Exoskeleton ‘SMART suit’ to be developed to help maintain mobilisation and independence

Service Engineering

A £1.25 million grant has been awarded to SMA UK, Duchenne UK, and the Inclusionaries Lab, Liverpool University, by the People’s Postcode Lottery to fund the development of an exoskeleton suit to provide strength, support, and improved mobilisation to people living with progressive diseases that affect motor function, such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy or SMA.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy is an inherited and progressive, muscle-wasting condition predominantly affecting boys, meaning that as they grow their ability to walk, use their arms, and live independently deteriorates and means that they require extensive assistance. Spinal muscular atrophy has a number of subtypes, and although rare, can be extremely severe and result in progressive muscle weakness, loss of mobility, and life-threatening complications. These are only two examples of disability-causing conditions that impair movement, impacting education, work, and quality of life. In individuals aged 16-64, in June 2021, 59.5% of those with disability affecting arms or hands reported being employed in, 58.4% of those with disabilities connected with legs or feet, and 56.2% of those with disabilities connected with their back or neck. Additionally, those reporting having any disability were significantly less likely to achieve a higher education degree. These disparities call for improved accessibility and solutions that can provide an better quality of life and hopefully begin to close these gaps in employment and education.

“Exoskeleton ‘SMART suit’ to be developed to help maintain mobilisation and independence in patients with progressive muscle weakness.“

The initial prototype was developed by Solid Biosciences, as part of their Solid Suit Program, using innovative, military technologies to strengthen and support movements without worsening underlying muscle pathologies that can progress as a result of activity in Duchenne muscular dystrophy. They designed the suit with modular components depending on the needs of the individual, including stretch at the ankle, middle-body support for the trunk and hips to support weight-bearing activities, and reach, to mobilise the upper body.

Building on this initial prototype, the SMART Suit will use micro electric motor technology to function, and is incorporated into light-weight, discrete, and elastic fabric for comfort and usability. The SMART Suit will be designed to be worn under clothes, and will support the torso during everyday activities that otherwise may be difficult or impossible, such as getting dressed, eating, and using phones or remote controls. The activities it will be designed to facilitate will be based on activities of daily living (ADLs) which are often clinically used by healthcare professionals, particularly occupational therapists, to assess the degree of disability an individual is living with, and their need for assistance.

“A lot of the work that we're going to have to do in this project is to come up with the user requirements, which will then feed into exactly how that prototype is going to be configured to meet those needs." - Alessandra Gaeta, Director of Research, Duchenne UK.

The development team are hoping to produce a prototype of the SMART Suit in the coming three years, with a timeline aiming to bring the finalised product to the market by 2027.

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