Anonymous donor commits $4.5 million to biomedical engineering research

Last spring, CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley led viewers of the popular 60 Minutes program to a place where biomedical engineering pioneers are expanding the possibilities of human movement and touch: Case Western Reserve University. 

The roughly 13-minute segment featured A. Bolu Ajiboye, among other university researchers, who explained how his team is using neuroprosthetics to restore movement and a renewed sense of touch to people with paralysis. 

Of the millions of viewers who watched, one family was especially inspired—and put that inspiration to action.

The family, who wishes to remain anonymous, manages a charitable trust designed to support individuals with paralysis. Despite having no affiliation with Case Western Reserve, they made a $4.5 million commitment to Ajiboye’s Reconnecting Hand and Arm to the Brain (ReHAB) program.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Ajiboye, the Elmer Lincoln Lindseth Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a bioengineer at the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center, where ReHAB is housed. “We are so grateful to this donor for not only recognizing the importance of our work, but also stepping up to support it.”

The 60 Minutes piece shows Ajiboye’s work in action through Austin Beggin, who was paralyzed from a diving accident in 2015. Since undergoing brain surgery and working with Ajiboye’s team, he has gradually regained feeling and movement in his arms and hands.

“I couldn’t move anything below my shoulders and I couldn’t feel,” Beggin said of his life before functional electrical stimulation (FES). “Getting that privilege to reuse my hand again with my volitional thoughts is what has been so remarkable and such a blessing.”

Restored feeling in his hand improves Beggin’s ability to grasp and maneuver objects, allowing him to feed himself. That seemingly small sense of independence is a major milestone both for his physical health and his mental wellbeing.

While this life-changing technology is only available at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center thus far, funds from the anonymous donor have enabled Ajiboye and his team to begin development of an at-home version. 

A portable system will expand the program’s reach beyond Northeast Ohio, making it easier for more people to participate in and benefit from the research.

“This gift is special because it enables us to help people lead more independent, fulfilling lives,” said Robert Kirsch, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the Allen H. and Constance T. Ford Professor, and executive director of the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center. “It also opens the door for more possibilities in the future.

“This type of gift goes beyond our typical research grants and will be the impetus for much bigger things,” Kirsch continued. “We could not be more grateful. We’re excited to deepen our collaborations and take the technology even further. This is only the beginning.”