Build a Better Body Part

E-mail Melanie Martella

Pretty much as long as humans have existed, we've had accidents. And some of those accidents have resulted in losing a finger, a toe, or an entire limb—if any part of the body is loppable, at some point it's been lopped, whether by design or through sheer bad luck. Luckily for us we're getting better and better at creating functional replacements.

Goodbye Peg-Leg Pete, Hello Steve Austin
Popular Mechanics, for its November 2007 issue, published a list of this year's Breakthrough Award winners, those products that serve as engineering benchmarks—different, ground-breaking, and above all, useful.

In 2005, one of the innovators recognized was Hugh Herr of MIT's Media Lab Biomechatronics group. An amputee himself, he has pioneered better prosthetics, including the Rheo Knee, now offered through Ossur. Central to these devices is the successful marriage of electronics, mechanics, and biology to create an intelligent, artificial limb that replicates many of the functions of the original-issue human one. Prosthetics that can adapt to their wearer's gait and to changes in terrain enable their wearer to walk more securely and smoothly.

This year, one of the award winners is the Proto 2 prosthetic arm developed by the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 team, an international collaboration led by Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab. Popular Mechanics produced a short video talking about the project. Go watch it, I'll wait. Isn't that a truly remarkable piece of engineering?

On a related topic, Lakshminarayan "Ram" Srinivasan is leading a team of MIT researchers in developing a new algorithm to help create prosthetic devices that can convert signals from the brain into action.

We've come an awfully long way from the fake toe found on a 2000-yr. old Egyptian mummy. The Six Million Dollar Man no longer seems quite so far-fetched. But none of these amazing projects are possible without interdisciplinary cooperation, improved materials, smaller and more powerful electronics, and far more capable software. And the ongoing challenge is not just the creation of these devices but making sure that they're available and affordable to those who need them.

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