Prevailing Over Paralysis
When NeuroMetrix Inc. announced this month that they had acquired the intellectual property rights to Cyberkinetics’ Andara OFS system, it represented a sad ending to what was once a promising neurotechnology industry startup. Given the state of this economy and the troubles that company was having getting its humanitarian device exemption application approved, there’s probably not much that management could have done to keep the company afloat.
But we can’t help thinking that there was so much more this company could have accomplished, particularly for the spinal cord injury community. In large part because of the pioneering work company founders had done with its brain-computer interface technology, Cyberkinetics received an enormous amount of media attention. Reports of enabling severely paralyzed individuals—and monkeys—to communicate with the outside world merely by thinking made for great press but not necessarily a robust product pipeline.
When pressed for applications of their BCI technology, the company would often cite controlling neuroprosthetic devices that would restore function to paralyzed individuals. But the actual neuroprosthetic devices that might restore such function never became part of Cyberkinetics’ portfolio, even though the company was working with Case Western Reserve University researchers on an NIH-funded contract in this area. Although it might have taken years to get FDA approval of an FES device controlled by BrainGate, there were numerous examples of proven FES devices that were looking for a good home. The Freehand device previously marketed by NeuroControl Corp., the Brindley bladder stimulator marketed in the U.K. by Finetech, and the NeoPraxis multichannel standing/transfer system are all examples of commercial FES efforts that might have been adapted or acquired to give Cyberkinetics a more robust franchise in the SCI market and a more immediate path to product revenue.
Although previous FES ventures have stumbled in the commercial market, the new emphasis on neuroprosthetics for soldiers wounded in the Iraq war, together with funding from NIH, DARPA, and other sources, might have made the financial climate better this time. Even CMS has changed its tune about reimbursing FES devices for SCI applications, a decision that has benefited manufacturers of foot-drop devices.
NeuroMetrix may well become a player in the SCI market if it can succeed where Cyberkinetics failed with the Andara device. And Bioness, Victhom, and Restorative Therapies are still pursuing FES products for SCI users. But we would have liked to have seen a more proactive Cyberkinetics taking a larger role in a paralysis market that is still looking for a leader.
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