Connect with us


‘World first’ robotic back therapist launches on UK market



Engineer-turned-physiotherapist Chongsu Lee is on a mission: to transform the lives of the estimated 600 million people globally at any one time living with chronic back pain.

It’s a bold goal. But one the 45-year-old former Hyundai employee believes he has hit.

He has launched a world health-tech first into the UK market: BackHug. A robotic therapist about the size of a coffee table with 26 mechanical fingers to loosen stiff joints in the back, shoulder blades, and neck, Mr Lee says the device could have a life-changing impact on those suffering from long-term back pain, as well as neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and the after-effects of a stroke.

BackHug’s human-sized fingers adapt to individual users’ unique back curvature and measure back tension via proprietary ‘Spinemap’ technology. This innovative application has been specially developed to objectively monitor a person’s back tension during therapy sessions and measure how it changes over time.

The device – whose underlying technology has been inspired by a similar concept used in agriculture where advanced robotic arms carefully pick fruit without causing damage – offers 2,000-plus personalised treatment options as well as in-app physio consultations.

Users, who can control BackHug via their smartphone, can enjoy 20 to 60-minute therapy sessions in the comfort of their own home or workplace. After just 20 minutes of using BackHug, Spinemap is able to analyse the data and produce a report comparing back tension levels from before and after the session.

The AI-powered apparatus developed and manufactured in Scotland, is being made available by subscription to companies for workplace use, as well as to private individuals. It costs £269 a month for businesses for a 12-month contract, and £99 for a year’s home subscription, with the option to buy BackHug outright for £4,250.

But for those nervous about entering into what at first glance seems like a costly ongoing financial commitment – especially if they’ve tried other back pain relief devices to no avail – Mr Lee offers a 30-day BackHug trial. “If it works, you can keep it and enjoy long-lasting relief from aches and pains; if it doesn’t you can send it back for free,” he said. “In the meantime, you will have benefitted from personalised back therapy on demand in your own home or workplace for a month.”

Eight years in the making, BackHug is fulfilling Mr Lee’s dream of helping people not only find a solution to the root cause of their illness, but to boost productivity in the workforce. and offer an affordable alternative to those on waiting lists or who need regular physiotherapy appointments.

Chongsu Lee working on the BackHug

New research has revealed that in the UK alone, 88% of people say they suffer from some form of back problem, with 44% of workers having taken sick leave as a result of back pain and stiffness, costing the economy an estimated £10bn. As such, BackHug’s impact could be profound.

The device has been borne out of Mr Lee’s own serious health issues as a child growing up in his native South Korea.

Around the age of 10 he contracted acute pancreatitis, a potentially life-threatening gastrointestinal disorder where the pancreas becomes inflamed.

Many years of largely unsuccessful medical treatment followed.

Fearing he would never be able to rid himself of the debilitating condition, Mr Lee took matters into his own hands during his first year at Hanyang University in Seoul, where he was studying for a degree in industrial engineering.

He went on what he calls his “own journey”. He radically changed his diet, began exercising and taking mindfulness sessions, learnt massage, and started practicing Korean Tai Chi, an ancient martial art that has been used for more than 5,000 years to maintain a healthy mind and body, especially after injury or illness.

Soon, he began seeing a marked improvement in his health.

Reflecting on that time, he told Agetech World: “My digestive system was quite awful. Doctors at the time said they could not operate because I was still growing. My parents thought I was going to die, and they still say that to this day.

“I spent days and weeks in hospital many times. I took medication for almost 10 years every day. I had to skip school for days and weeks.

“Then in my first year at university, I discovered the importance of a diet that was good for my digestive system, and also of regular exercise, and specifically, Korean Tai Chi.

“It took me several years to fully recover, but now I am thankfully very fit and healthy and have been for the past 20 years.”

BackHug has 26 mechanical fingers to loosen stiff joints in the back

Following university he landed a job as an engineer with Hyundai, and travelled the globe helping set up manufacturing facilities as the South Korean-based car company invested heavily in its vehicles’ quality, design, production, and long-term research.

