Locally created walking aid to sell next year

Patients from Pennsylvania to Hawaii who were previously unable to use their legs will be able to test a Berkeley-developed exoskeleton, which enables them to walk, as the product prepares to hit the market sometime early next year.

The Exoskeleton Lower Extremity Gait System (eLEGS) was created by Berkeley Bionics, which announced Tuesday its partnership with 10 physical rehabilitation centers across the country to further develop and test the product.

Founded in 2005 by UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering Homayoon Kazerooni, the company on Oct. 7, 2010, unveiled eLEGS — an external device worn over a patients’ clothing which makes use of sensors feeding off manually operated hand crutches to anticipate patients’ movements and provide them with the ability to walk.

According to Beverly Millson, who manages the company’s public relations, the rehabilitation centers participating in the study will eventually become eLEGS centers — meaning they will be among the first to offer the product to their patients.

“The goal is to conduct investigational studies, share and reciprocate information and ultimately these rehabilitation centers … will become eLEGS centers,” Millson said.

Millson added that the partnership constitutes only the first 10 eLEGS centers and that the company will also seek to offer the product outside the boundaries of the United States.

The company had first aimed to have eLEGS ready for widespread use by the end of this year but is now working for release in early 2012, she said.

“We just want to be real sure everything is spot-on and everything is running,” Millson said.

Additionally, the product is in a constant state of change as developers continue to add new features, Millson said. She said the aesthetics will be different than the current prototype.

Though he is no longer involved in the daily business of Berkeley Bionics, Kazerooni said the partnership will be good for eLEGS and should provide valuable information as the product continues to develop under medical supervision.

“The entire community will learn from feedback they will receive from patients, and that will push the technology further,” Kazerooni said. “That is a good thing for the company and for the community interested in spinal cord injury.”

Joy Alexiou, spokesperson for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said the center currently has two outpatients who use eLEGS as part of their physical therapy. She said the center has already been working with eLEGS for a few months.

“There’s a lot going in to figure out what changes may be made or what works or doesn’t work so that the product can be developed further,” Alexiou said.

But eLEGS is not the only technology of its kind.

At UC Berkeley’s graduation last month, alumnus Austin Whitney, who has been paraplegic for nearly four years as the result of a car accident, used a different exoskeleton to stand upright and walk across the stage to shake the hand of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. However, Kazerooni, who was involved in developing the technology Whitney used, said it is different from eLEGS.

“Austin’s project is really not a product at this time — it’s a showcase of a different type of technology … for personal use,” Kazerooni said. “eLEGS is designed and built for rehabilitation centers.”

J.D. Morris is an assistant news editor.