How robots may help stroke patients walk without a limp
Updated: Apr 6
While most of his fellow engineering students were focussing on manufacturing industries, Andrew McDaid wanted to find ways to use his mechanical nous for patient treatment, and he may now be on the cusp of transforming the lives of stroke patients.
Andrew McDaid, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty, has created a “wearable robot” to help people recover from a stroke and regain their independence.
“Most of my colleagues in engineering went to work on robotics for manufacturing and traditional fields. I wanted to do something that directly helps people who need it most and has a positive impact on their lives.” Andrew collaborated with the University’s Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences to identify how best to help patients recover from a stroke.
Andrew and his team designed the Re-Link Trainer (RLT) in partnership with a multidisciplinary team that included a neuroscientist, clinicians and physiotherapists.
“Walking is one of the most important capabilities people want to regain after a stroke. It’s what makes them be able to get out and do things and be independent. With continued gait issues, people will get out less, feel isolated and deteriorate quickly.” Instead of trying to rehabilitate someone to fix a bad walking pattern, the RLT is designed to prevent them acquiring a bad gait after their injury.
“Imagine a Zimmer frame with a robotic attachment that connects to your leg and puts it in the correct walking pattern. You take a step with your good leg and then the robot will guide you to take another step with your impaired leg but it does it in a proper movement rather than a limp.”
Getting the RLT to a stage where physiotherapists are using it in hospital trials has been an organic process, Andrew says.
“Over a few years we brainstormed different ideas. We came up with something that’s truly novel – no one else has done anything like this,” Andrew explains.
“We looked at the practicalities of physios using complex robotic devices, their training requirements and costs. As a result we’ve designed a device that is purely mechanical.”
He credits much of his success thus far to funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF).
“I applied to the AMRF for funding to take the original work we’d done from the engineering side and translate it across into clinical trials with chronic and acute patients.
“It kickstarted my research career. I was a young researcher and I was able to prove myself through that grant. Completing that project successfully gave me the track record to get funding from the Health Research Council to do clinical trials with the next version of the device. Without AMRF I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Andrew is working on further clinical trials to demonstrate the effectiveness of the RLT to improve patient outcomes and reduce rehabilitation costs, so it can become part of standard care. There is also potential for it to be used for children with cerebral palsy.
Sue Brewster, Executive Director of AMRF, says medical research can take many forms, and it is important to support emerging researchers across the spectrum of medical and health sciences.
“We know our donors will be proud to have been instrumental in Andrew’s work, and to have been able to help him leverage other funding for this vital project.”