But two years into the job, Mr Lee decided to leave Hyundai to pursue his dream of becoming a physiotherapist halfway across the world in Edinburgh, a city he had been drawn to whilst backpacking around Europe.

He had read an autobiography penned by an airline pilot who, despite suffering serious eye issues, relentlessly pursued his dream of taking to the skies. “It made me decide that I was going to do something very meaningful to me that was health-related. I had learnt therapeutic massage from one of the best massage masters in Korea. It had touched me deeply.

“A year after I read this book, I decided to leave my job at Hyundai and head for Scotland.”

After gaining an MSc in physiotherapy from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Mr Lee joined Dunfermline Athletic Football Club as a physio. In parallel, he opened his own practice where he treated many MS and Parkinson’s disease patients suffering from chronic back pain.

He soon began to appreciate that the most effective manual physiotherapy to help people with aches, back pain, and headaches, was spine joint mobilisation. “This effectively releases the stiffness in the joints in the back and other parts of the body,” he said. “But it is painful and physically demanding for the therapist to keep doing it.

“If you are seeing eight to 10 people a day and using this method, it is very exhausting.”

Once an engineer, always an engineer, however. Worn out with the effort of pressing his own thumbs into patients’ back joints to help relieve their pain, Mr Lee, perhaps naively, decided to design a machine that could replace his hands.

Spurred on by the encouragement of a friend, the first BackHug prototype – which Mr Lee still carries around in the boot of his car – was made using parts he bought from his local B&Q DIY store. “I bought nuts and bolts and MDF etc, and started putting the first BackHug together,” he said with a laugh.

“If I knew what I was going to go through, I’m not sure I would have started. When I began that first one, I thought I was going to produce a good machine in the next six months, not knowing it was going to take eight years.

“But the one that we are rolling out now in the UK, that is the one I know really works. It speaks for itself.”

BackHug is a robotic therapist about the size of a coffee table

Mr Lee admitted that if he hadn’t had his engineering background it is unlikely he would have been able to develop BackHug and produce the hundreds of specialised parts needed.

“There are around 200 different components, more than 100 of which are custom designed,” he stated. “Every one of those custom-made components has been through between 30 and 100 iterations. That is why it took so long to get to a product that really works.”

The current BackHug is the fourth version. Two hundred units have been manufactured in Dunfermline with around 1,000 planned for the next run.

Mr Lee has already had interest from abroad and is continually looking for ways BackHug can be improved. He is working with experts at Edinburgh University and a technology firm to see what new developments can be incorporated into the machine.

He is keen to emphasise that BackHug is not a massage chair and believes his invention is unique. Massage chairs, he explained, offer only superficial, short-lived, and localised muscle therapy, whilst BackHug has been designed to treat the joints in the back.

Mr Lee said he is currently in “advanced talks” with two NHS trusts who are looking to use BackHug for their staff. Another trust is interested in running a clinical trial.

But he isn’t making any medical claims. “BackHug is not yet a medical device. We are marketing it as a household massage tool. We are not in a position to claim any specific medical symptom improvements.

“But if you look at the picture, what people over the ages of 40, 50, 60 and 70 are going through in the human body physiologically, and particularly if you add in any conditions such as Parkinson’s or a stroke to that ageing process, it is well documented that releasing joint stiffness in the back and helping free joints in the back and the shoulder blades, can bring greater quality of life in terms of mobility and pain relief.”

Moving forward, Mr Lee is hopeful of gaining medical accreditation, especially as the US Food and Drug Administration classes massage equipment as a medical device.

He said: “With one in five people stuck on health care waiting lists and saying they can’t afford multiple private physiotherapy sessions a month, BackHug is the future of back therapy by making it more accessible and affordable to treat back problems.”

He added: “It is the most effective way to loosen stiff joints, which is the most effective way to sustainably fix back aches and related issues, like sore thighs, headaches, Achilles tendonitis and tennis elbow.”


