News in Bionics: Restoring Sensation and Mobility!

TED_adrianne1It seems like I’ve writing endlessly about bionic prosthetics lately, thanks to the many breakthroughs that have been happening almost back to back. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share these latest two. In addition to showcasing some of the latest technological innovations, these stories are inspiring and show the immense potential bionic prosthetics have to change lives and help people recover from terrible tragedies.

For instance, on the TED stage this week in Vancouver, which included presentations from astronaut Chris Hadfield, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, and anti-corruption activist Charmiah Gooch, there was one presentation that really stole the stage. It Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a former dance instructor and a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, dancing again for the first time. And it was all thanks to a bionic limb developed by noted bionics researcher Hugh Herr. 

TED_hugh_herrAs the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Herr is known for his work on high-tech bionic limbs and for demonstrating new prosthetic technologies on himself. At 17, he lost both his legs in a climbing accident. After discussing the science of bionic limbs, Herr brought out Adrianne, who for the first time since her leg amputation, performed a short ballroom dancing routine.

This was made possible thanks to the help of a special kind of bionic limb that designed by Herr and his colleagues at MIT specifically for dancing. The design process took over 200 days, where the researchers studied dance, brought in dancers with biological limbs, studied how they moved, and examined the forces they applied on the dance floor. What resulted was a “dance limb” with 12 sensors, a synthetic motor system that can move the joint, and microprocessors that run the limb’s controllers.

TED_adrianne2The system is programmed so that the motor moves the limb in a way that’s appropriate for dance. As Herr explained in a briefing after his talk:

It was so new. We had never looked at something like dance. I understand her dream and emotionally related to her dream to return to dance. It’s similar to what I went through.” Herr says he’s now able to climb at a more advanced level than when he had biological legs.

Haslet-Davis’s new limb is only intended for dancing; she switches to a different bionic limb for regular walking. And while this might seem like a limitation, it in fact represents a major step in the direction of bionics that can emulate a much wider range of human motion. Eventually, Herr envisions a day when bionic limbs can switch modes for different activities, allowing a person to perform a range of different tasks – walking, running, dancing, athletic activity – without having to change prosthetics.

TED_adrianneIn the past, Herr’s work has been criticized by advocates who argue that bionic limbs are a waste of time when many people don’t even have access to basic wheelchairs. He argues, however, that bionic limbs–which can cost as much as a nice car–ultimately reduce health care costs. For starters, they allow people to return to their jobs quickly, Herr said, thus avoiding workers’ compensation costs.

They can also prevent injuries resulting from prosthetics that don’t emulate normal function as effectively as high-tech limbs. And given the fact that the technology is becoming more widespread and additive manufacturing is leading to lower production costs, there may yet come a day when a bionic prosthetic is not beyond the means of the average person. Needless to say, both Adrianne and the crowd were moved to tears by the moving and inspiring display!

bionic_hand_MIT1Next, there’s the inspiring story of Igor Spectic, a man who lost his right arm three years ago in a workplace accident. Like most people forced to live with the loss of a limb, he quickly came to understand the limitations of prosthetics. While they do restore some degree of ability, the fact that they cannot convey sensation means that the wearers are often unaware when they have dropped or crushed something.

Now, Spectic is one of several people taking part in early trials at Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on prosthetics that offer sensation as well as ability. In a basement lab, the trials consist of connecting his limb to a prosthetic hand, one that is rigged with force sensors that are plugged into 20 wires protruding from his upper right arm.

bionic_hand_MITThese wires lead to three surgically implanted interfaces, seven millimeters long, with as many as eight electrodes apiece encased in a polymer, that surround three major nerves in Spetic’s forearm. Meanwhile, a nondescript white box of custom electronics does the job of translating information from the sensors on Spetic’s prosthesis into a series of electrical pulses that the interfaces can translate into sensations.

