercise the wrist in different situations.

Marci Lelliott: “You can feel the implant if you press it, it’s quite lumpy, but you can’t actually see it, apart from the scar. When the electricity is actually going through into the arm, it just feels a bit like pins and needles, really, but not nasty, you can get used to it, it’s just a bit of a sort of tingle, really… The Healthy Aims project is very exciting for me, and just to be involved in something for stroke patients, and if it helps me – it’s great, but it will help people in the future.”

Similar technology is being used to send electrical impulses to the cochlea which is the auditory portion of the inner ear – to restore hearing. In Mechelen, Belgium, another participant of the Healthy Aims project is developing a new generation of a cochlear implant. It should help deaf people to communicate in noisy conditions and enjoy music. Maurice Vertongen lost his hearing at a young age…

Traditional hearing aids which amplified surrounding sounds, were ineffective. Their quality only allowed the minimum comprehension of speech….the frequency range of sound was very limited.

Maurice Vertongen, cochlear implant recipient: “I have not been able for more than 20 years to listen to music. Not that I didn’t hear anything, but I could not listen to music.”

The implant has changed Maurice’s life and that of his family who now no longer have to help him.

Maurice Vertongen, cochlear implant recipient: “I’m a normal person to them now. You see? That’s the difference.”

The hearing system consists of a wearable ear hook, similar to traditional hearing aids, with the wirelessly connected cochlear implant placed under the patient’s skin.

Bart Volkaerts, technology research coordinator, Cochlear: “The external part, which is worn behind the ear – it contains the microphones, the sound processor and also the batteries. This external part communicates by means of wireless link to the implanted casing that contains the electronics, that generates the stimulation pulses.”

The goal of the new research, undertaken within the Healthy Aims project, is to develop a fully implantable system without any external parts. With this in mind, Researchers have developed a safe implantable battery and improved electrodes that provide a better-quality sound and are easier for the nervous system to adapt to.

Maurice Vertongen, cochlear implant recipient: “My doctor, professor Offeciers, has told me, that the main job is not done by him or by the device. “The most important work,”- he sais to me, – “is being done by your own brain”.

One of the pioneers of the cochlear implantation – Dr. Erwin Officiers believes, systematic screening of newborn children and early implantation for those born non-hearing may open the way to a world without deafness.

Erwin Offeciers, hospital of Antwerp: “Now, with ever improving technology, we can realise dreams. It’s a little like when Jules Verne was discussing how to get to the center of the Earth, or into Space, or when Leonardo da Vinci was drawing helicopters and submarines. The ideas are not new – but our technological means to do that are. And, of course, the financial backup from the larger European community to achieve this – this is extremely important.”

Denis Loctier

Denis Loctier is a senior Euronews science and nature correspondent, producer and presenter of the "Ocean" documentary series. Since 2001, he has produced short TV documentaries on more than 150 international research projects and covered a variety of other topics, from international politics and military conflicts to economy and tourism. He holds a double PhD degree in philology and information and communication sciences.

View all posts