Many of those involved in the bionics industry say that, impressive as the current breakthroughs are, much remains to be achieved and some of that will rely on the development of new technologies and new materials in the next few years.
Ted Varley, of Steeper, said: “It’s all about faster, lighter and more flexibility. Technology is developing all the time, including the creation of smaller motors which means that we can use two in the same prosthetic, increasing the power to do things.
“We are also looking at prosthetics hands where the wrist can rotate. The technology does exist to do that but it is not available to everybody. Everything we are doing is about making prosthetics as lifelike as possible.”
Lifelike is the key word and, according to Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, the man leading another pioneering bionics project, the biggest hurdle to success still remains the replication of the body’s natural functions. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, his team from the universities of Newcastle, Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Imperial College London, aim to develop electronic devices that connect to the forearm’s neural networks. That would allow two-way communications with the brain, giving amputees a limb that more closely mirrors the real thing. Dr Nazarpour, who is part of Newcastle University’s Biomedical Engineering team, and who used to work for Touch Bionics, said: “Bionics is making rapid advances and the devices being brought forward are very impressive but the basic problem remains that we are a long way off a bionic hand that can communicate directly with the brain.
“The UK leads the way in the design of prosthetic limbs but the inability to develop technology that allows the hand to communicate with the brain remains the main limiting factor.
“If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.
“At the moment, intelligent prosthetic hands can respond to sudden mechanical stimuli, eg they can re-grip. However, what we do not have are hands that relay this feeling to the brain so that the brain instinctively knows that the hand is doing.
“With our own hands we know that they are there without having to look at them or making a conscious decision every time we want to do something.
“That is because the hand is connected directly to the brain through nerves. What we are looking to do now is develop and use a sensor placed in the nerves in the remaining part of the arm to enable the prosthesis to talk and to listen to the brain so that it functions more naturally.”
What the team has already done is produce an early version of something reminiscent, they say, of Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand in Star Wars, based on the idea that electrodes in the bionic limb can wrap around the nerve endings in the arm. This would mean that for the first time the hand could communicate directly with the brain. Dr Nazarpour said: “What we are seeking to do is fill in the gap between the prosthetic hand and the brain. To work, it requires sensors small enough to attach to the tip of the fingers to sense the world. We also need sub-milimeter electrodes to go into the foream nerves without triggering body’s immune system reaction. We know that pacemakers and cochlear implants work so the concept is sound.
“We do not want something that will be rejected after a period of time by the body. The last thing we want is patients having to go through a series of operations to keep having it replaced.
“To take the next step, we need new materials to be developed and we hope that will happen in the next two to three years.
“What we are looking at will advance the field of prosthetics, provide enhanced function to prosthesis users and reduce the time involved to learn how to use the device because the movements will come naturally.
“We are 10-15 years away from these developments but we are already pushing the boundaries of the science.”
Dr Nazarpour believes that the technology does not need to stop at hands. Indeed, only 38 per cent of amputations in the UK annually are hands. He said: “Because the basic theory is very similar we think it can work on people who have had legs amputated, that we can use the sensors to communicate with the brain to produce prosthetic limbs that respond more naturally.
“The technology will also have applications for patients with neurological conditions where reduced sensation is a factor.
“The sensors could also be used to help damaged livers regenerate or for someone with obesity by telling the stomach when it has had enough, eradicating the need for gastric surgery, or to help treat depression.
“Not all conditions would respond to this technology but many would and these applications could reduce the need for drugs. Instead of a person taking pills every day they could have a sensor fitted.
“Some of the world’s major pharmaceutical companies are already investing significant amounts of money in researching the technology.”
However long it takes, the fact remains that bionics is changing more and more lives. Ted Varley, at Steeper, said: “This is an exciting field to work in. As a child I always wanted to work in the automotive industry and I went on to work for the likes of McLaren and Landrover but I would not go back to them now.
“If you design cars or televisions or mobile phones, each new one is pretty similar to the last one but every iteration we come up in prosthetics is pushing the boundaries.
“A new phone or television set will not change lives but our prosthetics are transforming lives and that is truly phenomenal.”