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Defense Agency Makes Big Advances in Prosthetics Research

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2008 – A Defense Department program is tapping into the realm of science fiction to develop life-like, functional prosthetic devices for wounded combat troops so they can go on to live normal lives.

Army Col. Geoff Ling, manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics programs, said the agency is making tremendous headway in advancing technology considered unimaginable just a few years ago.

DARPA’s initial prosthetics program, Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2007, “has done remarkably well” and is generating excitement among other federal agency heads that could someday lead to full-scale production, Ling said.

Researchers at DEKA Research and Development Corp. in Manchester, N.H., have developed what Ling calls a “strap-and-go-arm” that users activate with the flick of a switch.

“All you have to do is strap it on, and you’re ready to go,” he said. “It requires no surgery or any of that stuff. All you do is literally wake up in the morning and put it on like you could a jacket, and you just go.”

Three volunteers in the test program reported strong acceptance for the device that comes in three models: one for amputees who have lost a complete arm and others for those with amputations above and below the elbow.

“These arms are working just beyond anyone’s wildest imagination,” Ling said, barely able to contain his enthusiasm.

Embedded electronics enable users to activate a switch, either with a foot or their chin, to activate it. By flicking the switch, they can cycle through five different gripping actions to match the task at hand, whether it’s using a pen, picking up a key, lifting a coffee cup or using a power drill.

“It’s very easy to master,” Ling said. “Guys who have it will tell you they can master the use of the arm in an hour or two.”

All were able to “perform remarkably” with the device, he said. One tester who lost his arm at the shoulder was able to field strip and reassemble an M-16 rifle using the prosthesis. An above-the-elbow amputee was able to grab a root beer bottle off a shelf, open it with a bottle opener and drink it. Another, who lost both hands in combat, reported he now feels able to take on a civilian job.

“When you watch it, you realize that what we have provided is not so much an arm, but really a functionality and a return to life,” Ling said. “This is exactly what we had hoped for. It’s tremendously gratifying.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration have all shown interest in the program and are expected to join forces with the Defense Department in the months ahead to move it forward. “This is the government coming together, making things right for the right people,” Ling said.

Getting a governmental agreement in place will be a big step forward to getting the devices mass-produced so they’re available for wounded troops, veterans and ultimately, anyone else who might need them, he said.

As this effort advances, DARPA is pushing forward its even more ambitious Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 program that will enable a user to control the prosthesis through thought. The limb, as envisioned, would enable users to move as they normally do, without having to think about the actual process to make it happen.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are exploring this technology, and Ling said he hopes to see a contract moving the project into its second phase finalized in the coming months.

The device connects directly into the peripheral and central nervous system so users can operate it naturally, just as they move their biological arm. “It will look as natural and smooth as you possibly can imagine, because it will be controlled directly by your nervous system,” Ling said. “When you think about moving your arm to reach out and grab a coffee cup, that’s exactly what you will do.”

The prosthetic will provide capabilities even beyond what the DEKA prosthesis delivers, even enabling people to play the piano, he said. “I don’t necessarily expect users to play at the level of Tchaikovsky, but it will be a clear improvement, even over the DEKA arm,” he said. “And the DEKA arm is clearly a dramatic improvement over what’s available today.

“DARPA is pushing the future,” he said.

DARPA’s prosthetics programs represents the largest pool of funding for prosthetics in at least a decade in a field that advanced at a snail’s pace for centuries. “If you look at the history of prosthetics, especially in the upper arm, it’s been incredibly slow,” Ling said.

The metal hook, introduced in the 1600s, didn’t get its first major upgrade until the 1900s, when new technology enabled the hook to open and close, he said. “Today, you can go to the finest hospitals in the land, and what they will give you is a rubber arm with a hook at the end that opens and closes,” he said.

Ling said the technology being developed through DARPA will have a broad impact, improving the lives of wounded warriors and all other amputees as well.

“Amputees everywhere in the country and possibly the world are going to benefit from this,” he said. “This is not a secret government program. We have been as transparent as you can possibly be. We plan on sharing this with the world. Out of the tragedy of war comes an opportunity for a lot of people.”

Ling said it’s exciting to be a part of developing such cutting-edge technology.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to see. It will blow your socks off,” he said. “We are really shooting for the stars, and actually achieving it is amazing.”

Adding to that excitement, he said, is knowing that the effort is helping wounded warfighters return to a normal life.

“I don’t think any of us could have a better way of spending our time than being able to provide care and comfort to the most deserving Americans anyone could find,” he said. “For me, it’s a tremendous honor.”

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