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Prosthetics Changing Lives And Maybe The Future

September 29, 2008

Is it possible to become one of the fastest runners in the world when you are a double leg amputee?

This is one of the goals that inspires Ossur, an Icelandic group that was responsible for the prosthetics allowing double-amputee Oscar Pistorius to try to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

“What we should do is compared to the real body,” said Ossur’s Chief Executive Jon Sigurdsson. “And then we see that there is a long way to go. It is a very humbling experience to try to imitate God.”

In addition to creating artificial limbs that aide disabled people, Ossur is looking forward to the day when robotics and neuroscience are as common as prosthetics are now.

Head of technology for Ossur, Hilmar Janusson, imagines a future where prostheses are controlled by nerves instead of by systems like a computer keyboard.

In order to accomplish this, a greater understanding of the signals traveling across our nervous system is needed. “As soon as we start to understand, and basically de-code it into something, then things will happen very, very quickly,” Janusson said.

The South African runner, Pistorius, was nicknamed the “Blade Runner” due to the carbon-fiber blades on which he runs. He won three gold medals in the Paralympics, after not making the qualifying time for the Beijing Olympics.

The Cheetah Flex-Foot product he uses has initiated a debate about what makes up an unjust edge in sports.

Janusson said even though the Flex-Foot doesn’t look like human anatomy, from a biomechanical viewpoint they are alike. The big difference is that human feet are more competent.

“We now know that the whole body is a spring that is loaded and you don’t waste a joule of energy,” he said.

Ossur was not the company that initially invented the Flex-Foot. An American man named Van Phillips, himself an amputee, created the product. Ossur purchased his company in 2000 and since then has modified it.

Janusson said extraordinary advancement has been made in helping someone who has lost a limb lead a more normal life.

“For below-knee, we’re probably replacing up to 50-60 percent,” he said. “We’re pretty good below-knee. And there is no reason for below-knee amputees not to participate fully. Above-knee, we’re down to 20-30 percent.”

Arms are more difficult. “Maybe 3-4 percent,” he said.

The biggest advance may not be too far away, says Yoky Matsuoka, a specialist in robotics and neuroscience, who is trying to control arms and hands with only nerve signals.

“I think we are already witnessing the beginning of the big step,” Matsuoka said. “Of course, a complete decoding and perfectly natural control may not happen in our lifetime.”

Matsuoka anticipates that scientists will get to the point in the future when a person could control an object simply by using their mind. “Spinning a pen or crumpling a paper at human speed may be a bit harder. Having enough sensory feedback to replace a surgeon’s hand may take even longer,” she stated.

Ossur has spawned major investor curiosity in its field, as well as in its more obscure ideas.

“The only problem is it’s the only listed company in its field,” said Haraldur Yngvi Petersson, analyst for the Icelandic bank Kaupthing.

However, Petersson is keen on products such as the Rheo knee and Proprio foot which, helped by computer technology, can become accustomed to the way a person moves.

“I would say that we are just now starting to see real revenue potential,” Petersson said.

Janusson is also eager to discuss simpler issues. He thinks about day when people can acquire prostheses at very little cost.

He thinks that prostheses in the future could be used to aide a larger portion of the population. Helping the elderly to continue staying active, for example, could even extend life itself.

“Everyone in the profession would agree with me, that the level of activity makes a difference in how long you live,” Janusson said.

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