Inspirational Lumina Researcher Determined to Make History in Disability Rehabilitation
Many Queenslanders know the remarkable story of Dr Dinesh Palipana OAM, who, as a medical student in 2010 survived a serious motor vehicle accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. Against seemingly impossible odds, Dr Palipana persevered through his rehabilitation and completed his medical training, becoming the first quadriplegic medical graduate and medical intern in Queensland. He went on to co-found Doctors with Disabilities Australia and has led a push for national policies for inclusivity in medical education and employment. In 2019 Dr Palipana was formally recognised for his tireless efforts in disability advocacy as a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia and received the 2021 Queensland Australian of the Year award.
Today Dr Palipana is a Doctor at the Gold Coast University Hospital, a Senior Lecturer at Griffith University, and a passionate medical researcher, working in his lab within Lumina – the health, technology and science hub within the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct.
A revolution in spinal cord injury rehabilitation techniques is long overdue
What many Queenslanders may not know is that Dr Palipana, and his team of dedicated research collaborators, are on the path to making history through breakthrough research into rehabilitation techniques for spinal cord injury. It’s a revolutionary technique that’s been a long time coming, Dr Palipana explained.
“Historically, we have had no way of giving someone function back after they’ve been paralysed. For thousands of years humankind has not been able to fix spinal cord injuries,” Dr Palipana said.
“Before World War Two, most people with spinal cord injuries passed away within about 30 days due to complications from their injury, meaning if I was alive a century ago, my life expectancy after the accident would have been probably a month or two, at best.”
“In the decades following, we progressed with expanding lifespans of people with spinal cord injuries, but not their function. However, over the last couple of years, there have been some really exciting developments. One of those is thought-control therapy,” he said.
Integrating thought-control, electrical stimulation, and drug therapy to restore function in paralysis
The ‘BioSpine’ spinal injury rehabilitation project, led by Dr Palipana and co-investigator Dr Claudio Pizzolato, is considered a world-first and has the potential to completely transform the way spinal injury patients are rehabilitated. While traditional methods of rehabilitation are fairly passive, with BioSpine, the team works to engage someone’s thoughts.
“We use EEG (Electroencephalogram) headsets, which essentially read brainwaves and the electrical activity within a patient’s brain. We teach the patient to think about physical movement like walking or cycling. We then read that pattern, and translate it into virtual reality, where people’s limbs become animated to move,” Dr Palipana explained.
The BioSpine technology uses the patient’s ‘digital twin’ to connect and work with physical rehabilitation equipment, such as a motorised exercise bike, and functional electrical stimulation to create a personalised, optimal rehabilitation program. Drug therapy is also incorporated for a holistic approach.
“These are really cutting-edge techniques enabled by the technology that we have today. It is a vastly different paradigm to traditional methods of rehabilitation,” he said.
“We are hoping to have a clinical trial, with 6 to 12 people, which will hopefully kick off in the next 12 months,” he said.
Dr Palipana and his team have also commenced patent processing with hopes that BioSpine will be commercially available in six to eight years, rolled out to patients in clinics and hospitals.
Lumina’s infrastructure and resources help foster collaborations between big dreamers and innovators
BioSpine’s research approach included collaboration with spinal cord injury patients, clinicians, researchers, and engineers, right from the beginning of the project.
“We have all kinds of experts. We have an expert in electrical stimulation. We have an expert in brain-computer interfaces. We have links with a collaborator at Harvard University in the United States,” Dr Palipana said.
Dr Palipana believes that the single most important requirement for innovation is the ability to foster and encourage ideas. He credits the Health and Knowledge Precinct for providing the right environment and infrastructure to facilitate the exchange of big ideas between talented minds.
“We have an environment here at Lumina where if we put a group of dreamers and innovators together, no idea is too big. In society, we often knock down ideas for being too bold or too difficult or audacious, but we can overcome this. We have the right kind of ‘fertile soil’ to grow and support one another.”
“If you put a diverse group of people together, some pretty amazing things come out. That is a big benefit of having everything in one place,” he said.
Dr Palipana was also recently a mentor in the LuminaX Accelerator program designed to support promising start-ups within the HealthTech space. He mentored the team behind ‘Able Digital Wellness,’ a fitness, wellness, and nutrition digital platform designed specifically to assist people with disabilities to maintain good health.
“I like to think of Gold Coast as a hub for inclusion and the disability space. I really enjoyed working with entrepreneurs in the community here, like the Able team. HealthTech is all about accessibility and inclusion, and there are a lot of interesting projects at Griffith and Cohort Innovation Space within Lumina especially,” he said.
Lumina is full of potential, and talented residents like Dr Palipana are here to make history
Dr Palipana describes research success as the day he can stand up through his own power.
“We need to start dreaming big. Here in the Gold Coast, we have the expertise, we have the environment, we have the talent, we have the will, we have the energy, and we have the resources.”
“We’re at this really exciting time in human history where even technology is not the limiting factor for most things. It’s just our imagination and willingness to dream big.”