Swedish electrode suit eases paralysis

Swimsuit fabric and electrodes give the paralysed back their legs... but for everyone to benefit, the cutting-edge invention needs a healthy dose of old-fashioned Swedish solidarity. Will state-funded health care embrace the suit that is cheaper than conventional treatments?

Swedish electrode suit eases paralysis
Little Gustav can now play on his own, thanks to the Mollii suit. Photo: Inerventions

Those who suffer from spastic paralysis may have a new best friend… and her name is Mollii. Her "father", Swedish chiropractor Fredrik Lundqvist, was tired of hearing that there was no cure for his paralysed patients.

"I worked on rehabilitating a patient with MS (multiple sclerosis) for eight years, and I watched him deteriorating. I watched him getting killed by MS," Lundqvist told The Local. "Something had to change. Something told me I had to work with it. So I stopped working as a chiropractor, let everything else go, and started experimenting."

Lundqvist also enlisted the assistance of Johan Gawell and Jonas Wistrand, researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.

The result five years later is Molli, an elastic suit equipped with silver wires and electric stimuli targeting as many as 42 muscles in the body. The suit, powered by four AA batteries, is programmed specifically for each patient and stimulates muscles, easing tension and increasing mobility. Mollii was tested by some 45 patients at the prestigious Karolinska Institute near Stockholm, where every participant reported "experienced improvements in existing function or quality of life".

Spastic paralysis involves involuntary spasms and contractions of muscles, and the associated loss of control over muscular function. It's a common symptom of many types of neural damage, including Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and stroke. But it doesn't have to be permanently crippling.

“Disabilities like cerebral palsy and MS are usually regarded as something you cannot change,” Lundqvist said. “You get dealt the cards, and if you have bad cards and you have to live with it. But it's not true. These patients all have potential. We can teach these children how to move. We cannot give up on them.”

The suit provides therapy similar to a method called transcutaneous (through the skin) electrical nerve stimulation (Tens), where low-voltage electrodes send signals that disrupt signals of pain normally sent to the brain. However, Tens is conducted at a clinic and requires transportation, hours spent at the clinic, and patient immobility. With Mollii, patients won’t have to look any further than their own wardrobe for treatment. The suit is designed to be worn at home, and just a few hours in the suit can provide up to two days of relief from spasms and tension.

  The Mollii suit by Inerventions  

“The problem is that 80 or 90 percent of the treatments for paralysis do not involve movement at all,” Lundqvist told The Local. “The thing that wakes up neuron plasticity in the brain is exercise, sensory input from the body. So that’s what we’re giving. If people move better, their brains get better.”

Mollii is more than an amiable girl's name with creative spelling. The word is Latin for soft, and also has ties to the English word mollify, to soothe or pacify. Lundqvist's company, Inerventions, patented their methods in December and began selling Molli for private use. The suit now has over 400 users.

“Most of the users are in Sweden, but we have also sold to Denmark, Norway, Finland, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom,” Lundqvist divulged. “Our vision is that Molli will be a subsidized assistance device in many countries. We have a global strategy and really want to expand to the US as well.”

The concept of electrotherapy and putting electrodes on clothing is not new, but still revolutionary. Lundqvist said some 30 companies have tried it before, but failed simply because the technology was not available. Now the challenge is people's mindset. Health care professionals and patients are reluctant to undergo the paradigm shift from traditional invasive healthcare methods, such as surgery and medication, to digital health care.

“We have the technology, but the health care system hasn’t really understood it yet. They want to do it the way they’ve always been doing it,” Lundqvist told The Local.

“The current system is trying to get the same effects (as Mollii), but it’s passive treatment, through braces, medication, Botox, etc. These treatments mean high costs and side effects. They are draining the health care system. One Botox treatment for spastic paralysis means a child has to be at the clinic for nine hours, and it’s the same cost as our treatment for two years.”

Mollii is currently priced at €5,600 (US$7,574) for a two-year period, about a quarter of the cost of traditional plasticity management treatments, Lundqvist said. If the patient outgrows the suit during that time a new garment is provided at no additional cost. But Lundqvist’s hope is that patients who need Mollii will not have to pay for the technology in the future. The treatment is already subsidized in Denmark, and the company is working on getting the same status in Sweden and abroad.

“That’s my biggest task, to see that it’s reimbursed. There are still risks that it won’t come to all the people who deserve it,” Lundqvist acknowledged. That’s why I’m in this company, and I’m staying here until I am assured that our values about human rights and health care are met. It can’t be a question of class or income or where you live. I’m not going to accept that.”

Mollii is one of many recent Swedish innovations related to cutting edge health care. Swedish firm Hövding's invisible bike helmet has taken the world by storm, and last year Swedish researchers developmed a method to see pain, as well making progress towards an Alzheimer's vaccine. In Lundqvist’s opinion, Swedish medical innovation stems from an inherent camaraderie in the Swedish Model.

“It's the political system. We are about solidarity,” he told The Local. “We are affected by the social system here. We want people to be safe and healthy, and get the best health care they can get. And that affects the projects that are coming out of Sweden. And it has been that way for a long, long time. We have a history of such innovation in Sweden, look at Nobel and Parkinson’s medicine. Our social system gives us the confidence we need as people, saying yes, we can find a new solution, or a better solution, to an old problem.”

The Local spoke with Fredrik Lundqvist at the annual SIME media and technology conference in Stockholm. You can watch SIME here.

Solveig Rundquist

Follow Solveig on Twitter.

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