De La Salle UniversityHow can we lend a helping hand?

How can we lend a helping hand?

The Agapay Project pursues the development of games-motivated robotic exoskeletons to aid in the rehabilitation of stroke survivors in the Philippines. 

Survivors of stroke essentially need professional support to recover and manage their daily activities. Regaining the use of upper limbs, for instance, can be arduous and a great challenge for them. It thus requires various strategies and interventions–and for a group of DLSU researchers–as much total and long-term commitment to develop a kind of helping hand to bring patients back on their feet. 

Dr. Nilo Bugtai, chair of the University’s Manufacturing Engineering and Management Department (MEM) and head of its Biomedical Devices Innovation and e-Health Research Group, shares an ongoing research project called “Agapay”, which seeks to offer support for those who have suffered from stroke. A Filipino word, agapay translated into English means “to reinforce” or “to support” and an apt name for the robotic exoskeletons that his team is currently developing to aid in patients’ rehabilitation.    

Bugtai serves as the lead of the Agapay Project, a multi-million peso grant-in aid by the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology. From DLSU, he taps the expertise and help of fellow faculty as well as student researchers not only from his home department but also from DLSU’s Electronics and Communications Engineering Department and Physics Department. 

Likewise, the DLSU team collaborates with the Rehabilitation Medicine Department of the University of the Philippines-Manila-Philippine General Hospital. “It would be detrimental to both the user and the developer to pursue the development of a device without the medical experts’ opinion on its applications,” he says of the multi-disciplinary work that the research entails. 

Student researcher BS/MS Manufacturing Engineering graduate Aira Patrice Ong shares that during the initial phase of their study, which involved the development of product design and prototyping, they conducted observation sessions in different rehab centers in the Philippines such as DLSU Medical Center Dasmariñas, Chuang Hua Hospital, Cebu Doctors’ Hospital, and Perpetual Succor Hospital.

The first phase of the project was completed in September 2017, with the development of a 12-degree-of-freedom wearable robotic exoskeleton that can perform the movements of the upper limbs, from the shoulder and elbow to the wrist and fingers. 

Bugtai says that the focus on the upper limbs aims to directly improve the region that enables a person to carry out daily living activities. It is biomimetic, or one that can mimic a biochemical process. It is designed to be comfortable, user-friendly,  and safe to use. It uses an adjustable and lightweight frame and has a biofeedback system that can record neuromuscular activity. To make rehab sessions engaging with the use of this device, the researchers will introduce games with integrated  visual elements and touch sensation, and will allow for active and passive motion exercises. 

The DLSU research team also emphasizes an important factor to consider in its design: it must be cost-effective so that it can be accessible to medical rehab clinics and practitioners.  

For the second phase of the research, Bugtai says they are currently conducting safety and preclinical testing, before going into clinical trials, which is the third phase. The last phase involves technology transfer and manufacturing. “Being the country’s pioneering researchers in this field, we have to be the one to set the standard in terms of upper limb rehabilitation,” he points out.

“Through the aid of robotics, we hope to contribute to helping Filipino stroke victims towards faster recovery, and open avenues to a healthier Philippines,” Bugtai says.

Dr. Nilo Bugtai, chair of the DLSU’s Manufacturing Engineering and Management Department and head of its Biomedical Devices Innovation and e-Health Research Group, is the faculty lead of the Agapay project.

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