CQU to propel life-changing innovation at Bionics Challenge 2021

18 August 2021

A CQUniversity clinical project that uses electrical stimulation to improve the lives of those living with spinal cord injuries has been named a finalist in the Bionics Challenge 2021.

Led by CQUniversity Lecturer in Neurological Physiotherapy Dr Vanesa Bochkezanian' the Electrical Stimulation (E-Stim) treatment aims to increase muscle mass' reduce spasticity and improve overall physical health.

In a clinical trial run by Dr Bochkezanian' the 12-week program involved using targeted electrical stimulation on patients for up to one hour twice a week.

"After 12 weeks patients saw their muscle mass improve by 45%' the symptoms of spasticity reduced and it improved physiological markers in the blood' so their physical health was improved'" Dr Bochkezanian explains.

"We are working with industry partners who are currently developing this technology to introduce an effective' safe and easy to use setting that allows patients to use the device at home.

"Our project team consists of Bioengineers from University Queensland' clinicians and researchers from Australia and India' and most importantly Leanne O'Neill' who has been living with a spinal cord injury for almost 40 years.

"Leanne's input into this project is invaluable. It will be the distinctive aspect of this consumer-led research."

At only 20 years old' Leanne was driving to work in outback Queensland when' in a split second' her life changed forever.

She was in a devastating car accident that left her with a partially broken spine and a crushed spinal cord.

Leanne was flown to Brisbane where she was examined for hours only to be told by doctors that she would never walk again.

"The doctor said it would be a miracle if I walked again'" Leanne said.

"It's very isolating. When you're in hospital you have support and you're surrounded by people in similar situations' but when you return home' the struggle really begins.

"When the doctors say you will never walk again' it's final. But this treatment provides hope to improve other issues that arise after having an injury' such as poor circulation' spasms' pressure sores and loss of bladder and bowel control' which are often overlooked and are more important than the hope of walking again.

"I would like to see the technology go mobile. If it were a portable device' I would be first on the list."

Dr Bochkezanian explains when patients have a spinal cord injury' the connection between the brain and the muscle is damaged.

"This technology provides an external input to active the muscle' the same way the signals are naturally sent from the brain'" she said.

"The main problem with an external input is the activation is often less effective than having a natural stimulant – that's why it is important to research."

The Bionics Challenge 2021 will deliver $300'000 in prizes and program support to teams working on life-changing technologies.

Dr Bochkezanian received a grant from SpinalCure Australia in conjunction with CQUniversity. The combined funds are currently being used to facilitate a pilot study which has already provided promising results.

However' she said winning the $50'000 prize for their category would have a considerable impact on the project.

"It would enable the project to move into the clinical stage' where we can gather information and feedback from clinicians and patients to improve the device and ultimately move into the next stage of in-home trials." she explained.

To find out more about the Bionics Challenge 2021' visit www.bionicsqueensland.com.au/bionics-challenge/