Building Smarter Limbs

Friday, August 20, 2010 - 10:39am

The Department of Defense is funding research into better bionic replacement limbs for wounded soldiers.

The Department of Defense is funding major research to develop new artificial limbs for soldiers and to find better ways to combat infection.

Record numbers of veterans are returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan missing arms, legs, hands and feet.

That's because compared to previous wars, today's returning soldiers need more prosthetic limbs because more are surviving the battlefield.

In Europe, volunteers are already trying out new implants that offer amputees a chance to move about again.

Still, infection where skin and tissue join these connections remains a major problem.

"If we as researchers can overcome the infection problem, then that's the Holy Grail," says Dr. Peter Beck of University of Utah Orthopedics.

Like many other veterans, Chris Hegy works through the challenges, the pain, some of the discomforts he's having with his prosthetic limb.

"I can only wear it two to three hours a day because of nerve sensitivity," he says.

The University of Utah, The Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health System and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts will collaborate on a $3 million project to design comfortable implant stems, infection-free skin seals and therapies to attack infection other than antibiotics.

Beck's group will look at natural viruses that kill bacteria without harming the good guys.

These phages, as they're called, could be applied in a number of ways.

"They can apply it topically," Beck says. "They can use it in open wounds. You can take it by mouth."

Phage therapy has been used in Europe for decades.

They go into wounds and clean out the bacteria. In laboratory dishes, clear circled areas can be seen where the phages had completely cleaned out the villains.

"We're surrounded by phages. Phages are the most ubiquitous life form on Earth," Beck said. "We're talking about 10 to the 31 phages on the planet. If you took the phages and stacked them end on end they could go out 60 million light years into space."

Beck's group will harness specific phages that attack specific pathogens.

Unlike potent antibiotics, these attackers do the job with few if any side effects.

Solving the infection issue could pave the way for a whole new generation of bionic prosthetic limbs.

New artificial hands, feet, legs and arms will interface with muscles and nerves to look and move just like the real McCoy.

For veterans like Chris Hegy, the dream, though still down the road, may now be within reach.

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