The 26th April is World Intellectual Property Day and this year’s campaign celebrates the role IP rights play in the development of sport for enjoyment worldwide.
To mark the occasion, we took a look at a few interesting inventions which are pushing the frontiers of technology to aid recovery and enhance performance in professional athletes and weekend warriors alike. Each of the inventions we explored interact with the body in a unique way to enhance the mechanisms it employs to maintain homeostatic equilibrium when undergoing strenuous physical activity or repairing an injury.
The companies who have developed these inventions are each using patent rights to maintain control over products that make use of those inventions. IP rights incentivise the development of new technology by helping companies manage the often high costs associated with developing an idea and bringing a resulting product to market. Patent rights in particular often facilitate the procurement of funding in the early stages of development and help secure a return on this investment once the product has been commercialised.
An almost inevitable consequence of sports participation is injury, and the efficacy of its treatment can often determine the extent of a sportsman’s future success.
Researchers at Imperial College London have created a molecule which is beckoning in a new generation of biomaterials capable of interacting with damaged tissues to promote repair.
When a wound is inflicted, the body instinctually initiates repair of its injured tissue by forming a collagen scaffolding within the wound and encouraging cell migration through the scaffolding to activate the healing proteins embedded therein. These proteins then instruct the cells to grow and multiply. Traction force-activated payloads (TrAPs) have been created with this natural process in mind. A TrAP is formed of a single strand of DNA folded into a 3D structure which has proteins bound to it, and a chemical group and short peptide attached at either end. The chemical group facilitates attachment of the TrAP to a biomaterial, such as a collagen sponge. The peptide acts like a handle so that when the biomaterial is applied to a wound, the migrating cells travelling through the biomaterial pull on the peptide, unravelling the DNA to activate the proteins bound therein. This, in turn, encourages further growth and multiplication of cells and therefore more effective healing.
By changing the peptide, researchers are able to tailor the TrAPs to release specific healing proteins depending on which cells are present. This opens up the possibility of designing biomaterials which communicate with different cells in different ways, and at different times, to optimise the tissue repair process.
This technology is likely to be especially useful for bone healing, reducing scar tissue, repairing damaged nerves and treating wounds which are proving difficult to heal.
Imperial Innovations has filed an international patent application for drug delivery using this molecular complex (WO2018055360A1), but the details of any foreign applications are not yet available.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have developed a new ketone ester, R-1,3-butanediol-R-3-hydroxybutyrate (BD-BHB) which, when consumed, is thought to enhance endurance performance and aid post-exercise recovery.
The body produces ketones internally as an alternative fuel source when glycogen stores are depleted, for example, when an athlete running a marathon hits ‘the wall’ and cannot continue. It is thought that providing the body with an alternative source of ketones may enable athletes to boost their physical performance as the body will preferentially metabolise these ketones before metabolising its glycogen stores, thereby delaying the exhaustion of glycogen and the inevitable drop of available energy that ensues.
In a study of 39 professional cyclists it was found that muscles are able to use this ketone ester when consumed, and that its uptake increases in proportion to exercise intensity. The cyclists were provided with different energy drinks, each infused with either carbohydrates, fats or ketones. Those cyclists who consumed the ketone drink travelled an average of 400 meters further over half an hour than those who consumed the fat or carbohydrate drink. They also had the lowest levels of lactic acid, a byproduct which results when glycogen is metabolised and is associated with muscular stress. The ketone ester therefore, as postulated, appears to inhibit the metabolism of glycogen thereby preserving glycogen and reducing the production of lactic acid. The result is a delayed onset of ‘the wall’ during aerobic exercise, and reduced aching post-exercise.
TdeltaS® Ltd is a spinout company who is developing and commercialising this ketone ester, marketed as DeltaG®, and they have filed an international patent application for the invention (WO2013150153A1) which has given rise to a number of rights in various countries. DeltaG® has been licensed exclusively to HVMN® INC. in the US for use in their sports drinks.
Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is a form of non-invasive neurostimulation that has been used to improve cognitive function, and is even thought to be capable of enhancing the performance of endurance athletes.
