Health

Richmond Firm Develops Bionic Legs To Help Paralyzed Walk

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23-year-old Matthew Tilford walks with the help of robotic legs made by Ekso Bionics of Richmond. (CBS)

23-year-old Matthew Tilford walks with the help of robotic legs made by Ekso Bionics of Richmond. (CBS)

CBS SF Bay (con't)

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RICHMOND (CBS 5) – After being told by doctors they would never walk again, an East Bay firm has developed wearable robotic legs, providing hope to those who are paralyzed.

23-year old Matthew Tilford has been paralyzed since a car wreck in 2007, days before his high school graduation. “Imagine being told you’re never gonna walk again,” he said.

Doctors knew quickly there was a zero percent chance he would regain his ability to walk. But Tilford is not a quitter. He has learned to ski on snow and water without using his legs. Still, it seemed walking would never be an option.

“For five years, I lived with the doctor telling me I wouldn’t walk again,” Tilford said.

Neither Tilford nor his doctors could have guessed that a wearable bionic robot developed by Ekso Bionics could do the walking for him.

The creators of the wearable robot know it looks like science fiction. “It’s Hollywood. It’s ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Avatar,’” said Eythor Bender, CEO of Ekso Bionics.

Their lab is a Richmond warehouse. Originally, Ekso Bionics planned to use the technology to help soldiers carry heavier gear. But it became clear that the technology could help paraplegics walk.

The robot is simple to put on. After strapping on the high-tech leggings, users grasp the remote-controlled crutches and focus on balance.

“Once he achieves his lateral and forward weight shift, the machine is taking a step for him,” said Jennifer Macievich, a physical therapist.

Tilford recalled, “I was taking my first step and I just looked over at my Mom, and my mom was just crying. And it made me so happy to see my family happy again and myself happy.”

For people such as Tilford, who haven’t walked in years, the benefits are clear. But research is still ongoing to see if the bionic legs improve circulation or range of motion.

“We are very careful about not stating that too much ourselves,” Bender said. He cannot say for certain whether there are health benefits for paralyzed patients and studies are underway.

Tilford believes the perks go beyond the physical high of simply walking. “Mentally it helps, just being up and having a conversation eye-to-eye with people again is one of my favorite things,” he said.

For the moment, it’s a feeling he will only get at the Richmond warehouse. The wearable robot costs $140,000 and can only be used onsite at 20 rehabilitation centers nationwide.

“Two years from now though, our intention, and that’s our big mission here…take it into people’s homes,” Bender said.

It’s a dream that may be within reach. Ekso Bionics wants to streamline the wearable robot into a more comfortable pair of high-tech pants that can be bought, sold and worn just about anywhere.

Tilford sees a future that is wide open. “You can walk again, just differently,” he said.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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