Dr. Kei Masani: A man of science and sports

Taking a closer look into one KITE scientist’s research in spinal cord injury and sports

Movement. Like the stitches on a baseball, it’s a thread woven through an ocean-spanning scientific and medical career.

“I’m a sports guy and my background belongs in physical education,” says Dr. Kei Masani, a senior scientist at the KITE Research Institute and an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering specializing in research related to spinal cord injury (SCI). “In this sense, I believe I am a little unique.” 

Dr. Masani’s current research is based in human movement from a neuromechanical perspective and focuses on developing therapeutic tools using functional electrical stimulation (FES) that can help a patient walk, stand, and perform adapted exercises with greater balance, specifically for those with SCI.  

FES aids in patients’ physical therapy and neuroplasticity by giving them the extra push they need, he explains. The idea is to combine multiple channels of electrical stimulation by placing electrodes on the targeted body part to create some functional movement, like reaching, grasping, walking or standing.

His work now, he says, focuses on incomplete spinal cord injury (iSCI), where a level of connection is present throughout the body but is damaged. Of those with a spinal cord injury, 80 per cent have iSCI. 

In this state, standing up, moving the legs or maintaining balance is difficult, which is why patients fall a lot, he says.

“That’s why in my projects, the big research goal is to improve their lower-level function by which they can improve their upright balance,” Dr. Masani says.

The work he’s doing with FES, he says, “has a potential to increase standing balance for the iSCI population.”

Dr. Masani’s journey to KITE 

Dr. Masani, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and a baseball fan, along with colleagues at Tohoku University in Japan conducted the very first study investigating the effect of grip-enhancing agents on sliding friction between a baseball and a fingertip.

The study, published in Communications Materials, closely examined how the use of rosin powder and sticky substances changes the friction coefficient between a fingertip and the leather of a baseball.

These substances provide a firmer grasp of the ball, which is important in controlling the spin rate and accuracy of a pitch. The findings have the potential to significantly change how these substances are used in competitive baseball leagues. 

Though baseball and sport more generally are not his specific focus now — most of his other research is focused on improving human mobility, specifically for those living with SCI — motion has been a constant in Dr. Masani’s research. 

“I was in the physical education field in Japan, where I was investigating the basic science of posture control, that is, how people stand up, maintain balance and walk”, he explains. 

Dr. Masani’s research at the time examined issues with posture control — how people stand up, maintain balance and walk — among the elderly. He observed that as people got older, they would fall more, he says. 

He also worked at developing methods that would help progress the movement of people at a more ordinary level of mobility to an athletic level. That research had applications elsewhere.

“I realized the same method and technique could be applicable to people that have a disability to get them to normality,” he says. “So I applied the same technique of biomechanics on neurophysiology to help people with disabilities.”

It was soon after receiving the Young Investigator Award from the Japanese Society of Biomechanics in the year 2000 that Masani made the trip to Canada, where his career would take a pivotal turn that led to a new chapter in his research.

“I came to Canada (in 2003) interested in studying about functional electrical stimulation, which may be applicable for the problems in standing that the elderly people have,” he says. 

He stayed for a year, and that year, he says, changed his life.

“During that period, I saw lots of studies about SCI and found that my knowledge and technique could be applicable for helping people with SCI.” 

Today, Dr. Masani’s research is an essential part of a larger project in progression, which involves the development of electrical stimulation within clothing.

Aspiring projects for the future 

Though his work on SCI and iSCI continues, an old love continues to pull at Dr. Masani.

“I’m also interested in researching injury prevention in sports, particularly baseball,” he says. “I’m thinking of ways of how my sports research can contribute to KITE.”

Maybe he’ll turn his attention to injury prevention, rehabilitation or recovery from injury, he says.

“I think I can include this area of research as one of the next projects on my list.”

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!