Clinical Trials and Teddy Bears?


Living with a chronic illnesses can be tough on anyone, but even more so for children. Anxiety, depression, loneliness, and simple boredom are all feelings children who face frequent hospitalizations endure and can all negatively affect their treatment.

Having a friend, or company of any kind can lighten otherwise monotonous hospital stays. But what if that friend can add therapeutic value to the child’s visit as well?

Huggable, an interactive teddy bear robot, acts as a companion to children as well as a monitoring device for physicians and other members of the child’s medical team. Designed by Dr. Peter Weinstock, the director of a training program at Boston Children’s Hospital called the Simulator Program, and Dr. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of the personal robots group at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, Huggable can revolutionize the way chronic illnesses are treated on the pediatric level.

Currently 90 children are involved in the clinical trial to test Huggable. The robot can constantly collect data from these 90 children through the Android phone embedded into the robot.

Through innovative technology tools, Huggable can pick up on psychosomatic cues of how the children are feeling. From squeezing Huggable’s hand while receiving a shot, to laughing at a particular type of humor, those behind the robot can note what cheers the child up, what scares them, what keeps them up at night, and what calms them down.

The robot, in this phase of the research, serves as a data-recording puppet that is run by with the aid of a remote operator. For the continuing study, one-third of the children play with Huggable, another third interact with an image of it on a tablet and the rest are given a regular plush teddy bear. All the children are recorded on video and wear a bracelet, called a Q Sensor, that measures physiological changes. Utilizing gamification and mHealth tools together allow for unique patient-engagement opportunities and data monitoring.

For later phases, Dr. Breazeal hopes to further develop the robot to function on its own without the aid of an operator.

The success of the Huggable program could dramatically shift patient care in a time of innovation and the rise of technology. More information about Huggable and other MIT robotic projects is available on their website or contact the Children’s Hospital.

The trial highlights important emotional aspects of patient well-being, and combines human-connection with technological advances. With Huggable, children can experience less anxiety, pain, and feelings of isolation while in the hospital—ultimately empowering them and their care team to better manage chronic illness.

We applaud the Simulator Program and M.I.T.’s Media Lab for this incredible innovation. As we continue to work on improving clinical research, inspiring ideas like Huggable excite us.

We see the potential for the concepts that Huggable brings to treating chronic pediatric patients as being translatable to improve the clinical trial experience for participants as well. Notions of sensor driven capture of physiological data as well as being able to gather validated feelings and emotions through psychosomatic clues would radically change how data is gathered in clinical research. And to do it in a fun, engaging way will help participants stay engaged in studies.

How might you envision ideas like Huggable changing clinical trials? Please leave a comment or drop us a Tweet at @Lilly_COI letting us know.