Dr. José Zariffa’s research is designed to hit a nerve

KITE scientist mines data in effort to improve the mobility of people living with disability

Dr. José Zariffa strives to translate intricate data in an effort to develop solutions that can provide better treatments for people living with the effects of spinal cord injury (SCI) and strokes. 

But ask Dr. Zariffa’s kids about what their dad does as a rehabilitation engineer, and they might not be as fascinated. Not yet anyway. 

“I don’t know . . . if any kids are really impressed by their parents at that stage,” he says about his 11- and 13-year-old children.

Dr. Zariffa, a Senior Scientist in the Neural Engineering and Therapeutics team at KITE and an Associate Professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, University of Toronto, became attracted to biomedical engineering while completing his undergraduate degree in computer engineering. 

Initially it was about “things that were cool and interesting,” he says. His arrival at rehabilitation engineering happened over time, but he was able to bridge the technical skills and applications with a human element, although he claims there was no defining moment. 

“You get exposed to different opportunities and different experiences and you learn about things that you didn’t even know existed,” he explains. 

While he completed his PhD in electrical and biomedical engineering, he was “working in a rehab hospital with people with spinal cord injuries . . . that got me interested in the clinical aspects, the clinical applications,” he continues. As a post-doctoral fellow, he interacted more with patients. “It was very meaningful and motivating,” he recalls. 

Today his research is focused on upper limb function for those recovering after injuries to the nervous system.  His team develops technologies for upper limb neurorehabilitation, ranging from wearable technology for measuring hand function at home to neuroprosthetic systems for restoring function after paralysis.

“The [neural] system is just so much more complicated and so different from anything . . . that’s man-made. That’s what’s so fascinating.” He believes he’s rambling, but the explanation he gives for this extraordinary and intriguing concept is vastly comprehensive.  While his focus is the peripheral nervous system, the human element is entrenched in his research. 

“Rehabilitation is really about getting people to go back to being able to do the things they want to do in their everyday life,” he says. 

Improving hand function is the primary goal for someone with a spinal cord injury. Therapists observe patients, but what they see in a controlled setting doesn’t necessarily mimic what happens when patients are at home. 

So, Dr. Zariffa and his team asked themselves, “How can we directly measure what’s actually happening in their everyday life? And so, the goal there was to have a tool that could be used in research studies and in clinical trials to demonstrate that there was a benefit or there wasn’t a benefit.” 

He and his team introduced wearable cameras as sensors that capture a patient’s functions in their own environment. Taking advantage of easily accessible cameras, the team built software to analyze hand use. 

"We are at a point where we just finished one big study,” he explains. He and his team are still completing their assessments, but he says they have “the key findings to start moving that forward. So, if somebody wanted to use it in their research study, then we could do that now.” Dr. Zariffa and his team’s work then includes “developing partnerships with researchers who are interested in using these new tools,” he says.

He and his team believe they are a couple of years away from combining their data into a tool clinicians can use. They are interviewing clinicians and therapists to obtain their perspectives while analyzing how the information derived from the videos can be “summarized and presented to [the clinicians] to fit in their workflow and enable them to make use of it,” he says. 

What clinicians and therapists acquire from this data can improve a patient’s therapy.

 “We’ve built software that can be used to process the data and summarize it,” he continues. Once he and his team validate the information, Dr. Zariffa says, “Software is fairly easy to distribute and share.”

He admits it can be a bit frustrating to advance towards a goal only to be stalled by the administrative process.

“On a systemic level, if you have an idea, you have to write a grant, wait for a decision, maybe you have to re-submit the grant,” he says. Once they receive approval and money, they must hire and train people and translate the research so it can be used by rehabilitation clinics. “That aspect can be a little bit draining on one’s patience for sure, but, you know, we try to keep moving . . . one foot in front of the other and just try to do our best to do good work and move as quickly as we can.” 

Technology that can restore human movement is in our future, although Dr. Zariffa won’t commit to when this will happen. 

“That’s certainly more of a long-term goal. I’m not going to give you a number. We’ve made some exciting progress.” However, Dr. Zariffa breaks down the complex into more comprehensible terms. 

“We’ve had some success . . . new algorithms to decode the activity at the nerve and be able to more specifically monitor what’s happening in the nerve, like what messages are being carried in the nerve. But there are still a number of steps.” 

Still, rudimentary prototypes do exist and there has been some success. 

“The elements are there,” he says. 

However, the regulatory and commercialization pieces of the puzzle add a complex layer. He explains, “It’s not like the cameras. You can buy a camera and record video and that’s fine. Whereas [it’s different] if you’re talking about implanting custom circuits into the human body.”   

For someone who devotes his days to deciphering complex information, he doesn’t forget the human element, and he recognizes the need to step away and disconnect. Having children has helped him establish better work-life balance. Without the break he would “lose creativity and flexibility,” he says. While he doesn’t get a lot of alone time, he relishes reading a good novel or watching an absorbing movie. 

Dr. Zariffa offers a positive outlook that can be applied by anyone, including his own children one day. 

“You have to be exposed to different ideas and learn as you go and understand what’s out there and follow a seam of things that you find interesting and meaningful.

KITE's partnership with Centennial College

KITEworks Magazine is an annual collaborative project between Centennial College's Professional Writing-        Communications and Photography programs and KITE. The stories, experiences and photographs shared in this  year's edition of the magazine give an unfiltered look into how KITE has reimagined rehabilitative care. Come and explore how KITE works!