Medical Devices

Person-to-object interface: Next gen bionics for amputees

Most people – and I include myself here – don’t know much about disability. This is very ignorant but isn’t particularly surprising because if you’re lucky enough to be fully able bodied you most likely haven’t had too much contact with it. And what you do ‘know’ is probably based on a couple of harrowing – possibly misleading – scenes from TV, films or the news.

This means the first time I really thought about what amputation might be like was during the Oscar Pistorius trial.

During this, a lot was made of the vulnerability Pistorius felt without his prosthetics and the hideous pain he had in his stumps. And it was the latter that stuck in my mind. Because if prosthetics don’t fit smoothly and stumps become swollen, sore and bleed on a famous athlete, imagine what life must be like for ordinary people, who don’t have access to the latest medical kit.   

Now this is precisely the problem that two Cambridge University PhD students called Emil Hewage and Oliver Armitage have set out to solve. And to achieve this they have developed a prototype that implants into the amputee’s limb and facilitates a better connection with the latest technology.

In fact, this answers a problem with prosthetics that goes deeper than even the Pistorius case showed. Because it is not just that the latest super-duper equipment isn’t available to everyone – but that the connection between artificial limb and the body, for the most part, isn’t good enough to allow for the best movement at all. In reality it is often too poor to allow for the kind of complex movement the latest state of the art limbs could deliver.

I came across Cambridge Bio-Augmentation System (CBAS) at a recent Digital Catapult showcase in London. And as Hewage succinctly put it: “This is a problem for amputees worth solving”.

In practice CBAS’s aim is to replace the cup and socket system that usually connects prosthetics to the body. This socket is customised to the patient – so expensive – but still doesn’t work very well. People experience pain, their limbs lack functionality and it is hard to track gradual everyday wear and tear.

CBAS wants to “standardise the interface” explains Hewage. And using advanced bioengineering and monitoring technologies it aims to create the “USB connector” of prosthetics. This is the next wave of integrated bionics and allows complex interactions between a range of different devices and a number of the body’s organs and systems.

The benefit of this standardisation is clear. There is an immediate decrease in the cost of amputee care. While the uniform interface allows more prosthetic manufacturers to enter the market which provides amputees with a wider choice. It also facilitates remote patient care and telemetry which means clinicians can track what is working and what isn’t more far accurately.  

But there are, of course, big challenges. Bone integrated connections have been available for around 15 years but there has always been problems with infection. CBAS differentiates itself by allowing the skin to integrate with devices in order to reduce infections, however, there are a lot of approvals and compliance hurdles to cover off before this is deemed safe for patients.

Through working closely with various international healthcare providers – including the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) – CBAS is to go into animal trials at the end of the year. And aims to be available through NHS centres of excellence in 2018.   

Yet the potential is so great, it has already gained some recognition. It won the won the Mass Challenge 2015 and was featured on popular Digital Futures program The Trailblazers [YouTube] which has already accrued over 330,000 views since February. 

Normally when people describe humans as just one more port of the Internet of Things it sounds like a bad thing. But this is precisely what this allows. And in the case of amputees, it is clear it could be a very good thing indeed.


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