Every year, over 700,000 people in the US suffer strokes – that’s one person every 45 seconds. It is the single most common cause of severe disability, with 25 percent of stroke victims recovering with minor impairments and 40 percent experiencing moderate to severe impairments requiring special care.

An Israeli company has developed an innovative new exercise device that can help rehabilitate stroke patients suffering from impaired hand functions, and for children born with motor or developmental disorders that impact hand functionality.

The HandTutor, created by MediTouch, actively involves the patient in the rehabilitation process. It is made up of two components – a specially designed glove that includes embedded sensors that monitor the location and movement of the fingers, and proprietary software.

In the first step, the HandTutor gathers a precise picture of the patient’s current hand performance, and in the second, uses this information to create a personal training program specially tailored to improve his sensory-motor performance.

Unlike existing products on the market, MediTouch’s glove, which is expected to go on sale in the US in the first quarter of next year, is designed for home use enabling patients to carry out vital rehabilitation work every day, rather than just on visits to their physiotherapist.

The HandTutor was the idea of Avi Paizada, a physiotherapist working for many years in the field of biofeedback. He recognized a need for a simple easy-to-use exercise therapy that could be carried out at home, but had no idea how to go about creating such a device. He turned to Giora Ein-Zvi, who had worked for many technology start-ups and together they decided to set up a company.

“The most essential thing for Paizada was that the device be affordable, low cost technology that can be used at home,” Ein-Zvi, the CEO of MediTouch, told ISRAEL21c.

The company was founded in 2004 at the Advanced Technology Center (ATC), an incubator in Dimona. The incubator was later purchased by Ma’ayan Venture Capital, which now owns the Tel Aviv based company. Today MediTouch employs four people. It has already raised $500,000 in funds and is now in final negotiations to raise a further $1.5 million.

The HandTutor rehabilitation system draws on the known concept of neuroplasticity, whereby the adult brain has the ability to rewire and repair itself, creating ‘bypass circuits” that control movement after damage such as a stroke, an injury or surgery. “We re-educate the brain to carry out fine-motor functions,” says Ein-Zvi.

Using HandTutor, the patient sits in front of a computer screen and interacts with a wide variety of computer graphic patterns that represent various hand and finger movements. Successful maneuvers are awarded points. As the patient progresses, the system automatically adapts with new session goals. Studies show that when patients have a clear visual and perceptual task their motivation to succeed rises, even if the therapist is not there to comment on their performance.

The movements are not aimed at specific tasks, such as picking up a cup, or writing, but are generic movement exercises that help improve the patient’s ability to carry out a wide range of daily motor tasks. “We focus on improving function, all functions, not just one or two,” says Ein-Zvi.

The program is easy to use, takes less than a minute to set up, according to Ein-Zvi, and patients do not need any previous experience with PCs. Progress is supervised from the start, making it easier for doctors and therapists to monitor improvements.

The company expects to receive US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval any day, and anticipates that it will receive CE approval within the next three months.

The HandTutor has already undergone successful clinical trials on 10 stroke patients in two hospitals in Israel and is now ready for mass production.

“Patients showed very good improvements in the trials, especially compared to traditional therapies,” says Ein-Zvi.

The company also plans further clinical trials on chronic stroke patients at Miami Hospital in the US, and is now exploring options for a European trial. Ein-Zvi says the company is focusing on stroke patients because if there is improvement in this population of patients, there will be sure improvement in other populations.

Ein-Zvi estimates that the product will go on sale in three months time. The company’s first target markets are the US, and Europe. The company will market the product through medical device distributors, and plans to establish call centres to offer support.

At present HandTutor is designed for use with a computer or a lap-top, but in future, says Ein-Zvi, it will be available for use with any monitor, from a television, to a PDA or even a cellphone.

The HandTutor marks a shift in the market. Up to now most other rehabilitation devices for people with impaired hand functions are extremely expensive and aimed primarily at the professional market, rather than at home use. This, says Ein-Zvi, is not effective.

“The products in the market dealing with rehabilitation are stuck in institutions, and are not affordable to the home market. The customer works with an occupational or physical therapist for three to four weeks in hospital and then he’s sent home. Maybe once or twice a month after that the patient will visit a therapist. There are no exercises at home to maintain or improve his functional motion, and yet improvement depends on exercise. We want to give the patient the ability to dynamically improve his own motor function via this product.”

The cost of the HandTutor is expected to be in the region of $700-1,000, depending on whether it will be suitable for reimbursement from health insurance companies.

Ein-Zvi expects the HandTutor to be just the first of many products in this sector. “This technology can be used for many different areas,” explains Ein-Zvi. New applications include dropfoot and monitoring breathing in babies (crib death) or children who suffer epilepsy. The technology can also be used in the gaming industry or for computer animation, and even to create a virtual keyboard for cellphones or PDAs.