Featured image above: Strentrode. Credit: University of Melbourne
A few years ago, Australian neurology resident Dr Thomas Oxley set out to design a device that uses brain waves to power prosthetic limbs. Today, Oxley’s revolutionary invention is about to enter human trials, giving hope that millions of people paralysed by injury or stroke will soon be able to walk again.
Oxley’s futuristic device – a tiny stent-electrode or ‘stentrode’ – also promises to predict and halt epileptic seizures and assist people with a range of conditions, from motor neurone and Parkinson’s diseases to compulsive disorders and depression.
In a nutshell, the matchstick-sized gadget will be inserted, without invasive surgery, into a blood vessel next to the brain’s motor cortex. From there it will detect and translate neural activity, such as the intention to walk, and send commands wirelessly to exoskeleton legs.
Detect, translate, transmit and walk. That’s what scientists call brain-machine interface, and it begins with straightforward day surgery to thread the stent up the groin to the brain.
Trials with sheep, published in February 2016 in Nature Biotechnology, revealed that the animals were fine. They were walking and eating within an hour, and had no side effects.
If all goes according to plan following human trials in 2017, Oxley predicts the stentrode could be on the market by the early 2020s.
“We’ve been able to create the world’s first minimally invasive brain recording device that is implanted without high-risk open brain surgery,” says Oxley.
The road to commercialisation
Oxley is in New York to do a two-year fellowship in cerebral angiography at Mount Sinai Hospital, a specialty which employs non-invasive procedures to visualise blood vessels in the brain. It’s a skill directly related to his work in vascular bionics, exploiting the body’s blood vessels and veins for technologically enhanced therapeutic ends.
In 2012 the pair co-founded a startup company called SmartStent Pty Ltd to refine and prepare the stentrode for market.
Their goal: commercialise what promises to be one of the world’s most important medical inventions.
After building hundreds of stentrode prototypes, the next step is testing the technology with people. “We’re trying to raise A$4 million for the first human trials at Royal Melbourne Hospital,” Oxley notes. “We’re hoping to begin in late 2017.”
Given the life-changing and commercial potential of the stentrode, it’s little wonder that SmartStent moved to Silicon Valley in April 2016. There, Oxley, Opie and cardiologist Rahul Sharma, with Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, established Synchron Inc. as their new corporate headquarters. SmartStent remains the Australian subsidiary.
Clearly, Oxley is a man on the move. Given his family tree, it was inevitable. While he was born in Melbourne, until age nine Oxley lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father Alan, a former diplomat, was Australia’s Ambassador for Trade. Then it was on to New York when his dad became Australian Ambassador to the General Agreement in Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.
The Oxley family is littered with creative people. Oxley has two older sisters. Harriet is a theatre set and costume designer, and Anna is in banking. His mother Sandra completed a Masters in computing science at Columbia University while Alan was at the GATT.
So where did Oxley’s interest in the brain come from? In his early teens Oxley had developed “a bit of an obsession with the brain and consciousness”.
“Dad was intellectually challenging. I figured it would be a smarter move to become interested in areas he didn’t understand,” Oxley replies.
Solving the mysteries of the brain
Medicine seemed a good choice for a kid keen to reverse engineer the brain to solve the mysteries of human consciousness. So Oxley went off to Monash Medical School in Melbourne, finishing in 2006. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital in 2009.
“Then I took a year off to go travelling,” recalls Oxley, who didn’t begin his neurology residency until 2011. “I was travelling and intellectually exploring.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was on his ‘to visit’ list. DARPA is an arm of the US Department of Defense. Located in Arlington, Virginia, the agency is responsible for developing emerging military technologies, including biotechnology.
After an initial chat, Ling was sufficiently impressed to invite his visitor to develop what Oxley claims became a “pretty blue sky, out there” proposal.
The result? Oxley left Virginia with a promise of US$1.3 million and instructions to put a team together to create and test his device.
“After all that excitement, I came home and had to start my neurology residency. It was a steep learning curve,” says Oxley, who had to tread carefully as a junior resident with potentially large research funding coming in.
Fortunately, Oxley’s PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor Terry O’Brien, was Oxley’s academic champion. He helped negotiate the occasionally challenging politics and opened doors to the range of experts Oxley needed to set up the DARPA-inspired Vascular Bionics Laboratory at Melbourne University. The two men even leveraged DARPA’s investment into over A$4 million, with grants from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council and other Australian bodies.
Oxley completed his residency in 2013, and submitted his doctorate in February 2016. But the rest isn’t history. There’s a stentrode to trial and commercialise. An invention which O’Brien calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of bionics.
– Leigh Dayton