Some 15 years have passed since Max Antoinne last walked, but on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the 42-year old immigrant from Haiti took what appeared to be a leisurely stroll.
Antoinne, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since a 1996 assault, usually needs a wheelchair to get around. But as a participant in a clinical trial for ReWalk — a computerized exoskeleton developed in Israel that allows people like Max to walk again — he's been allowed a sneak peek at a technology that has yet to reach the mass market.
"The first time I tried it, I cried," Antoinne said while taking a break at a recent session. "I couldn't believe it."
Last week, he even donned a suit and tie — as opposed to the usual jeans and T-shirt he wears to therapy sessions — just for the chance to look in the mirror and smile at what he saw. And sure enough, there he was — walking and looking sharp in a tailored suit, thinking out loud, "there's hope for me again."
"This can give me my freedom back," he said. "My kids laugh at me, and say I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or the actor in 'RoboCop.' But I love it."
Something From the Future
Indeed, ReWalk looks like a contraption from the future. A motorized, wearable suit that is quasi-robotic, it allows users to stand, walk and even climb stairs. The patient leans forward to trigger the motion sensors, which cause the machine — and the user — to take a step. The exoskeleton has motorized joints and a computer-based control system that keeps the body upright. Users then lean on braces to maintain their balance.
ReWalk — developed by the Israeli company Argo Medical Technologies — is still awaiting approval from the FDA.
It is now in the midst of its U.S. clinical trial at MossRehab in Elkins Park, part of the Albert Einstein health-care network. MossRehab — which began the trial in June 2009, and has evaluated some eight subjects so far — is the only hospital in the United States to conduct trials of ReWalk. Before the launch, a MossRehab team traveled all the way to Israel to meet the team behind ReWalk and get the appropriate training.
"A lot of people are interested in this device, as you can probably imagine," said Nitza Kardish, former chair of Argo Medical Technologies. Kardish, who noted that the machine will be "affordable" — though hesitated to provide an estimate — was recently in Philadelphia.
Argo Medical Technologies is based in Haifa, and was established in Technion Seed, a leading Israeli technology incubator associated with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The company is led by Israeli physicist Amit Gofer, who earned his doctorate from Drexel University. Gofer, a quadriplegic, developed the device over a three-year period with a team from Argo.
ReWalk was brought here through a somewhat circuitous route. Alberto Esquenazi, chair of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at MossRehab, visits Israel every year or so to work with disabled Israel Defense Force veterans. It was during one of those trips that Esquenazi, who is Jewish, met Gofer.
The two kept in touch, with Esquenazi providing feedback, and when it came time for the FDA trials, MossRehab seemed like a natural place to start.
"Currently, there's nothing that even compares," stated Esquenazi, who estimates that ReWalk will reach the general market within the next year or so.
Esquenazi, who is leading the study, adds that ReWalk may also be able to help those with other neurological pathologies.