Scientists have developed another remarkable innovation that’s helping amputees gain a new lease on life. Once again, researchers have developed technology that closely imitates advances once only dreamed about in science fiction.
Named after the prosthetic arm used by Luke Skywalker in the famous Star Wars franchise, Luke the bionic arm offers promising possibilities for patients.
Luke even enables amputees to feel and touch objects and surfaces. The prosthetic innovation is changing the lives of patients.
Biotech in the United States
The loss of a limb presents many emotional and physical challenges for amputees. It’s a widely held belief that most amputees are former enlisted personnel. However, statistics tell a different story.
Between 2001 and 2015, nearly 1,700 veterans lost a limb. In the United States, however, there are close to 2 million amputees altogether.
Patients lose limbs for several reasons, including amputation (50%) and diabetic foot ulcers (85%). Also, studies reveal that African-American patients are four times more likely to undergo amputation related to diabetes compared to Caucasian Americans.
Before the introduction of Luke the bionic arm, researchers developed prosthetic arms and hands that patients control with electrical signals generated by movement. The precision of these devices is reliant on the placement of sensors. Scientists have also developed prosthetic joints powered by pressurized gas or air to improve knee and ankle movement.
However, these systems fail to prove practical for accurate mobility. Luke, however, promises to improve the quality of life for amputees.
The Cutting-Edge in Biotechnology
Researchers at the University of Utah engineered Luke the bionic arm. The prosthetic simulates the sensation of touch for amputees.
Previously, the sense of touch has been a critical missing component of prosthetic devices. Luke enables amputees to communicate with their prosthetic fingers. Patients can also feel objects using the device.
Without a sense of touch, amputees could easily crush an object when trying to pick something up – especially if the patients used devices with hooks or claws. Luke, however, sends signals to the brain that mimic the way humans feel and sense objects.
The technology used to create Luke has enabled researchers to simulate biologically realistic impulses. It’s revolutionized the way that amputees control prosthetic devices.
Now, amputees can control biomechanical devices in the same way that they manage their natural body parts. Patients who thought they’d never feel again can now experience the sensation of touching objects.
Luke the bionic arm enables amputees to handle sensitive objects, such as eggs, without breaking them. The prosthetic even enables patients to enjoy once again the feeling of touching another person.
For amputees who have grown accustomed to missing a limb and experiencing ghost pains, the experience is understandably overwhelming.
Biotechnology for Veterans
The National Institutes of Health has committed nearly 10 billion in research and development funds to biotechnology since the early 90’s. Also, other federal agencies have committed over $100 million to biotechnology R&D, and in the private sector, pharmaceutical companies have committed $114 billion to biotechnology research.
Despite these massive investments, the biotechnology industry has yet to generate a sustainable profit, according to an Ernst & Young report. Nevertheless, the work is essential. Quality of life for amputees is priceless. Resultantly, universities and venture capitalists continue to invest in the field.
Meanwhile, patients – including veterans – must navigate an increasingly complex healthcare environment to figure out how to access services. For instance, the last United States census counts nearly 20 million veterans. Among them, over half a million veterans do not have health insurance.
VA Healthcare enables veterans to access care and receive treatment for debilitating injuries. Even if veterans manage to secure healthcare, they may have questions about existing or additional coverage.
To find out more about veteran’s healthcare, former enlisted personnel can search online. For instance, MyHealthVet enables veterans to find information and perform important health-related tasks, such as ordering prescriptions. Also, the inTransition website links veterans with coaches to help former active military personnel transition to civilian life.
Looking Beyond Luke
Next, researchers hope to develop a portable arm that amputees can use without connecting it to a computer. This capability will give patients who’ve lost limbs wireless mobility.
Also, scientists want to extend their studies to developing and testing prosthetics for patients with above-elbow amputations. So far, researchers haven’t crossed that threshold.
Scientists hope to develop a mobile bionic arm by 2020 or 2021. However, this realization – in part – depends on FDA approval.
Nevertheless, Luke the bionic arm gives hope to many amputees around the world who have lost a limb. Hopefully, patients will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of Luke outside of a lab.