Grant to expand trial of breakthrough treatment for patients with paralysis

Royal Melbourne Hospital
Left to right: The Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt, Professor Peter Mitchell from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Professor Christine Kilpatrick, the CEO of Melbourne Health.

The University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital have welcomed a $1.48 million Federal Government grant that will expand a world first-in-human clinical trial of an implantable brain-computer interface designed to help Australians with upper limb paralysis restore functional independence.

The Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt made the announcement on Thursday morning.

The feasibility trial which began last year is based on a device called The Stentrode™ - a fully implantable therapeutic device that interacts with the nervous system from inside a blood vessel to translate brain commands. The feasibility trial is being carried out collaboratively with the University’s licensed commercialization partner Synchron Australia Pty Limited. It is intended that, through Synchron, the University’s research will be translated into patients worldwide.

The device is inserted via the blood vessels as part of a neurointerventional procedure performed at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The implant enables patients to achieve hands-free control of operating systems such as Windows, by replacing the mouse and keyboard with thought-controlled command functions.

The latest funding announcement by Minister Hunt will:

- Increase the number of patients who can participate in the trial;

- Include patients that experience paralysis due to conditions beyond motor neuron disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. These conditions may include muscular dystrophy, stroke and spinal cord injury; and

- Expand the trial to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Jim McCluskey acknowledged the Federal Government’s support saying it provided hope to people who are unable to communicate or move due to diseases of the nervous system.

“This funding announcement will enable the University and its partners at the Royal Melbourne Hospital to continue research which is critical to improving the lives of patients who otherwise have limited physical function or live in a world of silence,” Professor McCluskey said. “The research represents how cutting-edge clinical need can be addressed at the University through multidisciplinary innovation using biomedical engineering to facilitate neurological intervention.”

Associate Professor Thomas Oxley, co-head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne and CEO of Synchron said the potential to advance this important work that this grant offers cannot be understated.

“Having this support from the Australian government further validates the importance of our work and our confidence that this technology will lead to the realization of a treatment option with the capability to transform the lives of patients with paralysis,” Associate Professor Oxley said.

The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Peter Mitchell, Director of the RMH Neurointervention Service and principal investigator on the trial, said the funding will help the project expand and continue critical research.

“Being able to include hospitals around Australia will allow us to continue the safety trial of the device, which is already showing positive signs that it can change the lives of patients who have almost no physical function and can’t speak, giving them the ability to communicate through technology,” said Professor Mitchell.

Associate Professor Nicholas Opie, co-head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University and Synchron’s CTO paid tribute to the team from Melbourne’s biomedical precinct.

“The potentially life changing capability of our technology is a tribute to the exceptional and highly motivated multi-disciplinary team that we initiated here at the University of Melbourne,” said Associate Professor Opie.

“We are fortunate to be surrounded and supported by such incredible minds in the precinct and inspired to continue to expand our efforts to transform the lives of people with paralysis.”

On Wednesday, the Minister announced funding for rare cancers, rare diseases and unmet medical needs. Two University of Melbourne research projects were awarded grants: (1) Evaluation of Fibroblastic Activation Protein Inhibitors (FAPI) as a novel radiopharmaceutical targeting cancer-associated fibroblasts for the diagnosis and treatment of patients with Cancer of Unknown Primary: (2) The FAPI-CUP trial; and A multi-centre randomised controlled trial of polysomnographic titration of non-invasive ventilation in motor neurone disease.