The paraplegic who walked a marathon

Medical technology is progressing at dizzying speeds. David Thornton profiles some incredible products, including the 'bionic' suit that allows paraplegics to walk.

I saw an incredible woman give a speech last week. Claire Lomas was a top event rider before she was paralysed. She competed at the prestigious Burghley Horse Trials and had her sights set on making the British Olympic team. Her accident ended those hopes, but the remarkable story of how she went on to complete a marathon speaks volumes about the dizzying speed of progress in medical technology, one of my favourite investment themes.

In 2007 Claire was riding one of her horses in the Osberton Horse Trials in Nottinghamshire. Both the horse and course were familiar to her; it was a perfectly normal day of competition for such an expert rider. In a split second though, a freak accident changed her life forever. The horse clipped some branches and she was thrown into a tree.

Claire's injuries were horrific. She was in intensive care for ten days, needing a tracheotomy to help her breathe following a punctured lung and pneumonia. Her neck and back were fractured, injuring her spinal cord, which meant she was paralysed from the chest down. Without any sensation at all in her legs the prognosis was grim and her doctors did little to brighten her prospects. Any positive thoughts were dismissed as her "being in denial". And at the age of 27 she was consigned to a wheelchair.

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But a top sportswoman like Claire was never just going to accept her fate. She discharged herself from hospital after eight weeks - a shorter time than anyone had spent there with injuries like hers. The nurses told her that her leg muscles would atrophy and her body shape change because "there was no point in exercising". Claire wasn't going to accept that, so she underwent an intensive programme of physiotherapy, initially in the US, to stay as fit as possible. Her sporting determination showed itself when she took up skiing using equipment specially designed for paraplegics. She fell over a lot more than an able-bodied novice might, but can now tackle difficult runs with confidence.

The bionic suit that allows paraplegics to walk

After her accident, Claire got married and gave birth to her daughter, Maisie. But she never lost sight of one goal: to walk again. In order to be fit for when a cure is found (she always says when', not if') and to enjoy the sensations of standing and walking, Claire has learned to use a bionic' suit called the ReWalk. Despite having no feeling or movement at all in her legs, Claire used the ReWalk to complete the 26 miles of the London Marathon last year. It was a Herculean effort that took 17 days to complete, raised £210,000 for Spinal Research and created masses of awareness and publicity.

How does the ReWalk work? It isn't really a suit, but rather a motor-driven robotic device, an exoskeleton that is strapped to the outside of your legs and moves them for you. It mimics standing and sitting as well as walking. To stand, Claire presses a button on a wristwatch. On the third beep, the ReWalk whirrs into action and she can get up with the aid of crutches. Sitting is a similar process but she has to take care because when the suit sits she has no choice but to go with it!

Sensors in the ReWalk detect shifts in Claire's balance in order to move her legs in a natural walking gait. The knack is to tilt the hips in such a way that the device "knows" you want to walk. It clearly isn't easy and requires a lot of patience and tenacity but it is hugely inspiring to see a paralysed person able to move around.

A walking suit can prevent loads of health problems

Just being able to talk to people on level terms without having to look up from a wheelchair is a big positive for Claire. These psychological benefits shouldn't be underestimated. But ReWalk also reduces most of the physical problems that come with long-term wheelchair use. Things like pressure sores, thinning bones, heart and breathing problems and digestive complications.

It's made by an Israeli company called Argo Medical Technologies. Its shares aren't publicly listed but held by its venture capital backers. The challenge is to develop the technology further, both to improve the ReWalk and to lower its price so it can be more widely adopted in rehabilitation clinics.

Claire's ultimate goal is to stand and walk again without robotic assistance. For that she needs a cure for spinal injuries. Twenty years ago such injuries were regarded as incurable, because it was impossible to regenerate the spinal cord. More recently, there has been a growing belief that a cure can be found. Proteins have been discovered which inhibit and support nerve regeneration.

Stem cell research and other therapies that aid nerve regeneration are producing promising results. It is also felt that fewer than 10% of the injured axons - the nerve fibres that carry electrical impulses - will need to be regenerated in order to restore substantial functionality to the limbs.

Claire's message is much more than one of hope. It is about challenging yourself to stretch boundaries, and to achieve. Sentiments like know your limitations' don't have much room in Claire Lomas's world. In fact, she lives not in hope that a cure will be found, but in an expectation that it will. In the meantime, her personal determination and support from equipment like the ReWalk suit will keep her healthy.

Two more incredible medical products

It's a shame we can't invest in the ReWalk suit, but there are other medical devices hitting the market at the moment that are equally impressive, and you can get exposure to them. I wrote recently about a new brain scanner that fits over the head like a hair net. It's the work of a company called Electrical Geodesics (EGI). And the idea is that it can give surgeons highly detailed images of the brain before an operation, helping them to put the scalpel in exactly the right place. It also promises to help neuroscientists with a €1bn project to map the brain.

Another device that I find incredibly impressive is the MinION, a USB stick that can sequence an entire human genome and upload the results to your computer. My wife worked on decoding the first ever human genome, a project that involved thousands of people, took over decade, and cost $3bn. So seeing a tiny gadget that will soon do the same thing in an instant, and for less than $1,000, is just staggering. The device was produced by Oxford Nanopore. It's a private company but it is possible to get indirect exposure through main-market-listed IP Group (IPO). Devices like this could become the norm, allowing people to quickly and cheaply find out if they're likely to get a disease. It could save a huge number of lives with preventative medicine.

The great thing is that can get exposure to both these devices on the Aim market. And if you like this story, I'll be tipping some more similar companies in future issues of Red Hot Penny Shares.