A 5-year UK-based clinical trial, designed to use robot-assisted training to assist stroke patients in regaining movement in their affected arms, has been officially launched in the North East.

According to a news release issued by the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, its stroke specialists will lead the trial alongside researchers at Newcastle University and other UK institutions. The £3 million research grant, provided by the National Institute for Health Research (NHR), will see NHS patients take part in what is the reportedly first ever and largest study of its kind in the UK.

The clinical trial, the release says, will encompass up to 16 stroke services across the NHS, targeting four major study centers that include North Tyneside General Hospital in North East England, Queen’s Hospital in Romford, Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, and the Western Infirmary in Glasgow. Each center will work with neighboring local hospitals, community rehabilitation services, stroke clubs, and GP practices to allow more than 700 stroke patients to take part in the research project.

According to the release, North Tyneside General Hospital is one of the first in country to house the stroke “rehabilitation robots” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, after investing more than £250,000. The hospital will now lead the research program in the North East, working with stroke patients across Tyne and Wear.

A clinical trial of robot-assisted training in the US indicates the approach may assist in improving upper limb recovery for some stroke patients, the release states. The NHS is conducting a large study in an effort to determine if robot-assisted training leads to improved clinical outcomes for patients and more efficient use of NHS resources.

During the training, patients who have sustained a stroke will sit at a table facing a computer screen and place their arm onto the device. The release notes that the therapist will then ask the patient to execute arm exercises, such as moving between targets on a computer screen. If the patient is unable to move their arm, the robot moves the patient’s arm in order to complete the task. If the patient is able to initiate the movement, the robot provides adjustable levels of assistance to facilitate the patient’s arm movement.

The release states that Newcastle University researchers will collaborate with teams from the Universities of Glasgow, East London and Cambridge, as well as MIT, and NHS stroke teams.

Leading the research will be Helen Rodgers, FRCP, professor of Stroke Care at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University and consultant stroke physician at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

In the release, Rodgers calls the clinical trial “a really exciting step forward” for stroke rehabilitation in the UK.

“We have been looking at the research undertaken in the USA and we are working closely with colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to see if robot-assisted training is an effective treatment. If shown to be effective, robot-assisted training has the potential to change how we provide NHS rehabilitation for people with arm weakness due to stroke,” Rodgers says.

The release reports that Hermano Igo Krebs, PhD, principal research scientist and lecturer at MIT, pioneered the robot technology in the trial. Krebs adds that the robotic technology developed at MIT is already assisting a variety of stroke patients and individuals with other neurological conditions in the US.

“Our focus is on helping clinicians to facilitate a functional recovery for their patients by using intensive and highly interactive robotic therapy to help people achieve their absolute optimum movement. By using robotics not only do we get a greater understanding of the neurorecovery process, but we can also build a rich stream of data that assists in ongoing patient diagnosis and customization of the therapy,” Krebs notes.

Since April 2014, researchers have been recruiting patients with first ever stroke to participate in the clinical trial. Patients are eligible for the trial if they are between one week and 5 years since their stroke and have moderate or severe difficulty moving their arm.

Trial participants will be randomly assigned into one of three groups. The first group will receive robot-assisted training during a 3-month period, a second group will receive equivalent intensive therapy carried out by a therapist, and the third group will receive usual therapy treatment from the NHS.

For more information about the Robot Assisted Training for Upper Limb after Stroke (RATULS) Trial, click here

[Source: Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust]