Smart textile garments to help stroke survivors recover vital arm function
An innovative startup backed by cutting-edge neuroscience is developing smart textile garments that could help people who have neurological conditions recover upper limb function.
Laura Salisbury founded KnitRegen while working towards a PhD at the Royal College of Art focused on using nanotechnology in garments. Through the MedTech SuperConnector (MTSC) she was able to develop ideas from her research and build a multidisciplinary team of designers and scientists.
The company has attracted seed funding from Venrex Investment Management LLP in order to develop its first functional garment for brain injury survivors by summer 2022.
In the further future, they will look to build a portfolio of garments and apply the technology to a range of sectors including for compression therapies (for pressure sores and diabetic ulcers); lymphatic drainage; and sports performance and injury.
A helping hand for stroke survivors
Every year in the UK around 100,000 people experience a stroke. Fortunately, deaths from stroke have declined in the past 15 years. However, many survivors are left with disabilities – indeed almost two thirds leave hospital with some loss of function such as upper limb weakness. This is owing to damage in the area of the brain involved in motor control. Special rehabilitation programmes can help the brain re-learn some of these functions – but regimes can be difficult to maintain and tailor to individuals.
Recent laboratory studies have shown that different types of sensory stimuli can help regain function after stroke, by recruiting different neural pathways – involving the brain as well as the brainstem, spine and muscles themselves.
After attending guest lectures in London on this topic – including by Professor Stuart Baker (Newcastle University) – Laura immediately saw potential synergies with her own background and expertise in textiles, garments and inclusive design.
“Sensory input can be a powerful way of interacting with neural pathways,” Laura says. “It’s essentially a backdoor pathway that can have a profound impact on recovery, delivered in a passive way. We’re not suggesting this replaces rehabilitation; rather we’re using this alongside rehabilitation, and alongside everyday life. It’s an addition that can boost gains and recovery.”
Translating research into practice
Developing her venture whilst at the same time pursuing a PhD presented a considerable challenge. But through the MTSC, Laura was able to learn the fundamentals of how to translate research into ‘real-world use and impact,’ as she puts it.
Laura adds: “I have learnt a great deal from the MTSC masterclasses and mentoring sessions. It was a chance to really start to think about business models and the regulatory process which has been invaluable in accelerating the development of the venture. This will also no doubt be useful later down the line.”
Laura has assembled a team of scientists and designers to work towards building a minimum value product (MVP) by summer 2022. This includes neuroscientist Professor Baker as a key project partner; material scientists Dr Peter Petrov and Dr Andrey Berenov (Imperial) who have advised and helped with specimen testing; and Dr Rachel Stockley, from UCLan’s Stroke Research Team, who has acted as a clinical advisor.
“We’re pairing great design with science, understanding people’s behaviours and trying to create a really desirable, useable and suitable product that isn’t stigmatizing,” Laura says.
In addition to support from MTSC and Venrex Investment Management LLP, the team is supported by the Henry Royce Institute and Design Research Society.