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Doctors working to create ‘smart limbs' for soldiers

By Ed Yeates | Posted - Aug 18th, 2010 @ 10:20pm


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SALT LAKE CITY -- 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.


It's estimated that upward of 70 percent of patients with artificial arms will discard their prostheses because of pain, infection or both. -Roy D. Bloebaum, Ph.D., VA Salt Lake City

In Europe, volunteers are already trying out new implants that offer amputees -- even without much of stump left -- a chance to move about again. But infection where skin and tissue join these connections remains a major problem.

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

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.

The need for a new prosthetic implant
The body armor that protects a soldier's torso from bomb and missile blasts has, along with advanced battlefield medicine, decreased mortality from injuries. But body armor does not protect arms and legs, leaving soldiers exposed to severe limb injuries that often require amputation.
These types of amputations often leave a short stump where the arm or leg was taken off, making it difficult, if not impossible, to fit a conventional prosthesis that is comfortable and functional. In these cases, the artificial limb also often causes skin to break down and becomes infected at the attachment site.
Scientists from the University of Utah Department of Orthopaedics and Worcester Polytechnic Institute will design an "intelligent" prosthetic implant that will make artificial limbs comfortable to wear and infection-free by attaching internally to the skeleton and employing a skin seal to prevent bacteria from entering the attachment site. -University of Utah

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.

E-mail: eyeates@ksl.com

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