Elena García Armada (Valladolid, 1971) is one of the most recognized researchers in the world of Spanish robotics. The media interest around this engineer of the Superior Council of Scientific Investigations (CSIC) and enterprising is due above all to the fact that she is the creator of the first exoskeleton for children with degenerative muscular diseases. "It generates infinite motivation in children. And that motivation allows them to do a physical exercise that can not be obtained with traditional therapies, "he explains to EL PAÍS during the international fair IROS 2018, held in October in Madrid.
The beginning of this story is due to the meeting of Garcia, almost a decade ago, with the parents of Daniela, a six-year-old girl affected by tetraplegia, according to the scientist on different occasions. After knowing the situation of Daniela, the researcher decided to direct her knowledge and experience in robotics to the development of an exoskeleton capable of improving the lives of children like her. In 2010, García launched "a series of research projects aimed at expanding its use to as many children as possible." Three years later, the engineer co-founded the company Marsi Bionics, created to facilitate the arrival of scientific results on the market. "In all this time a huge effort has been made to get the devices industrialized," he says.
The prototypes developed by García and his team "are indicated for neuromuscular diseases," explains the researcher. "They are diseases mostly of genetic and degenerative origin. There is a symptomatology that varies over time and is complex, "he adds. While most of the exoskeletons available on the market are intended for adults who have lost their leg use due to accidents, Garcia's model is specifically aimed at children, the engineer explains. For that reason, it has one true "artificial muscles", he explains. "Our exoskeletons provide mobility in all directions. They work like a small robot, interpreting the symptomatology of the person at every moment ".
The years of research have allowed García to obtain three patents in the United States and Europe. Currently, the exoskeleton is about to go on the market. "We are very close now, after these five years," says the scientist. Clinical trials have already been carried out with some patients at the San Joan de Déu hospitals in Barcelona and Ramón y Cajal in Madrid. Marsi Bionics obtained the necessary certifications for commercialization within the European Union. "Now the device is being evaluated by the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Health Products", Says Garcia.
The impact of the exoskeleton on tests
The researcher is convinced that the results of the tests with the children "have been impressive". Among the most immediate effects, Garcia highlights a great impact on his self-esteem. "The children were challenged every day to get a step closer. The last day we had to open the gym doors to leave, because they wanted to keep walking, "he says.
In a second phase, she and her team tried out the device during some playful activities in a domestic environment. "The children had fun, to the point that the exoskeleton battery ran out before they tired. Thanks to the motivation that the exoskeleton was able to generate, Garcia points out, soon obvious results were also noticed from the physical point of view. "After a month, all the people in the immediate surroundings of the family began to notify us that they were noticing physical improvements in the arms, in the mobility, in the trunk, even in the neck," he says.
The next step will be to conduct a long-term study and more patients to validate these observations clinically, adds the CSIC researcher. In addition, he affirms that among the projects for the future is to extend the number of diseases for which the exoskeleton can be useful. "What we have seen so far is telling us that what we have is a very powerful tool for these children," he says. "We are addressing Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common in childhood. And we want to address some types of cerebral palsy. We have a lot of demand in this regard from families and rehabilitation centers. "
The path from the laboratory to society
García believes that the Spanish scientific teams in the field of robotics "are competing in the top ten international". But she is aware that in order to carry out projects such as those proposed by her, "funding is needed". Although the scarcity of investment worries him – "without resources, at some point we will stop being there and we will sink", he warns-, García considers that "the main pending account" in Spain is that "the results of the investigation do not reach to society easily. "
The prototypes developed in the laboratory are not ready to go on the market, explains the engineer. "They need certifications to comply with the regulations and industrialization. And that can only be done from the business world, "he maintains. For García, what throws investors back is the risk associated with the long times needed to achieve the release of products such as their exoskeleton. In your opinion, facilitating this phase of the process is a priority. "We need projects that are carried out in public research centers and with such a large socio-economic impact to be supported economically, otherwise they will die."
The researcher assures that the Spanish scientific teams in the field of robotics "are competing in the international top ten", but the results "do not easily reach society"
When talking about the future perspectives of science in Spain, García does not lose optimism. Your experience in a sector in which women they represent a minority He has made him understand that there are also gender barriers, but he does not consider them insurmountable. "Women have enough capacity to be able to cope with them. We have tenacity, we are used to fighting. "
To get more women to approach these sectors, the researcher appeals to a paradigm shift in education. In his opinion, it is important to avoid categorizing the areas of knowledge due to gender biases. "Many girls are interested in applications that contribute to social purposes," she says. "When they see that robotics can be applied to cure people they love it. But nobody explained to them as small that an engine or an electronic card can help a child to walk ".
Amartya Ganguly is one of the researchers working at Marsi Bionics, the company co-founded by Elena García Armada. This engineer, who is of Indian origin and has lived much of his career in the UK, since 2017 is dedicated to studying how to improve the benefits and interaction with patients of skeletons for children developed in the company.
Ganguly assures that two of the main current challenges are to reduce the production costs of these devices, so that more patients can use them, and make them more adaptable to a domestic environment. "They have to be able to pass in a kitchen or between two sofas," he explains.
The engineer states that many researchers in this field work intensively to bring closer and closer the naturalness in the movements of the exoskeletons to that of human beings. "It's what the users want: to be more independent thanks to the devices they use, to recover those capacities they have lost," he says. In his opinion, reaching that goal would represent "an important advance" for the sector.