Neurobionics Expert is Back in the Laboratory

by Barry Shell — last modified 2005-09-20 11:35


Aging baby-boomers are increasingly suffering from physical dysfunctions such as urinary incontinence, chronic pain and paralysis from strokes. Fortunately, a solution is at hand, thanks to a body of pioneering research, a host of patents, and a prototype surgical implant developed in British Columbia by SFU Kinesiology professor Andy Hoffer.
Hoffer has returned to teaching and research after spinning off a company to commercialize his greatest invention based on *neurobionics*--sensing and controlling the human nervous system. Hoffer’s breakthroughs emerged from his basic research on neural mechanisms of normal body movement control. He was the first to develop a reliable method to record peripheral nerve activity during movement, and the first to use sensory nerve signal information to control Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES).

FES is a rapidly growing area of rehabilitation science for people with brain or spinal cord injuries whose paralyzed muscles, internal organs and sensory receptors become disconnected from the brain. Dr. Hoffer pioneered a way to make permanent electrical connections to peripheral nerves and inject electrical currents that reactivate paralyzed muscles. He also invented a way to control movements by monitoring sensory nerve information coming from skin receptors in the hands or feet. It took him 30 years to develop nerve cuff electrodes that record microvolt-level signals from sensory nerves.

Dr. Hoffer and his team have patented and fabricated the only commercially available multi-chambered, multi-channel nerve cuff. Research at SFU funded by the US National Institute of Health proved the long-term safety and efficacy of these cuff designs. Hoffer and his team also pioneered a totally implantable, low-noise microchip amplifier that resolves nerve signals recorded by the cuff. This breakthrough allowed the recent development of Neurostep (TM), the first fully implanted FES device for stroke patients with lower limb paralysis (foot drop). It lets them walk again. The Neurostep system obtains foot-to-ground contact information from the person's own sensory nerves and, at just the right time, stimulates motor nerves that control flexion of the paralyzed foot.

A recent 8-month clinical feasibility trial was carried out in B.C. in a hemiplegic man paralyzed by a stroke, who, even with braces and walker, could only walk 5-10 meters without fatiguing. After 10 weeks of training with the implanted Neurostep system he was able to routinely walk 250 meters without tiring and he had much improved posture and balance, free of supporting devices.

In 1997, with the help of the SFU Industry Liaison Office, Hoffer formed Neurostream Technologies Inc., the first spin-off company at SFU to use an innovative model of equity sharing with the university. Neurostream developed commercial fabrication methods for prototype products, filed patents and conducted a clinical feasibility trial that culminated last year in the sale of the company to Quebec-based bionic device manufacturer Victhom Human Bionics Inc. for $7.17M. Victhom estimates markets for Dr. Hoffer’s inventions in the billions of dollars by late 2008, and recently raised $18.4M to extend the Neurostream technology into applications such as control of urinary incontinence, paralyzed limbs, artificial limbs and phantom limb pain.

Dr. Hoffer is also a great teacher. He was the Director of the School of Kinesiology for six years where he has trained and mentored many young scientists and engineers who have gained prominence in areas of motor control, neural prostheses and clinical rehabilitation. Dr. Hoffer organizes and regularly chairs international conferences on neural prostheses.

Born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, Hoffer trained at Harvey Mudd College (B.S., physics, 1970) and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D., biophysics, 1975). He came to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, and became a faculty member of the University of Calgary. In 1991 he came to SFU to become the director of the School of Kinesiology, as well as an associate member of Engineering Science. He is currently a major participant in SFU's new Biomedical Engineering program.

For the last seven years, Hoffer has been away from teaching, working for Neurostream. With the sale of the company, Hoffer is back at SFU where he plans to extend his work with FES and implantable clinical assistive devices. In the meantime his technology, as it becomes commercialized by Victhom will have major social benefits for millions of people.




Faculty of Applied Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada 778-782-7138
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