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UH’s Contreras-Vidal, NASA work on a rehab robot patients control with their brain

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal looked on as Roger Rovekamp, wearing a skullcap covered in electrodes, took halting steps, each leg moved by the robotic exoskeleton wrapped around his body.

Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, develops algorithms that read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement.

His Rehab Rex gained attention for its ability to help people with spinal cord injuries stand upright and “walk.” That project is now waiting for clinical testing to begin at Houston Methodist Hospital.

His newest project is a collaboration with engineers from NASA, and it could help patients with conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Contreras-Vidal said at least some of those patients would use the robot only temporarily, as a rehabilitation tool.

Rovekamp, a robotics engineer with Oceaneering Space Systems, recently served as a test subject on the new project. He said NASA wants to address the muscle atrophy and other health risks astronauts might face during long-duration space travel.

The X1 exoskeleton was jointly designed by NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla.

NASA is interested in its potential as an exercise tool for crew members, both at the International Space Station and on future long-duration space flights, and Contreras- Vidal said the X1 also could have the ability to measure and send data back to flight controllers, providing information on how the flight is affecting their health.

But much of his research is focused on the exoskeleton’s potential for use in physical therapy. The X1 is smaller than the Rehab Rex and could help people recover from a brain injury by teaching the brain to re-wire itself, he said.

The brain-machine interface, or BMI, technology works by interpreting brain waves that allow patients to control the robotic legs with their thoughts. It can control the user’s movements, through motorized joints at the hips and knees, or simply provide some resistance, depending on how it is programmed, he said.

Contreras-Vidal and his research team record brain signals using a scalp electroencephalogram, or EEG, through a skullcap fitted with electrode sensors. That avoids the need for implanting electrodes under a patient’s scalp.

The electrodes also can measure brain activity to ensure the patient is actively mentally engaged in the rehab, he said. That’s important, “because you want to eventually get rid of the robot. You want to retrain the brain, so the patient has to be actively engaged.”

Children’s Medical Center launches first neonatal telemedicine program in Texas

Children’s Medical Center of Dallas recently announced it is launching the state’s first dedicated neonatal telemedicine program— the Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU. The new service will provide physicians at other hospital neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) with 24-hour access to the highly trained, board-certified UT Southwestern neonatologists on Children’s medical staff in order to consult on care for the region’s tiniest and most fragile patients.

The TeleNICU program utilizes specialized equipment and secure broadband transmission to allow two-way, real-time interactive communication between hospitals and enable expert neonatologists at Children’s to virtually examine newborns at distant-site NICUs. Participating hospitals will connect to Children’s through a mobile equipment cart that includes medical-quality videoconferencing, data transfer and digital scoping equipment. Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU will be fully operational this month and ready to assist other hospital NICUs located in Texas and beyond.

“As the first telemedicine program of its kind in Texas, the Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU program exemplifies our deep commitment to innovation and the use of proven technology to extend the reach of our expertise beyond the boundaries of walls and geography,” said Christopher J. Durovich, president and chief executive officer of Children’s.

Affiliated with UT Southwestern Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical institutions, Children’s is the only pediatric teaching and research hospital in North Texas. As the region’s major neonatal tertiary-care center, Children’s provides complex care for seriously ill newborns and infants transferred from other hospitals.

According to Durovich, the NICU at Children’s is designated a Level-IV—the highest standard set by the American Academy of Pediatrics—and staffed 24/7 by expert UT Southwestern neonatologists.

Although the total number of hospital NICUs in Texas and nationally has increased over the past decade, many are Level-I and Level-II NICUs that are not staffed or equipped for complex care. The Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU program can help facilitate sound decision-making in the region about whether and when transfers are necessary, which is intended to result in both improved care and reduced cost. The hope is that TeleNICU consultation will minimize or even eliminate the need for transport in many cases, so newborns can remain at their home hospitals longer— reducing the stress of travel on both patients and families.

The Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU also is expected to play an important regional role in ongoing provider education and quality care by facilitating greater flow of information and expertise among health care providers, and accomplishing it more efficiently.