A huge part of being a successful endurance athlete lies in the ability to fend off fatigue. Athletes experience two different types of fatigue: peripheral and central.
Peripheral fatigue describes the transient decrease in a muscle group’s capacity for exercise. Endurance training often targets this type of fatigue, and quantifies it by measuring parameters such as heart rate, stroke volume and oxygen transport.
In contrast, central fatigue describes the reduction in intracortical excitability that causes a reduction in neural drive from the motor cortex to the body’s muscles. The maintenance of excitatory brain activity therefore encourages endurance.
The ability of an athlete to fend off central fatigue is determined by a precise neural sequence. When the body perceives fatigue, the peripheral system sends an inhibitory signal to the motor cortex, which then signals to the body to reduce motor activity. However, if the athlete has enough energy to persist, these inhibition signals can be overridden by cortical inputs which send an excitatory signal to the motor cortex which, in turn, increases motor output to the peripheral system in order to counteract the inhibitory signal. Research suggests that training the brain through neurostimulation can increase these excitatory signals and therefore delay the onset of exhaustion.
Halo Sport have commercialised this idea, designing a headset which applies tDCS to the motor cortex in order to provide stronger excitatory signals to the body’s muscles. The device induces a state of hyperplasticity, wherein the brain creates and strengthens motor pathways faster. When combined with training, this state enables athletes to acquire a greater tolerance to central fatigue.
Halo Sport has been granted a US patent for this invention (US9981128), and has several other patents, and patent applications pending, worldwide.
Researchers at the Ohio State University have developed a microcurrent wound dressing which may aid wound healing and prevent the formation of bacterial biofilms.
Electric fields exist naturally in the skin, and when skin is wounded a change in electric potential occurs which encourages cell migration to the wound for healing. The microcurrent wound dressing, being commercialised by the electroceutical company Vomaris, contains a matrix of elemental silver and zinc embedded within its fabric which, when in direct contact with a conductive medium such as wound exudate, undergoes an oxidation-reduction reaction thereby generating an electric field. This electric field mimics the body’s physiologic electric fields to support its natural healing process.
The microcurrent wound dressing is also thought to hinder the formation of bacterial biofilms, densely packed communities of microbial cells that rely on electrostatic interactions to adhere to surfaces. The electric field that the dressing generates disrupts the electrostatic interactions necessary to enable a biofilm to form.
Researchers have estimated that 60-80 percent of microbial infections in the body are caused by bacteria which grow as a biofilm, many of which are becoming antibiotic-resistant. This microcurrent wound dressing may therefore provide a promising alternative treatment for such infections, the dressing being particularly beneficial as it does not promote drug resistance and can be used like any other disposable dressing.
Vomaris has filed a number of patent applications related to this technology including WO2017035320. However, for this case they elected to pursue protection only in the US. This might be an indication that worldwide protection for that invention is not necessary for their commercial strategy, or even that the pursuit of protection in the US has been sufficient to fend off immediate competitors.
Stem cells have the ability to turn into different kinds of tissue and release chemicals that promote healing. Israeli company, Pluristem, has developed a method of producing mesenchymal stem cells from placentas, and early studies suggest that such stem cells are able to encourage muscle repair. Research from the Berlin University of Medicine supports this claim. By administering either these stem cells or a placebo to a group of twenty people undergoing hip replacement surgery, and measuring their progress, it was found that those who received a dose of these cells had stronger hip muscles than those in the placebo group six months after surgery.
Pluristem has a large international patent portfolio related to this technology (see, for example, US2018008649A1).
Each of these inventions have applications in sports medicine and performance enhancement, and the companies behind them have used IP in a variety of ways to facilitate their development. It will be fascinating to see the impact inventions such as these will have on all athletes, whether they be employed to mend the wound of a footballer on the field, accelerate the repair of a golfer’s rotator cuff injury or optimise the performance of an athlete running the 100m sprint at the Olympics. These inventions may enable athletes to discover their full potential and raise the bar in their respective sports, increasing the enjoyment of spectators worldwide.