Europe: Improving access to early-stage lung cancer care



Europe: Improving access to early-stage lung cancer care

Researchers from Amsterdam UMC Cancer Center Amsterdam have looked at inequalities in access to early-stage lung cancer care in Europe.

Early-stage lung cancer has stark differences between European countries regarding access and reimbursement.

There are also differences in reimbursement times and indications between the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Researchers from Amsterdam UMC Cancer Center Amsterdam analysed the landscape, publishing their results in The Lancet Regional Health Europe as part of a series on the latest developments in the treatment of this lung cancer.

“Tackling inequalities in access to care must be a common European priority,” says Amsterdam UMC pulmonologist Idris Bahce. In collaboration with colleagues from seven European countries, Bahce used a literature review to map out the latest developments and analyse access to these new treatments from a European perspective.

“The existing differences in healthcare systems and reimbursement structures between European countries threaten to exacerbate healthcare inequalities at both European and national level. We therefore call for a collective European approach to reduce these inequalities,” says Bahce.

He suggests measures such as more international cooperation between the EMA and other registration authorities, harmonising cost-effectiveness procedures in European countries, a more critical evaluation of reimbursement criteria and improving multidisciplinary collaborations around the patient.

The standard treatment for fit patients with early-stage lung cancer has always been surgery, sometimes combined with pre- or post-operative chemotherapy. Recently, the EMA has approved new treatments such as immunotherapy, which appear to significantly improve survival rates after surgery. More approvals of innovative treatments are expected, potentially further exacerbating existing inequalities within Europe.

In addition to the Dutch hospitals Amsterdam UMC and Erasmus MC, colleagues from Spain, France, Germany, England, Italy and Poland also contributed to this international study as well as a Review and a Viewpoint in The Lancet Regional Health Europe.

Continue Reading


Study looks at link between adversity and cognitive decline



A new paper has examined the relationship between childhood adversity and psychiatric decline, as well as adult adversity and psychiatric and cognitive decline. 

The findings revealed just one instance of adversity in childhood can increase cases of mental illness later in life. It also revealed that adverse events in adults can lead to a greater chance of both mental illness and cognitive decline later in life. 

The paper has been published by Saint Louis University associate professor of health management and policy in the College for Public Health and Social Justice, SangNam Ahn, Ph.D., in Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Ahn stated: “Life is very complicated, very dynamic. I really wanted to highlight the importance of looking into the lasting health effect of adversity, not only childhood but also adulthood adversity on health outcomes, especially physical health and psychiatric and cognitive health. 

“There have been other studies before, but this is one of the first that looks into these issues comprehensively.” 

Ahn, along with his team of researchers, examined data from nearly 3500 individuals over the course of 24 years. The group took the longitudinal data and evaluated it using a list of lifetime potential traumatic events.

The research team included childhood adversity events such as moving due to financial difficulties, family requiring financial help, a parent experiencing unemployment, trouble with law enforcement before the age of 18, repeating school, physical abuse and parental abuse of drugs or alcohol. 

Adulthood adversity events included the death of a child, the death of a spouse, experiencing a natural disaster after age 17, firing a weapon in combat, a partner abusing drugs or alcohol, being a victim of a physical attack after age 17, a spouse or child battling a serious illness, receiving Medicaid or food stamps and experiencing unemployment. 

The study determined that nearly 40% of all individuals experienced a form of childhood adversity, while that number climbed to nearly 80% for adulthood adversity. Those who experienced childhood adversity were also 17% more likely to experience adulthood adversity. Only 13% of individuals sampled reported two or more forms of childhood adversity, while 52% of adults experienced two or more forms of adult adversity. 

In cases of either childhood adversity or adulthood adversity, researchers found individuals who experienced adversity were also more likely to experience anxiety and depression later in life, and in the case of adulthood adversity, were also more likely to experience cognitive decline later in life. 