“As a Level-IV NICU and a major academic and research center, we have a responsibility to import and export best practices and share established protocols with other hospitals – and telemedicine enables us to be available without the constraints of physical travel,” said Dr. Rashmin Savani, division director of neonatal-perinatal medicine at UT Southwestern and Children’s, and professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Savani also pointed out that North Texas has a growing population with a climbing birthrate, in contrast to other parts of the country, and the demand for NICUs remains high due to premature deliveries and multiple births, among other factors.

“The Children’s Medical Center TeleNICU will enhance the quality of neonatal intensive care in our region today, as well as prepare for the future pediatric population in the communities we serve,” said Savani. Former US Oncology executives to lead U.S. launch of genetic diagnostic platform.

In anticipation of the launch of its CLIAcertified genetic diagnostic platform for cancer care, MolecularHealth announced that it has opened North American offices in The Woodlands, Texas and appointed a new management team, headed by Lloyd Everson, M.D., CEO of the U.S. division. Dr. Everson is joined by three fellow US Oncology veterans: Marc Kerlin, Chief Operating Officer; Philip Watts, General Counsel; and Chet Dye, Chief Development Officer.

Dietmar Hopp, co-founder and former chairman and CEO of SAP, and the lead investor in MolecularHealth, said, “When we founded SAP forty years ago, we believed that organizing previously disaggregated data and systems could make for more efficient, effective resource planning. Today I see a similar opportunity in the healthcare sector, and MolecularHealth is paving the way through the integration of clinical and molecular information.”

In the first half of 2014, the company expects to launch its integrated service offering, which includes a CLIA-based next generation sequencing laboratory and a unique analytics platform that generates safer and targeted treatment choices for cancer patients and their physicians, based on integration of patients’ clinical and genetic information with the world of biomedical and molecular knowledge. As part of its offering, MolecularHealth will provide patients, oncologists and pathologists with complete logistical support, including navigating insurance reimbursement.

“MolecularHealth’s computational and diagnostic platform is the result of more than eight years of development by a multidisciplinary team of doctors, scientists and IT experts,” said Friedrich von Bohlen, Ph.D., chairman of the board of directors for MolecularHealth. “This management team brings with it the medical and operational experience needed to commercially launch MolecularHealth here in North America, and to make our cancer diagnostics offering available to oncologists, pathologists, patients and their families.”

Chief Executive Officer U.S. Division Dr. Everson, who previously served as vice chairman and member of the board of directors of US Oncology, Inc., brings more than four decades of experience in oncology and hematology practice and research to his role at MolecularHealth. Dr. Everson, who earned a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, has held clinical and research positions at Cornell Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer and the National Cancer Institute. He also served as President and Chief Operating Officer of American Oncology Resources, Inc., the predecessor organization of US Oncology. In 2009, Dr. Everson formed the Life Beyond Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit serving the needs of cancer survivors, where he serves as chairman of the board.

Chief Operating Officer Marc Kerlin comes to MolecularHealth with 28 years of healthcare experience, most recently serving as President and Chief Executive Officer at e+Cancer Care, where he remains a member of the board of directors. Kerlin held several positions during his time at US Oncology, ultimately becoming Senior Vice President of Business Development, Marketing and Managed Care.

Philip Watts, MolecularHealth’s General Counsel, has spent a majority of his legal career focused on the oncology and healthcare space. At US Oncology, Watts served as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary, from 1997 until 2009. Before joining the team at MolecularHealth, he was Executive Vice President at U.S. Physiatry, LLC, where he was brought on to assist with developing the company’s business plan, recruiting a management team, and forming the company.

Chief Development Officer and Senior Vice President Chet Dye has spent 24 years driving business growth for companies focused on healthcare and oncology. Dye joined US Oncology in 1997 as a regional director and rose to become Vice President of Business Development and Physician Recruiting. He continued to work with US Oncology after it was acquired by McKesson, serving as National Vice President responsible for business development, sales, account management & physician recruiting. Immediately prior to joining MolecularHealth, he was Chief Development Officer at Solis Women’s Health, the largest independent provider of breast diagnostic services in the U.S.

“Genes are the fingerprints of life, and our CLIA-based, automated platform translates that genetic language into the best possible treatment according to a patient’s own genetic makeup, past medical history, and the best available scientific information and clinical research,” said Dr. Everson. “The installment of this team moves us forward on our path to revolutionizing how we view, understand and treat the onset and progression of cancer, in order to improve safety, efficacy and outcomes.” ▼