Six years ago, a spinal cord injury suffered in a motorcycle crash left Scott Fessler without use of his arms or legs. An innovative neuroprosthetic device, however, has helped him regain control in his hand.
“It’s monumental to be able to just pick up your own fork and eat by yourself, to hold your own toothbrush, your own pen, to color with your daughter,” he says.
Like the system that allows Jen French to walk and sail, Fessler’s technology, which uses electrical currents to bridge the paralyzing gap between his brain and hand, was developed at the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center. Under the leadership of Case Western Reserve University’s P. Hunter Peckham, PhD, the center teams up researchers from the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, MetroHealth Medical Center and the university to develop various systems for those with paralysis, including technologies for leg movement, standing, and bladder and bowel control.
Some FES Center systems, including the one Fessler uses, have earned FDA clearance and even reached the commercial market. But the manufacturer soon found the products too expensive to produce for the relatively small patient population and stopped making them.
Rather than surrender, Peckham looked for a new strategy to bring these advances to more patients. He created the university’s Institute for Functional Restoration (IFR). Peckham describes it as Case Western Reserve’s pioneering model to knock down barriers between technologies and patients who need them.
“The IFR’s mission is clear,” he says, “not to make discoveries, which is the FES Center’s domain, but to translate them into clinical deployment.”
The idea is that philanthropy can step up at a critical juncture during devices’ journeys from lab to life. At the point where traditional investors balk because of perceived risk, Peckham says, generous individuals are proving they can be counted on to act on behalf of the greater societal good. The model can fill in the cracks to carry a product on to where it can reap decent profits, and ultimately help those in need. At this point, Peckham hopes, the private sector will be more willing to act, thus saving much-needed innovations from falling off into the Valley of Death.