Puschel Sorensen first noticed something was wrong when her fingertips began to tingle. Later that day, she grew weak and fell.
It picked up small electrical impulses on her skin's surface and turned them into full movement in her legs.
Her family rushed her to the doctor, where she received the devastating diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome -- a rare and rapidly progressing autoimmune disorder that attacks the myelin sheath covering nerves.
Sorensen, a once-spry grandmother in her late fifties, spent 54 days in intensive care in 2018. When she was finally transferred to a rehab facility near her home in Florida, she was still on a feeding tube and ventilator, and was paralyzed from the neck down. Progress with traditional physical therapy was slow.
Sorensen in the hospital after her diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome.
And then everything changed. Sorensen began using a cutting-edge technology called an exoskeleton to relearn how to walk. In the vein of Iron Man's fictional power suit, it confers strength and mobility to the wearer that isn't possible otherwise. In Sorensen's case, her device, called HAL – for hybrid assistive limb -- picked up small electrical impulses on her skin's surface and turned them into full movement in her legs while she attempted to walk on a treadmill.
"It was very difficult, but super awesome," recalls Sorensen, of first using the device. "The robot was having to do all the work for me."
Amazingly, within a year, she was running. She's one of 38 patients who have used HAL to recover from accidents or medical catastrophes.
Cyberdyne's hybrid assistive limb technology.
"How do you thank someone for giving them back the ability to walk, the ability to live your life again?" Sorensen asks effusively.
It's still early days for such exoskeleton devices, which number perhaps a few thousand worldwide, according to data from the handful of manufacturers who create them with any scale. But the devices' ability to dramatically rehabilitate patients like Sorensen highlights their potential to extract untold numbers of people from wheelchairs, and even to usher in a new paradigm for caregiving – one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy.
"I've been a physical therapist for 16 years, and (these devices) help teach patients the right way to move in rehabilitation," says Robert McIver, director of clinical technology at the Brooks Cybernic Treatment Center, part of the Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Fla, where Sorensen recovered.
Another patient there, a 17-year-old named George with a snowboarding injury that paralyzed his legs, was getting around with a walker within 20 sessions.
As patients progress in their recoveries, so does exoskeleton technology. Jack Peurach, CEO of Ekso, one of the leaders in the space, believes within a decade they could resemble an article of clothing (a "magic pair of pants" is his phrase). They also may become inexpensive and reliable enough to transition from a medical to a consumer device. McIver sees them eventually being used in the home on an ongoing basis as a personal assistive device, much like a walker or cane, to prevent falls in elderly people.
Such a transition "certainly could eventually lessen the need for caregivers," says Sharona Hoffman, a professor of law at Case Western University in Cleveland who has written extensively on aging and bioethics. "We have a real shortage of caregivers, so that would be a good thing."
Of course, having an aging and disabled population using exoskeletons in much the same way as an Apple Watch raises issues of its own.
Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a California-based geriatrician and founder of a company that performs house calls for elderly patients, believes the tech holds some promise in easing the burden on caregivers, who sometimes have to lift or move patients without assistance. But she also believes exoskeletons could become overhyped.
"I don't see robotics as completely replacing the caregiver," she says. And even if exoskeletons became akin to articles of clothing, she is skeptical of how convenient they could become.
"It's hard enough to get into support hose. Would an older person be able to get in and out of it on their own?" she asks, noting that a patient's cognitive levels could pose a huge barrier to donning such a device without assistance.
If personal exoskeletons did wildly succeed, Hoffman wonders whether they would leave the elderly more physically mobile yet also more socially isolated, since caregivers or even residing in an assisted living facility may no longer be required. Or, if they were priced in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, he worries that the cost would exacerbate social inequalities among the elderly and disabled.
"It's almost like a bad dream that [my illness] happened."
With any technology that confers superhuman ability, there's also the question of appropriate usage. Even the fictional Power Loader in the movie Alien required an operator's license. In the real world, such an approach would likely pay dividends.
"We would have to make sure physicians are well-trained in these devices, and patients have a way of getting training to operate them that is thorough and responsible," Hoffman says.
But despite some unresolved questions, it is a remarkable achievement to be able to give people back their lives thanks to new technology.
"It's almost like a bad dream that [my illness] happened," says Sorensen, who managed to walk in her daughter's wedding after her recovery. "Because now everything is pretty much back to normal and it's awesome."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby