Petar Todorov | Lab Notes
Better than new
Published: Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 17, 2013 08:09
Mad-eye Moody’s eye can peer through walls and Invisibility Cloaks. Tony Stark’s heart is safeguarded by the Arc Reactor that powers his Iron Man suit. Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen is crushed and burned before receiving augmentations that make him exceed human capabilities. In fiction, characters are often nearly obliterated, only to return better than new. In reality, we humans are much more fragile than we’d like to believe. Despite our most recent advances, we’re much more difficult to repair.
Sadly, the strongest driving force in the development of prostheses is war. Since the American Civil War, the chance of surviving a combat wound has become much greater. The number of disabled veterans returning from war has increased with every major conflict. For the longest time, most artificial limbs were much closer to Moody’s peg leg than to his enchanted, all-seeing eye. Termed “dumb” prostheses, these aids do little more than give one a stick to prop up on, or a hook for a hand that can only execute the most rudimentary tasks.
Fortunately, new prosthetic technology is catching up with, and at times even surpassing, able-bodied humans. Oscar Pistorius’ carbon fiber running blades caused a stir when the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee suspected he had an edge over other sprinters. But even these highly engineered devices are overly specialized and quite awkward in day-to-day activity like climbing stairs and navigating terrain that is rougher than the sports track. Over the last decade, “smart” prostheses with onboard electronics have emerged. Iceland’s Össur specializes in devices that contain myriad sensors and continuously respond to their environment. Their Power Knee can easily ascend a staircase, and the Proprio Foot adjusts to uneven ground. Those who are lucky enough to afford these gadgets can navigate daily obstacles more easily. Unfortunately, high-tech prostheses like the ones produced by Össur can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Like most medical devices and procedures, their true price tag is undisclosed. Web forums put the Power Knee in the ballpark of $40,000-$70,000. That’s akin to a new BMW 3 Series.
Joel Gibbard, an inventor from Bristol, UK, has set out to make prostheses more accessible. An engineer of robotics by training, Joel created the Open Hand Project, an open-source initiative to develop and release a 3-D printed prosthetic hand called Dextrus for a final cost of under $1,000. The custom fabricated hands would be fitted to each user and capable of attaching to an already existing artificial limb. The project launched a campaign on the popular crowd-funding platform Indiegogo last week. Aiming to get £39,000 (or about $60,000) the campaign entices backers with rewards like T-shirts, 3D printed figures of their choice, or if they donate enough, the complete Open Hand. Mr. Gibbard’s video shows the Dextrus handling delicate objects, like eggs, with a precision normally reserved for devices that are hundreds of times more expensive. The hand was developed with input from a disabled individual, Liam Corbett, a chef who lost his right hand to meningitis. He has already been testing a prototype. In the Indiegogo video, Corbett enthusiastically states, “I would be proud to wear this, it would make me feel more confident.”
Mr. Gibbard’s Open Hand Project is definitely worth keeping an eye on. Its promise of low-cost, open source prosthetics is inspiring: The Dextrus would not only make these devices more accessible to the disabled, but also to the hackers and tinkerers looking to modify and innovate them. Perhaps, someday, losing a hand will mean coming out better than new.
Petar Todorov is a senior majoring in chemistry. He can be reached at Petar.Todorov@tufts.edu.