Osteoarthritis, or arthrosis, is the most common joint disease in the world. Its annual costs amount to nearly a billion euros in Finland alone. More and more people suffer from osteoarthritis of the knee as they age, and nearly a third of persons over 75 years of age have the condition.
Until now, the severity of osteoarthritis could be reliably determined only through expensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A new measuring method has now been developed in Oulu, enabling the examination of worn knee joints more easily and cost-efficiently. A brace similar to a knee sleeve is wrapped around the patient’s leg, and its built-in sensors measure the sounds caused by the joint, the skin temperature and movement.
The new research method and device as well as the start-up company based on them, MAKNEE Oy, were developed by Professor Simo Saarakkala and post-doctoral researcher Jérôme Thevenot from the Research Unit of Medical Imaging, Physics and Technology at the University of Oulu.
Professor Simo Saarakkala and post-doctoral researcher Jérôme Thevenot developed a method for examining the severity of knee osteoarthritis acoustically, kinetically and with temperature data (photo Juha Sarkkinen).
“I was playing badminton with Jérôme when we got the idea of developing a new approach to knee osteoarthritis research”, says Simo Saarakkala, laughing.
They started developing the idea together, and Jérôme Thevenot soon built a prototype at his home.
Both researchers have a background in medical physics and technology.
“In acoustic measurement, the sensor measures the sounds caused by the joint during movement. The motion sensors transmit data concerning the joint’s position and scope of movement while the temperature sensor measures the temperature of the skin. An infected knee is often warm”, Jérôme Thevenot explains.
Market launch of long-term work
Tests required to obtain a CE marking for medical equipment are expensive and take years. Additionally, further formalities are required to apply for the FDA certificate needed for the US market. It is a long and winding road to bring an innovation to the commercial market and generate profit.
“We are testing the device at the Oulu University Hospital with voluntary patient groups. We compare the results provided by the device with MRI, according to which the results obtained with our method are 70-80% correct”, says Professor Simo Saarakkala.
“Each step must be carefully documented to obtain the CE marking.”
“We also collaborate with the Pihlajalinna and Mehiläinen health services, meaning that we examine voluntary groups who have had either a knee joint replacement operation or anterior cruciate ligament surgery, and we monitor the rehabilitation of the knee”, Saarakkala recounts.
The measurement results are instantly accessible. The severity of osteoarthritis is indicated by the scope of movement, the sounds caused by the joint and the temperature of the skin (photo Juha Sarkkinen).
Although MAKNEE initially focuses on researching the knee joint, it is also able to examine other joints. Osteoarthritis in the shoulder joints or lower back can be researched with a device that resembles an ultrasound scanner.
“In the future, we can also use this method to examine damage to the anterior cruciate ligament, meniscus and tendons of the knee”, says Jérôme Thevenot.
Race horses as guinea pigs
“In the field of veterinary science, no CE certificates are required – you can launch the product immediately, if you like. We are now working with horse stables because horse owners are very interested in our invention. Race horses are valuable, and their joints are under heavy stress. Osteoarthritis of the fetlock joint, in particular, is a common affliction among race horses”, says Jérôme Thevenot.
In Finland, only one animal hospital in Helsinki carries out MRI for horses. The imaging services are very expensive, so horse lovers are delighted with the opportunity to examine the state of the horses’ joints in their own stables and in an easy and affordable manner.
“A brace similar to commercial ones is wrapped around the horse’s fetlock joint. The brace is connected to a small computer set on the horse’s back using wires. In the future, we will develop a wireless version of the device”, Thevenot says.
Commercialisation is hard work
An innovation’s road to the commercial market is long, and plenty of money is also required. In 2015, MAKNEE received Proof of Concept funding from the University of Oulu. The grant helped to determine the commercial potential of the innovation. There was lots of potential, because in 2016, the funding agency Business Finland granted TUTLI funding (Tutkimuksesta uutta liiketoimintaa, new business from research activity) for the project. During the TUTLI grant period, the product was fine-tuned to be ready for the commercial market. The goal is near – launching the product on the market.
The researchers were fascinated by the chance to develop their business competence.
“We now know how to pitch and plan a business model and funding”, says Jérôme Thevenot. “We had a lot to learn, because the field of business is completely different from the world of university and research.
In the winter of 2018, I participated in the Polar Bear Pitching competition, meaning that I introduced the business idea in a hole in the ice”, Thevenot says, laughing. Practice makes perfect, because MAKNEE, pitched by Thevenot, won the main prize, €30,000, of the Slush Life Science competition in December 2018.
Jérôme Thevenot is the CEO of MAKNEE. “However, we are looking for a new CEO, a business expert with a strong personal interest in developing the company. As soon as the new CEO is recruited, I will become the Technology Manager.”
Text: Satu Räsänen
Last updated: 17.4.2020