Smart-e-Pants ease pressure

New technology designed to prevent pressure ulcers for people with spinal cord injury is now being tested in Alberta hospitals.

By Karen Thomas on February 1, 2012

(Edmonton) When Landon Catt broke his neck during motocross racing last summer, his whole life changed. “Everything below my shoulders is immobilized. I have some feeling, but no movement,” says the 35-year-old from Stettler, Alberta.

Catt spent last fall in the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton. Among the many things he learned is one of the major risks to his health are pressure ulcers, commonly called bedsores.

“People with reduced mobility, confined to a bed because of illness or dependent on a wheelchair, are at constant risk of developing pressure ulcers,” says Vivian Mushahwar, an Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions senior scholar at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

“These sores often cause infections and can lead to life-threatening complications and even death.” Mashahwar and a team of researchers from across Alberta have developed a device to alleviate that danger for people with spinal cord injuries and stroke.

Smart-e-Pants, a personal undergarment, essentially replicates how people make miniscule movements when they sit or lie down, keeping blood flowing to their tissues.

“Smart-e-Pants provide an electrical current for 10 seconds every 10 minutes, stimulating the nerves and muscles to replicate what we do when we ‘fidget’ in our chair,” says Dr. Ming Chan, a rehabilitation medicine specialist for Alberta Health Services at the Glenrose. “Our aim is to prevent pressure ulcers by bringing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.”

After studying pressure ulcers in the lab for five years, Mushahwar gathered a team of16 experts from across Alberta—from neuroscience, nanotechnology and microtechnology, biomedical and electrical engineering and rehabilitation medicine—to develop ways to improve function and reduce secondary complications associated with neural injuries and diseases.

With $5 million in funding from Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS), including support from Alberta Health and Wellness, the team set its sights on Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology and created the AIHS Project SMART team.

Smart-e-Pants have been pilot tested successfully with 20 participants at the Allen Gray Continuing Care Centre and the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton. Testing has now begun with five participants at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, with the plan to eventually test it widely across the province and Canada.

“I am thrilled to offer this option to patients at Foothills,” says Dr. Sean Dukelow, a Project SMART team member, who is a specialist with the Calgary Stroke Program and assistant professor of clinical neurosciences in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary.

“Not only are pressure ulcers a serious health problem for our patients, the health-care costs are considerable. We estimate that pressure ulcers cost the Canadian health-care system $3.5 billion a year.”

Richard Stein, co-leader of the team and research professor in the Centre for Neuroscience at the U of A, says the team is preparing to produce Smart-e-Pants on a much wider scale and has creating Prev Biotech, a subsidiary of BioMotion Limited.

“We look forward to doing clinical studies in Alberta hospitals and elsewhere in Canada in the coming months and years.”

Funding support for the team and Smart-e-Pants has come from the Spinal
Cord Injury Treatment Centre Society (SCITCS), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, Alberta Health and Wellness, the Rick Hansen Foundation and Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Canada.

The $50-million AIHS Interdisciplinary Team Grants Program supports 10 collaborative eams of scientists and physicians from across the province who are investigating research questions and health-care challenges in areas of priority for Alberta. Alberta Health and Wellness has contributed $17 million toward the program.