According to the trial’s leader, Dustin Tyler – a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in neural interfaces – this technology is “20 years in the making”. As of this past February, the implants had been in place and performing well in tests for more than a year and a half. Tyler’s group, drawing on years of neuroscience research on the signaling mechanisms that underlie sensation, has developed a library of patterns of electrical pulses to send to the arm nerves, varied in strength and timing.

bionic_hand_MIT2Spetic says that these different stimulus patterns produce distinct and realistic feelings in 20 spots on his prosthetic hand and fingers. The sensations include pressing on a ball bearing, pressing on the tip of a pen, brushing against a cotton ball, and touching sandpaper. During the first day of tests, Spetic noticed a surprising side effect: his phantom fist felt open, and after several months the phantom pain was “95 percent gone”.

To test the hand’s ability to provide sensory feedback, and hence aid the user in performing complex tasks, Spetic and other trial candidates were tasked with picking up small blocks that were attached to a table with magnets, as well as handling and removing the stems from a bowl of cherries. With sensation restored, he was able to pick up cherries and remove stems 93 percent of the time without crushing them, even blindfolded.

bionic_hand_MIT_demoWhile impressive, Tyler estimates that completing the pilot study, refining stimulation methods, and launching full clinical trials is likely to take 10 years. He is also finishing development of an implantable electronic device to deliver stimuli so that the technology can make it beyond the lab and into a household setting. Last, he is working with manufacturers of prostheses to integrate force sensors and force processing technology directly into future versions of the devices.

As for Spetic, he has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the trials and claims that they have left him thinking wistfully about what the future might bring. As he put it, he feels:

…blessed to know these people and be a part of this. It would be nice to know I can pick up an object without having to look at it, or I can hold my wife’s hand and walk down the street, knowing I have a hold of her. Maybe all of this will help the next person.

bionic-handThis represents merely one of several successful attempts to merge the technology of nerve stimulation in with nerve control, leading to bionic limbs that not only obey user’s commands, but provide sensory feedback at the same time. Given a few more decades of testing and development, we will most certainly be looking at an age where bionic limbs that are virtually indistiguishable from the real thing exist and are readily available.

And in the meantime, enjoy this news story of Adrianne Haslet-Davis performing her ballroom dance routine at TED. I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring!


Sources: fastcoexist.com, technologyreview.com, blog.ted.com

The Future of Medicine: 3D Printing and Bionic Organs!

biomedicineThere’s just no shortage of breakthroughs in the field of biomedicine these days. Whether it’s 3D bioprinting, bionics, nanotechnology or mind-controlled prosthetics, every passing week seems to bring more in the way of amazing developments. And given the rate of progress, its likely going to be just a few years before mortality itself will be considered a treatable condition.

Consider the most recent breakthrough in 3D printing technology, which comes to us from the J.B Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville where researchers used a printed model of a child’s hear to help a team of doctors prepare for open heart surgery. Thanks to these printer-assisted measures, the doctors were able to save the life of a 14-year old child.

3d_printed_heartPhilip Dydysnki, Chief of Radiology at Kosair Children’s Hospital, decided to approach the school when he and his medical team were looking at ways of treating Roland Lian Cung Bawi, a boy born with four heart defects. Using images taken from a CT scan, researchers from the school’s Rapid Prototyping Center were able to create and print a 3D model of Roland’s heart that was 1.5 times its actual size.

Built in three pieces using a flexible filament, the printing reportedly took around 20 hours and cost US$600. Cardiothoracic surgeon Erle Austin III then used the model to devise a surgical plan, ultimately resulting in the repairing of the heart’s defects in just one operation. As Austin said, “I found the model to be a game changer in planning to do surgery on a complex congenital heart defect.”

Roland has since been released from hospital and is said to be in good health. In the future, this type of rapid prototyping could become a mainstay for medical training and practice surgery, giving surgeons the options of testing out their strategies beforehand. And be sure to check out this video of the procedure from the University of Louisville:


And in another story, improvements made in the field of bionics are making a big difference for people suffering from diabetes. For people living with type 1 diabetes, the constant need to extract blood and monitor it can be quite the hassle. Hence why medical researchers are looking for new and non-invasive ways to monitor and adjust sugar levels.

