Health & Medicine

At the forefront of the robotic revolution

Dr Tom Oxley is leading the team behind the development of an implantable device which will allow paraplegics to operate an exoskeleton by thought alone

Published 17 February 2016

I became obsessed with the brain around the age of 12. That’s the reason I initially pursued psychiatry. For most of my life, I’ve been preoccupied with trying to understand the mystery of how electrons moving through brain tissue can create consciousness. From day one, what was always driving me was a belief that I’d work in neuroscience.

My parents are incredible. My dad was a diplomat with the World Trade Organisation and my mum worked for the United Nations. Mum provided unlimited love and support, and my dad kindled my ambition.

I had been thinking about designing a new type of implantable stent device since 2007. My idea was to build a tiny biocompatible device, wired with an electrode system, which could be implanted into a blood vessel next to the brain.

A speculative email sent by Tom Oxley while on holiday in New York led to US military funding for his ambitious stentrode project. Picture: University of Melbourne

On a holiday in New York, I sent a cold call email to Colonel Geoffrey Ling who had fortuitously just began directing the US Military’s DARPA prosthetics program. I was very surprised to hear back from him straight away. He invited me in for a chat.

I sketched a bare-boned presentation late into the night, got up early, and got on the bus to go to Washington D.C. Colonel Ling was this short-statured, unassuming, backslapping Texan guy. I pitched my idea to him. He sat back in his chair and said: “well, that’s interesting, no-one has been doing that at DARPA. Why don’t you go home and put a team together we’ll give you $1 million to build this thing.”

Professor Terry O’Brien was the man who made it all happen back in Melbourne. One day I mentioned it to him and he walked me in to the University of Melbourne’s Engineering Department to meet Tony Burkitt and David Grayden, the engineering professors from the bionic eye and bionic ear projects.

A few months after Terry introduced me to Nick Opie, who was looking for something to do as a post-doctoral researcher. We became the two leads on the project together and have since founded a business together, called SmartStent.

I remember early on, when Nick was piecing this together with rudimentary equipment, it looked to be an impossible task. We had to just keep laughing our way through the multiple failures. Nick has an unflappable resilience. It was a real emotional rollercoaster, not knowing if what you’re trying to do is achievable.

It was surreal. I’d just started my PhD and all of a sudden, I had several million dollars to work with. The University gave me a dedicated area to start my own lab and employed engineers to staff it. We were all really young and having a good time. There was no senior professor calling the shots. We had an open mindset and spent a lot of time loudly contesting ideas with one another, like family.

It was amazing how encouraging everyone was. I was not a professor, or even a senior academic. It was really important for me to lean on a whole bunch of academics for help.

As far as I know, I’m the only military neurologist in the Australian army. My grandfather was the Commander in Chief of the Australian Troops during the Vietnam War, Major General Sandy Pearson. He was an incredible man, a generous and loving man, who instilled importance of national service in me.

A huge challenge for soldiers who return home with major injuries is finding the motivation to keep going and finding hope that they can go back to leading normal lives. I hope that our device will one day make a difference to these soldier’s lives.

We’re entering a period of great technological upheaval. We had the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the information age and now we’re in the midst of a robotic revolution.

Driverless cars, robots, and artificial intelligence are our future. The understanding of the brain will be central to this.

I want to be a part of developing technologies that will change the way we think about being human. I take a lot of inspiration from people that have pursued technologies that have changed the world. Professor Terry O’Brien has been my greatest professional inspiration. He has shown me what leadership looks like and how you get the best out of people.

None of this would’ve happened if I hadn’t have been at the University of Melbourne. I doubt any other institute in the country would have been able to pull this off. I was able to go back to America and tell DARPA we had the support of the chief engineer from the bionic eye project. It’s only because I was able to do that that we could win this grant and kick it off.

I now have a fellowship in endovascular neurosurgery at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York until the middle of 2017. I’m doing cerebral angiograms. It’s a really new and exciting sub-speciality in medicine.

Australia is moving into a time of fantastic technological translation to emerge from universities and the University of Melbourne is the best in the country. We are walking in the footprints of Cochlear: a highly successful technology translation project out of the same precinct. This is a good news story for the University and it’s a good news story for Australia.

– As told to Jane Gardner

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