Individuals with one childhood adversity experience saw a 5% higher chance of suffering from anxiety, and those with two or more childhood adversity experiences had 26% and 10% higher chances of depression and anxiety, respectively. Individuals who experienced two adulthood adversities had a 24% higher chance of depression, while also experiencing a 3% cognitive decline later in life. 

While most of the results were expected or unsurprising, one area that stood out to Ahn was education. Those individuals studied who reported higher levels of education saw a reduction in the number of adversity experiences. Ahn hopes to study this avenue more to learn how education may be able to mitigate or prevent these declines. 

“Before including education, there was a significant association between childhood adversity and cognitive impairment,” Ahn said. 

“But when including education as a covariate, that significant association disappeared. Interesting. So there were important implications here. Education and attending school, people could be better off even if they were exposed to childhood adversity. They’re likely to learn positive coping mechanisms, which may help avoid  relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking or excessive drinking or drug use.

“Education is quite important in terms of health outcomes. If I am educated, I’m likely to get a better job, have a higher income, and live in areas with less crime. I’m likely to buy gym membership or regularly exercise. I’m likely to shop at Whole Foods and get proper nutrition. All of which help combat these adversities we hinted at in the study. So the education and health outcomes are already closely related, and that is what we saw in our study.”

Ahn also encourages clinicians and everyday people alike to discuss their stress. Clinicians can learn more about their patients and have a better approach when it comes to their physical and mental health, while others could potentially relate to shared experiences. But through awareness and recognition, these adverse experiences could potentially have less serious, lasting effects. 

“Public health is very interested in stress,” Ahn said. “But we’re still examining how daily stress impacts our long term health outcomes. So to see the effects here in the study, I want people to pay attention to their stress and proactively address it. Clinicians should have deep discussions with their patients about their stress and mental state. And those topics can be approached in other areas too, like the classroom or the dining room table. The more we are aware of stress and discuss our stress, the better we can handle any adversities we find in life.”

Continue Reading


New tool to explore mechanisms of age-related diseases



New tool to explore mechanisms of age-related diseases

A new screening tool has been developed that will investigate the mechanisms behind conditions such as cancer, arthritis, neurodegeneration and cardiovascular disease.

Wellcome Sanger Institute researchers and their collaborators at Open Targets and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) have developed the screening tool called scSNV-seq.

The tool has been designed to uncover how genetic changes affect gene activity that can lead to diseases such as cancer, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

The tool enables the investigation of thousands of DNA mutations identified by genetic studies in one experiment, and will help to guide the development of advanced diagnostics and treatments.

scSNV-seq allows the rapid assessment of the impact of thousands of genetic changes in cells that have never been screened before, directly connecting these changes to how those same cells operate. 

This technique helps researchers to pinpoint mutations that contribute to disease, which will offer crucial insights for developing targeted therapies.

In a new study, published in Genome Biology, the team applied scSNV-seq to the blood cancer gene, JAK1, accurately assessing the impact of JAK1 mutations.

The assessment revealed for the first time that certain mutations caused a “halfway house” phenotype cycling between different states which was not possible under previous approaches.

The technique is designed to demonstrate versatility across cell types, including hard-to-culture primary cells like T cells and stem-cell derived neurons, as well as various editing methods such as base editing and prime editing. 

Applied on a large scale, scSNV-seq could transform understanding of the genetic changes driving cancer and decoding genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes and other complex diseases.

Dr Sarah Cooper, first author of the study at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, stated: “In an era where the rate of genetic variant discovery outpaces our ability to interpret their effects, scSNV-seq fills a major gap for studying challenging cells like T cells and neurons. 

“We are already using it to shed light on the impact of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s risk variants on brain cells.”

Dr Andrew Bassett, senior author of the study at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Our technique is able to directly connect effects of mutations to how a cell behaves, revealing downstream impacts that previous technologies alone cannot deliver. 

“The technique speeds up the identification of causal genetic mutations, which will allow better diagnosis and deepens our molecular understanding of diseases, paving the way for more targeted and effective treatments.”

Continue Reading