Solutions range from laser blood-monitors to glucose-sensitive nanodust, but the field of bionics also offer solutions. Consider the bionic pancreas that was recently trialled among 30 adults, and has also been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for three transitional outpatient studies over the next 18 months.

bionic-pancreasThe device comprises a sensor inserted under the skin that relays hormone level data to a monitoring device, which in turn sends the information wirelessly to an app on the user’s smartphone. Based on the data, which is provided every five minutes, the app calculates required dosages of insulin or glucagon and communicates the information to two hormone infusion pumps worn by the patient.

The bionic pancreas has been developed by associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University Dr. Edward Damiano, and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Steven Russell. To date, it has been trialled with diabetic pigs and in three hospital-based feasibility studies amongst adults and adolescents over 24-48 hour periods.

bionic_pancreasThe upcoming studies will allow the device to be tested by participants in real-world scenarios with decreasing amounts of supervision. The first will test the device’s performance for five continuous days involving twenty adults with type 1 diabetes. The results will then be compared to a corresponding five-day period during which time the participants will be at home under their own care and without the device.

A second study will be carried out using 16 boys and 16 girls with type 1 diabetes, testing the device’s performance for six days against a further six days of the participants’ usual care routine. The third and final study will be carried out amongst 50 to 60 further participants with type 1 diabetes who are also medical professionals.

bionic_pancreas_technologyShould the transitional trials be successful, a more developed version of the bionic pancreas, based on results and feedback from the previous trials, will be put through trials in 2015. If all goes well, Prof. Damiano hopes that the bionic pancreas will gain FDA approval and be rolled out by 2017, when his son, who has type 1 diabetes, is expected to start higher education.

With this latest development, we are seeing how smart technology and non-invasive methods are merging to assist people living with chronic health issues. In addition to “smart tattoos” and embedded monitors, it is leading to an age where our health is increasingly in our own hands, and preventative medicine takes precedence over corrective.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Weight-Controlling Implants

genetic_circuitObesity is one of the greatest epidemics effecting children in the developed world, resulting in billions spent annually on fad diets, miracle foods, and exercise programs. But researchers ETH-Zurich have come up with a potential high-tech solution to the problem. It consists of an implant that monitors fat in the blood and, in response to elevated levels, it produces a substance that tells the body that it’s not hungry.

The method relies on a “genetic circuit”, a component that perform logical operations in living cells. Originally developed by Boston University biomedical engineers Ahmad S. Khalil and James J. Collins, the regulatory circuit is put together using mostly biological components. These consisted of several genes that generate particular proteins and reactions. This compound was inserted into tiny capsules.

weight_control_implantThe circuit essentially performs two functions: monitoring the circulating fat levels in the blood, and then, in the event of detecting excess levels, produces a messenger substance that conveys a cognitive response that tells the user they are full and sated. For the sake of the experiment, the mice were continually given high-fat foods. As ETH-Zurich professor Martin Fussenegger explained in a statement:

Instead of placing the mice on a diet to achieve weight loss, we kept giving the animals as much high-calorie food as they could eat.

The implants responded as expected, causing the obese mice to stop their excessive eating, and their bodyweight dropped noticeably as a result. Once their blood-fat levels returned to normal, the implant stopped producing the fullness signal. As for the control group, mice that received normal animal feed with a 5% fat content did not lose any weight or reduce their intake of food.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Interestingly, the sensor can also detect different types of fat, including saturated and unsaturated animal and vegetable fats — even when they’re all ingested at the same time. This allows people to continue to take in the kinds of fats their bodies depend upon – such as Omega fatty acids and unsaturated fats – while limiting their intake of saturated fat, something we as a society get far too much of.

But of course, there are challenges in adapting this technology for human used. The researchers caution that it will take several more years to develop an implant that do the same job for the human body. But given the exponential rate of development with medical and health-monitoring implants, we can expect to be seeing a full range of weight-control or even diet-specific and allergen-detecting implants before long.

genetic_circuit_MITIn addition to weight loss, this and other breakthroughs like it could facilitate the development of artificial cells designed to solve problems in medicine, energy, and the environment. It’s also a major step towards an age where people are able to manipulate their own biochemistry, and the building blocks of nature, at a microscopic level. Another step forward towards the nanotechnological revolution!

Sources: IO9.com, (2)