A Bright Future: Advancements in Prosthetics

It isn’t surprising that a retired Army Sergeant lives an active lifestyle that involves golfing, sailing, flying, snow skiing, skydiving and kayaking. Except in this case, retired Army Sergeant Bill Dunham accomplishes all this and more after having his right leg amputated above the knee.

Dunham was severely wounded while trying to secure an airfield in the mission to apprehend Manuel Noriega in 1989 and underwent 21 surgeries over several years before he lost the limb. However, he has been able to maintain his active lifestyle thanks to advanced computerized prosthetic technology.

Since learning to walk again, he is able to continue a full range of outdoor activities with the same spirit that inspired him as a member of the elite U.S. Army Special Operations Command. Today, as an Area Clinic Manager for and patient of Hanger Clinic, Bill works closely with prosthetic designers to test and develop advanced and better functioning prosthetic devices.

Bill’s story is just one in a broad spectrum of experiences among prosthetic device users. Some are trauma survivors who are facing profound loss unexpectedly; others have lost limbs after long-term illnesses like diabetes. Whatever their circumstances, they’re seeking the device that suits them best, and the industry is constantly evolving to meet their diverse needs.

What’s New is Old

Though the field is rapidly changing, prosthetic technology isn’t new. In fact, it originated around 950 B.C. with a prosthetic toe designed in ancient Egypt.

The modern prosthetic industry began after the American Civil War, when Confederate soldier James Hanger (The Hanger Clinic’s namesake) invented the “Hanger Limb,” the first prosthesis to feature a hinged knee for better mobility.

As the devices evolved to become increasingly fine-tuned, they have been transformed from heavy wooden objects to remarkably lightweight, skillfully engineered tools that can return the user’s ability to live and work as usual. This provides a positive ripple effect on individual mental health, relationships, and larger communities.

Increasing Technology and Accessibility

As with many new technologies, however, advanced prosthetic engineering can be expensive. But modern technology is beginning to fill the gap between what’s needed and what’s available, at lower costs than ever before. Kevin Carroll, Hanger’s Vice President of Prosthetics, notes that “We now have smarter plastics that are very durable, stronger, and lighter than they’ve ever been.” That durability can reduce the need for replacement, cutting the lifetime cost for the user.

One of these smarter materials is DuPont™ Hytrel® thermoplastic elastomer, a super-light, ultra-durable polymer that’s designed to last for years without showing wear. But for all of its advantages, the most important may be its price: a prosthetic foot made from Hytrel® retails for just $100. “Our customers have been and will continue to be our inspiration to push the limits of science and engineering to develop innovations that improve their lives,” says Vicky Brady, Global Technology Director, DuPont Performance Materials.

Technology is also making prosthetics more comfortable, improving the length of time they can be worn. Carroll praises new materials that prevent the chafing, discomfort and skin irritations that have been commonplace for so long. WintersGel liners, made from silicone and named for a dolphin fitted with a prosthetic tail, “offers a gentle adhesion that is skin friendly and cushioning. These special features are especially beneficial for those with delicate skin, scar tissue or other residual limb concerns,” says Carroll.

Even greater advancements are on the horizon. Using a procedure called osseointegration, researchers at Johns Hopkins can now attach a prosthetic implant to the user’s bone, where it eventually fuses and becomes integrated into the anatomy. This totally eliminates the need for sockets, which, if are not optimally fit, can chafe, or leave sores and blisters.

In an even greater technological leap, a team at Hopkins has also developed a prosthetic arm that’s actually controlled by the user’s brain. Using a surgical “remapping” of nerves, this device is the first with fingers that can move individually.

Though it will be some time before the technology developed at Johns Hopkins is ready for real-world applications, other new technologies like these are creating a bright future for prosthesis users all over the world.