UK Collaboration Gets £1.25M Grant to Develop ‘Smart Suit’

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by Mary Chapman |

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Development of an exoskeleton suit to help those living with progressive neuromuscular conditions that affect their upper-body movement will advance due to a £1.25 million (about $1.5 million) grant from the People’s Postcard Lottery in the United Kingdom.

The “SMART Suit,” which targets people with disabilities such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), is being developed collaboratively by SMA UK, Duchenne UK, and the Inclusionaries Lab at the University of Liverpool.

Touted as the first of its kind, the “suit” would be worn by teens and young adults on their torso under clothing to help them with everyday activities such as having a meal or preparing for school, or even answering a phone call or waving to a friend.

A proof-of-concept prototype has been developed by Solid Biosciences, a life science company that focuses on treatments for DMD patients. The goal is for the product, which seeks to replace lost upper body strength, to be brought to market by 2027.

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“The prototype of the wearable suit will take three years to develop, and the SMA community will be a key element in testing designs for suitability for a range of conditions,” Angela Smith-Morgan, CEO of SMA UK, said in a press release. “We are thrilled that the SMA community will be playing [a] key part in this development which will transform the lives of people living with SMA and other conditions.”

SMA is marked by progressive muscle weakness and atrophy, primarily affecting motor function. Poor muscle tone and control impairs motor development and can affect future mobility. Muscles, particularly of the shoulders and upper arms and legs, are more severely affected.

“Quite rightly, there has been a lot of focus on finding treatments for SMA and the development of genetic drugs … Hopefully, in the future, a wearable suit [will be developed] that will strengthen my upper body muscles so that I can do simple tasks like feeding myself dinner in the evening or lifting a pint in the pub!” Toby Milton, SMA UK trustee and SMA patient, said.

In DMD, the primary symptom is progressive muscle wasting, which first affects muscles closer to the trunk, with other parts of the body impacted as the disorder advances.

“Despite incredible technological progress elsewhere, this is a problem that has gone without true innovation in the last 30 years,” Emily Reuben, CEO of Duchenne UK, said. “Because of this, people living with upper-limb disability face barriers in work, education, and their social lives.”

The garment, which seeks to push the boundaries of existing assistive technology, is being developed by a team of designers, engineers, child health professionals, and product developers, along with people with SMA and DMD.

The aim is for the SMART Suit to be designed using powerful micro-electric motor technology for robotic support, in addition to lightweight, breathable, and elastic fabric.

“This is a unique and timely opportunity to address a long-term ‘wicked problem’ in the design and commercialization of impactful and desirable solutions for Important parts of our society currently dis-served by innovation,” Farnaz Nickpour, PhD, director of the Inclusionaries Lab, said.

“Through our innovative collaboration with Duchenne and SMA UK, we want to ensure advanced inclusive and human-centered design principles are embedded in the SMART Suit, and moreover, make our interdisciplinary approach and processes in this project accessible and applicable in many other areas similarly in need of better, more systemic solutions,” Nickpour said.