A device originally developed to help the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) monitor balance problems in astronauts returning from space could one day help prevent falls among the elderly.

Erez Lieberman, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts) Division of Health Sciences and Technology, developed the iShoe while he was working as an intern at NASA to help diagnose balance problems among astronauts.

"Humans adapt pretty readily to zero gravity but when they return to 1G [Earth] their sense of balance is completely off," Lieberman told Medical Device Daily.

At NASA, astronauts go into a box similar to a phone booth where they undergo a series of balance tests such as platform shifts and wall shifts. The astronauts' balance is tested for 16 days after their return from space.

"The change in gravity really screws with their sense of balance. They're falling all over the place," says Lieberman, who is a Hertz Fellow and also receives funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense.

After developing the technology for NASA, Lieberman quickly realized the iShoe could also benefit older adults.

"My grandmother died shortly after a hip problem so I'm certainly aware that the people who really have problems with balance are senior citizens," Lieberman said.

The iShoe insole would measure and analyze the pressure distribution of the patient's foot and report back to their doctor. It could also be equipped with an alarm that would alert family members when a fall has occurred.

The device is being tested in about 60 people to generate data that will hopefully help Lieberman and his colleagues create a model to predict the risk of a fall.

Falls among the elderly are common and can be deadly: In 2005, nearly 300,000 Americans suffered hip fractures after a fall, and an average of 24% of hip-fracture patients age 50 and over die in the year following their fracture, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (Washington).

"You have a gradual progression of loss of balance, osteoporosis, and other factors that can lead to the fall," Lieberman said.

The first-generation model is purely diagnostic, Lieberman told MDD, though he acknowledged that, "When you know you have a problem you can take steps to improve it."

There is a design in the works for a more sophisticated insole that could help improve balance as well, Lieberman said. For example, future versions of the device could provide sensory stimulation to the feet when the wearer is off-kilt.

"By doing that we can replace the sense and thus improve people's balance," Lieberman says.

The iShoe team has applied for a patent on the technology, to be jointly held by MIT, Harvard and NASA. In April, the company won a $50,000 grant from the Lunar Ventures Competition to help with start-up costs.

The company has prototype insoles and hopes venture capital funding will help accelerate the development process and get the iShoe on the market. If the device were to be sold now, Lieberman says it would be "quite expensive." With venture capital funding the company would be able to make the iShoe available at a lower price.

Assuming the company is able to get some favorable venture capital funding offers, Lieberman estimates the iShoe could be on the market sometime within the next 2-1/2 years.

While at NASA, Lieberman developed a new system for gathering data and an algorithm to analyze the data.

"We've developed the first algorithm that is really capable of not just looking at the pressure distribution of proprioceptors on the feet but also analyzing what that's saying," he said.

Other members of the iShoe team are Katherine Forth, a former NASA postdoctoral associate; Ricardo Piedrahita, a graduate of University of California at San Diego; and Qian Yang, a Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts) undergrad.

Lieberman told MDD that his company actually has several other sensor technologies in development, though he could not disclose what those devices are yet.