Targeting chronic pain in the head and neck

With its innovative device to treat chronic head and neck pain from a variety of causes, Israel’s Headway Medical may bring relief to millions of sufferers worldwide.

 Targeting chronic pain in the head and neck


A sketch of the Occiflex robotic tool now being developed to treat chronic head and neck pain.

By Avigayil Kadesh

As a practicing neurologist, for years Dr. Yaron River treated Israelis suffering from chronic headaches and neck pain. Despite prescribing drugs, physical therapy and even invasive procedures, he learned that long-term relief often was elusive. His frustration led him to start a company, Headway Medical, in 2006 to find a better solution.

Occiflex, the company’s trademarked robotic tool for physical therapists and other healthcare practitioners, should be ready for market in about two years. CEO Tamir Levital says that the device allows the professional to administer slow, precise treatment over a long period, which is nearly impossible to do manually.

Tracking system is key

The patient’s head and neck rest in an adjustable computer-guided cradle attached to a customized treatment table. The cradle moves the head gently along a predefined three-dimensional path, relaxing the muscles and consequently reducing pain. Once the initial movement session or "tracking" is stored in the computer, the practitioner can finalize the treatment parameters and let the device take it from there.

 Targeting chronic pain in the head and neck

Headway’s Israeli team developed a functional prototype in conjunction with a team at Dutch medical rehabilitation and physiotherapy device manufacturer Enraf-Nonius BV. In a €2 million deal Headway recently inked with this leading European firm, the two companies will cooperate in further development, regulatory approvals applications and marketing. Enraf-Nonius has exclusive rights to distribute Occiflex in Europe.

Headway is seeking an American partner with the goal of obtaining FDA approval for the device to be marketed in the United States, where every year more than 10 million people request treatment for chronic neck pain and more than 40 million suffer from recurrent headaches. The results of clinical trials at Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa have been encouraging.

"The pilot study was very successful," says Levital. "Patients reported a significant reduction in pain and improvement in range of motion. We recently received approval for a follow-up clinical trial in Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera."

Enraf Nonius will focus on fine-tuning the mechanical and industrial design of Occiflex. "On our side, we’ll develop the adjustable cradle, software and patient database," says Levital. "Tracking the movement of the head and storing those movements in the computer for the next treatment is what enables the caregiver to adjust the device for each individual patient. A lot of technology is involved in that tracking system."

Relieve pain at home

At the same time, development is moving forward on OcciHome, a trademarked version of the product for home use. "We gathered a lot of information and experience with the professional unit, and once we secure a budget to develop OcciHome, it should go faster and could be ready for the market at the same time as Occiflex," relates Levital, an Israeli native with a master’s degree in animal science from McGill University in Montreal, Canada and research experience in physiology and biotechnology.

A full medical team stands behind Headway, housed at the Misgav Venture Accelerator at the Misgav Business Park in northern Israel.

The medical advisory board includes Dr. Miles J. Belgrade, medical director at Fairview Pain and Palliative Care Center at the University of Minnesota Medical Center; Dr. Jan Dommerholt, president of Bethesda Physiocare and of Myopain Seminars; Dr. Eilon Eisenberg, director of the Pain Relief Unit at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and former president of the Israel Pain Association; and International Myopain Society Dr. Robert Gerwin, a Maryland pain and rehabilitation specialist and assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Founder River, a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s medical school, the Sackler Faculty of Medicine, is senior physician and vice chairman of the department of neurology at Hillel Yaffe, having trained in pain medicine at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

Co-founder Avner Amir, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Santa Barbara, was previously general manager of the medical device division of Tadiran in mobile telemedicine. Chairman and business advisor Isaac Rodan has 20 years of experience in international business at firms such as Card Guard and InterCure.

Given the large potential market for a device to effectively treat chronic head and neck pain from a variety of causes, Headway is not the only medical device company in the arena. Levital notes that the company will strive to position Occiflex as the best alternative at an attractive price point.