Innovations in Health Care: Myoelectric Prosthetics

One of the most innovative, impactful and lucrative technologies identified by Frost & Sullivan in 2018 is myoelectric prosthetics—artificial limbs that are powered externally but are controlled by the body’s natural neuromuscular network. Read more about the latest developments.

Every year, Frost & Sullivan identifies 50 of the most innovative, impactful and lucrative technologies under its flagship Top Technologies program. One of the technologies identified this year is myoelectric prosthetics—artificial limbs that are powered externally but are controlled by the body’s natural neuromuscular network. Even after an amputation, electrical signals generated by the user’s muscles can still exert control over residual limbs. Before exploring recent innovations in this area, though, it would be worthwhile to review the evolution of the technology and the changing industry needs and trends.

The use of prosthetic devices has been documented since the Egyptian civilization. However, the need for mass manufacturing of prosthetic limbs spiked in the first half of the 20th century as military veterans returned from wars—particularly World War II—as amputees. It was no longer sufficient for peg legs to be fitted over stumps or for hooks to replace hands, as had been the case in centuries past. Rather, there was a demand for some functional restoration and, just as important, visual similarity.

The advent of acrylic plastics as the material of choice for prosthetic legs and the Jaipur Foot in the 1960s and ’70s revolutionized the industry. The main mandates for below-the-knee and upper-extremity prosthetic devices were light weight, durability and low cost. The Jaipur Foot, in particular, has enormously benefited land mine victims in civil war-ravaged countries and accident victims. Over the next two decades, the development of lightweight metals and composites made high-strength limbs possible. It was around this time that Van Philips, a biomedical engineer at the University of Utah and a below-the-knee amputee, developed a prosthetic foot shaped in the form of blades. Made famous by the now-infamous South African Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, this blade design (officially referred to as Flex-Foot Cheetah) and similar metallic limbs changed the expectations from prosthetics. Similarity to the shape and appearance of the original limb was no longer the predominant design requirement: functionality was.

From the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Defense funded several projects to develop powered, controllable and functional limbs, primarily to serve the hundreds of veterans returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as amputees. In just a few decades, the goal shifted from passive prostheses to nimble and functional limbs, and then again to fully integrated and body-controlled artificial limbs. A snapshot of some of the recent innovations in this space is provided below.

Ottobock (Duderstadt, Germany)

Ottobock is a leading prosthetics and orthotics designer, and is responsible for several game-changing innovations in this space. The company’s portfolio of myoelectric limbs includes BeBionic Hand and Michelangelo Hand. BeBionic is a functional robotic hand that mimics the human hand. The fingers are fitted with sensors to be more aware of surroundings, and with motors to be more nimble in performing everyday tasks such as tying shoelaces, carrying bags and opening doors. The Michelangelo Hand is a battery-powered limb that was developed in partnership with California-based Advanced Arm Dynamics. The prosthetic hand is lined with electrodes that detect residual myoelectric signals and convert them into hand movements. Both BeBionic and Michelangelo are cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for upper-extremity amputees.

Ossur (Reykjavik, Iceland)

Ossur designs and manufactures noninvasive orthopedic equipment, including braces and prosthetics. Ossur has a number of motorized, lower-extremity prosthetic devices, including Propio Foot, the aforementioned Flex-Foot Cheetah, and Rheo Knee. Propio is a powered foot prosthetic that guides the user through the appropriate ankle movement to prevent tripping, reduce the impact on the lower back and the spine, and maintain a healthy gait.

In 2016, Ossur acquired U.K.-based Touch Bionics, a pioneer in robotic and smart prosthetics. Today, Touch Bionics’ i-Limb and i-Digits form a part of Ossur’s portfolio. These products have built-in Bluetooth chips that connect to a mobile app, giving the prosthetic device access to preprogrammed grips and further customization to enable a host of activities.

Open Bionics (Bristol, England)

Open Bionics’ Hero Arm is a customized, robotic, multigrip prosthetic arm that is touted as the most affordable artificial limb available. The design thrust is as much on customizing it for the user as it is on effecting robotic grip. Using 3-D scanning, the company first identifies the design requirement and the fit for the user. The model is then 3-D printed, which is unique in the market. Despite being marketed as “three times more affordable than other prosthetics,” Hero does not compromise on the multigrip feature of the degrees of flexion and bending. Since it is not an off-the-shelf product, it can be customized to fit a variety of age groups and body sizes. In fact, is the only such product available for children as young as 8. Hero has received regulatory clearance from the FDA and has CE Mark approval in Europe.

The Road Ahead

Ottobock is among several companies developing realistic, human skin-like silicone materials as an outer covering for prosthetic limbs. Researchers are continuing to explore ways to allow prosthetics to be completely controlled through brainwaves. The ultimate aim is to combine aesthetics with functionality.

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