BYU students create prosthetic socket to aid amputees in Africa

(Nate Edwards, Brigham Young University)

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SALT LAKE CITY — For eleven bloody years, rebels in Sierra Leone cut off the limbs of more than 27,000 people during a gruesome civil war that ravaged the African country.

Fifteen years later, Sierra Leone is still experiencing the consequences of that war, which has left thousands of victims permanently disabled. Many of the amputees struggle to survive, finding it difficult to complete even the most basic tasks and provide for their families.

While most medical amputations are designed to aid in recovery, civil war rebels weren’t as deliberate in their methods and generally left their victims’ limbs in a state that now makes it difficult to fit prosthetics.

Thanks to a team of six BYU engineering students, however, that might change.

Led by BYU student Sean Larson, this group of students has partnered with the nonprofit Engage Now Africa to design sockets for above-knee amputees that work with prosthetics provided by the International Red Cross.

While there are clinics that serve these amputees within Sierra Leone, those organizations generally face two main challenges.

“They make the sockets there in the clinic and they make them kind of similar to how we make them in the U.S., but they’re too expensive for the amputees there,” said Dr. Mark Colton, a professor at BYU and the students’ faculty advisor. “And let’s say their remnant limb changes shape and size — which it does as it atrophies and even during the course of the day — that means they have to go back to the clinic and pay more to get a new socket, which is very expensive.”

To combat these challenges, the students set out to create a device that was both affordable and adjustable. They worked with the head of a clinic in Sierra Leone, Musa Monsaray, to discover the types of materials, tools and skill sets readily available so the device could also be produced for little cost on-site.

“We were able to use some common materials they could find, such as polypropylene, aluminum pieces of metal and standard hardware, like bolts and nuts,” said BYU student Sean Larson. “We used stuff they could probably get at some local hardware store.”

The end product can be produced for $40 using materials found in Sierra Leone and is adjustable to the need of the amputee, who often faces issues of muscle atrophy as well as swelling of the limb after extensive activity.

The BYU students worked with local amputee Jarem Frye, who built his own replacement leg after surviving bone cancer and Frye gave the students the feedback they needed to better their design to create an affordable device that would work with more misshapen limbs.

“We decided to make a stretch system of polypropylene instead of using a whole sheet of polypropylene,” Larson said. “So we take strips and they attach to an aluminum-based plate and … (we) mold it and we put straps on the mold of the limb and custom mold it to the limbs’ surfaces … (and) it can be tighter or looser.”

The students now hope to take the device to Sierra Leone where they plan on working with local doctors and amputees to further develop the socket. And though they plan on starting there, Larson says they also hope their creation will help others across the world in diverse developing nations.

“The students found the most cost-effective, most durable and best-fitting outcome,” said Lynette Gay, chairman of the board and president of Engage Now Africa in a news release. “There is no reason why this couldn’t be extremely successful.”

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