Cover Professor Grégoire Courtine, Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex/ Sébastien Agnetti)

Rolex Laureate Grégoire Courtine has pioneered a remarkable electronic interface between the brain and spinal cord that allows paralysed people to walk again

One thing we all know: while a serious spinal injury can often lead to paralysis, if that paralysis does happen, it’s definitely permanent. This is however changing; in 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Grégoire Courtine came along with the support from the Awards to assist him going further into his research to find solutions.

The reason spinal injuries cause paralysis is damage to the spinal cord, which means that the brain and nervous system effectively lose the ability to control parts of the body. Courtine, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, has been busy trying to harness the power of technology to bridge that gap, leading to a remarkable invention with the power to profoundly change lives for the better.

Born in France, he was inspired to investigate the science of movement by his own love of outdoor activities and extreme sports, and he undertook post-doctoral research into the subject at UCLA in the US. It was while he was there that he became involved as a research associate with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a charitable organisation that supports paralysed people and funds research into curing paralysis, and that is named after the late actor, who was himself paralysed following a horse-riding accident. After meeting patients whose lives had been upended by spinal injuries, some of them no older than he was, Courtine decided that he wanted to do something to help those people get back on their feet.

He dedicated himself to the subject, first at the University of Zurich and then at EPFL—and, after many years of research, came up with a rather miraculous piece of technology. It’s known as a neuroprosthetic bridge, and it effectively hooks the brain back up to the lower spinal cord, reading the signals the brain is trying to send and using wireless technology to transmit them to their intended destination, which it does by electrically stimulating the spinal cord in the lumbar region. The result is that patients’ brains are able to communicate with their legs as they usually would, which means they can undergo rehabilitation and eventually learn how to walk again. They can even use a voice command to turn the system on and off. The technology is also expected ultimately to result in neurons in the spinal cord regrowing, with the possibility that patients could recover enough to reduce their reliance on the bridge itself.

Long term, the plan is to develop a fully implantable brain-spine interface. It’s something that eventually could even become a common treatment—and if it does, paralysis caused by spinal injuries could become a thing of the past.

Modern Heroes: Kingsley Leung

Like Grégoire Courtine, Hong Kong’s Kingsley Leung has been responsible for helping to make important therapeutic advances available to the people who need them. He is the chairman of pharmaceutical R&D company Uni-Bio Science Group, and also of Great Bay Bio, which uses AI and big data to make the process of developing new medicines faster and more efficient, halving the time it takes and reducing the risks. Originally a banker focusing on the healthcare industry, he made the leap to working in the industry after receiving an offer from a Singaporean biotech start-up, before moving to Uni-Bio, then owned by his uncle, subsequently taking over the company and spinning off Great Bay Bio. It uses AI to help with the chemistry, manufacturing and controls process of developing a drug, reducing the need for laborious human screening by training AI to recognise the type of cells that will make the best ingredients for medicines.

Under The Same Sky

Though we often feel worlds apart, the truth is that today, more than ever, people are more connected than ever. Local is the new global, and the only way to make an impact on a global scale is to first engage on the home front. Under The Same Sky is a collection of stories that demonstrates this undeniable interconnectedness and the shared passions and actions that unite us. In partnership with Rolex, through its Perpetual Planet initiative, we bring together key advocates from the region and individuals from around the world who are crafting solutions to environmental challenges and committing to a sustainable future.

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