If you suffer a stroke, can virtual reality help you learn to walk again? That’s exactly what one Japanese startup is exploring, and early results are encouraging. The research is part of a wider trend in Japan to harness the latest technological innovations to advance medicine and healthcare. A life sciences networking nonprofit with hundreds of members from inside and outside Japan is at the center of this boom.
Catching carrots and ninjas
At 84.1 years, Japanese had the highest life expectancy among OECD nations in 2016. But with its shrinking and rapidly aging population, Japan is already home to more than 1 million stroke patients. While the mortality rate for the disease has fallen over the past 50 years, it remains one of the leading causes of death and disability. Patients who survive can face devastating paralysis and a long road to recovery by using conventional therapies. Osaka-based healthcare startup mediVR recently launched mediVR KAGURA, a platform using virtual reality (VR) and tracking technologies to accelerate rehabilitation in patients with stroke.
Built from off-the-shelf components, mediVR KAGURA consists of a base station, VR headset and a pair of handheld controllers. While sitting, users complete tasks in three-dimensional VR games to improve their sense of balance. One task involves reaching out with the controllers to “catch” virtual balls falling from the sky. Others involve catching virtual carrots in a field setting or catching ninjas at a Shinto shrine. Depending on the speed and position of the target objects, the games require speedy reflexes and accurate reach, which can be physically challenging.
The VR platform can help patients regain both physical and cognitive skills, according to the startup. In a small case study published in the journal Progress in Rehabilitation Medicine, a 90-year-old patient with muscle atrophy after a month in hospital for rectal ulcer used mediVR KAGURA daily for two weeks. He was then able to walk outside the hospital without falls or collisions, and the distance he could walk in 6 minutes improved from 430 meters to 500 meters.
“VR can give patients quantitative, repeatable instructions, for example asking a patient to reach 30 cm directly in front of him or her—this is clear, unlike verbal instructions,” says Masahiko Hara, CEO of mediVR. “The purpose of the device is to help patients regain walking ability after stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, or even elderly people.”
Walking requires lower- body strength, trunk balance and cognitive function, but Hara says there’s no quantitative, effective way to rehabilitate the latter two. That’s the unique point of mediVR KAGURA.
Before he became an entrepreneur, Hara was a cardiologist who specialized in heart attack, a condition that can trigger stroke. He would often visit patients at physical rehabilitation centers and hold discussions with their therapists. He realized that VR could be more effective than conventional approaches to physiotherapy.
Founded in 2016, mediVR has collaborated with Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine and has already garnered national attention. The company won the Grand Prix in the Japan Healthcare Business Contest 2018, an event organized by Japan’s e Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to foster next-generation healthcare leaders. While the startup looks to gain overseas approval for mediVR KAGURA, the device is now being sold to institutions and individuals across Japan.
“Permanent disability has improved in many patients and doctors are saying it’s a miracle,” says Hara. “We are 100% sure our product can become a game-changer.”
Finding the next generation of healthcare stars
mediVR is one of many startup healthcare and medical companies that have benefitted from Life Science Innovation Network Japan (LINK-J). LINK-J is a networking nonprofit initiative made up of more than 340 members from industry, academia and government and covering fields such as pharmaceuticals, regenerative medicine, and medical technology. Established in 2016, it supports the establishment of businesses, both launched inside and outside Japan, by providing office space, meeting rooms and conference facilities, and a state-of-the-art bioscience laboratory.
LINK-J can invite over 6,000 people to member events, and it held 443 networking events in 2018. Many were held in the central Tokyo neighborhood of Nihonbashi, where LINK-J operates out of eight buildings. Nihonbashi was established over 400 years ago when the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu began developing Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and medicine merchants began to settle in the neighborhood. Today Nihonbashi is home to a number of long-established drug companies, such as Takeda Pharmaceutical, Astellas Pharma and Chugai Pharmaceutical, and a growing list of startups.
“Japanese life science organizations have very strong basic research but face challenges in turning results into business opportunities,” says Mika Kiyomoto from the Life Science Innovation Department at Mitsui Fudosan, a real estate developer that is the main sponsor of LINK-J. “That’s why we have 34 supporters from the front lines of various fields who participate in events and offer advice to our members.”
LINK-J is eager to form partnerships with groups outside Japan. Nearly 90 organizations have offices with LINK-J, including the University of California at San Diego, four venture capital companies and 11 industry associations. LINK-J has organized business tours to Singapore, France and the U.S., and has ties to foreign industry groups such as Biocom, Eurobiomed and One Nucleus.
Nearly 60 startups and SMEs are located in LINK-J offices. One is Ubie, a startup founded in 2015 that provides artificial intelligence-based apps for creating clinical records and helping diagnose diseases. Another startup hosted at LINK-J is BioARC, founded in 2018 to develop a biodegradable adhesive material that can bond to hard tissues such as bones and teeth; once approved, the product could be used in operations to treat cleft lip and palate in children.
“Because LINK-J’s members are universities, pharmaceutical companies, life sciences startup companies, venture capital companies, etc., we’re able to obtain information relevant to our growth as a company on a daily basis,” says BioARC President Toshimi Kanetate. “I’m very grateful for the guidance that experienced professionals at LINK-J can give us.”
LINK-J has become a precedent for a nationwide forum. In July 2019, METI will launch the Healthcare Innovation Hub, and just like LINK-J, it will group startups and established companies, as well as academia and investors. These will receive advice and support from over 100 domestic and overseas advisors and supporting organizations ranging from hospitals to international organizations. The hub’s overall aim is to provide networking opportunities and to foster business development for the future of healthcare in Japan and the world.
To learn more about mediVR, click here.
To learn more about LINK-J, click here.
To learn more about the Healthcare Innovation Hub, click here.
Original Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/japan/2019/07/01/kick-starting-japans-healthcare-revolution/#1f1453b54e6f