Open source body parts

Hillary Wicai May 3, 2007

Open source body parts

Hillary Wicai May 3, 2007

Capt. Jon Kuniholm tunes up his arm at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. (Hillary Wicai)


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The term “open source” usually refers to software. It’s what happens when someone develops a piece of software and posts the code on the Web. Others can use it, make it better or change it to suit their needs. Everybody benefits and it’s free. But now the concept is moving beyond software and into hardware, which could have a big impact on injured veterans returning from the war in Iraq. Marketplace’s Hillary Wicai says one veteran is counting on it.

HILLARY WICAI: On New Year’s Day 2005, Marine Captain Jon Kuniholm’s patrol was ambushed in Iraq. An explosion blew off his right arm, just below the elbow.

CAST MAKER OK, now what I’m gonna have you do, Jon, is just bend slightly . . . perfect . . . so I can find the back of your elbow there.

The Advanced Arm Dynamics team at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington makes a plaster cast of Kuniholm’s wounded arm. He’s helping them test a new prosthetic design that allows for maximum wrist mobility. It’s state-of-the-art.

CAST MAKER You have the last working prototype.

JON KUNIHOLM: Excellent. Thanks BJ.

BJ: You’re welcome.

But state of the art in prosthetics just isn’t that cutting edge. His arm may be titanium and carbon fiber, but it’s still based on 1912 engineering.

KUNIHOLM: The real story is not that, you know, we people who are missing or have lost arms are neglected in any way. It’s a reality of the market.

As of last month, 130 soldiers and Marines had lost arms in the war. Kuniholm says even if you add in the 70,000 or so civilians who are missing an arm for other reasons, it’s still not a big enough market to propel innovation.

Fortunately, Kuniholm’s an engineer. So he and his partners launched the Open Prosthetics Project. He explains the idea to another amputee at the hospital.

KUNIHOLM: I mean maybe, maybe you had an idea that you would have mentioned to somebody at a cocktail party and that would have been the beginning and end of it, right? So now we have a place, hopefully, where you can put something on a forum and then somebody else can pick it up and run with it.

And a few are already benefiting. Seventy-two-year-old Edgar Kulcas lost his arm in a farming accident decades ago. He got used to using a device called the Trautman hook. But the manufacturer stopped making it, and for 15 years he’s been trying to get a replacement.

EDGAR KULCAS: Well, you can’t even read the paper with the old one, it’s so wore out. You can’t hold the paper up or nothing.

The patent had expired, so the Open Prosthetics Project got a hold of a Trautman and reverse engineered it. Then they posted the design on their website and had a metal shop create a few models.

But anyone can have the design and have it made anywhere. Now Kulcas has a new Trautman hook.

KULCAS: I’m real happy. Yep.

Kuniholm thinks there are plenty of other designs languishing in labs that could be posted. One dad’s already shared a special fishing rod attachment he made for his son who was born without a hand.

Critics argue there’s no money to be made, but Kuniholm says it’ll be a success if . . .

KUNIHOLM: Nobody ever has another conversation with an amputee where they say, “You know what I really want is X, Y or Z, and I can’t get it.”

In Washington, I’m Hillary Wicai for Marketplace.
At the Tandem Orthotics and Prosthetics office in Sartell, Minn., Edgar Kulcas gets a new “Trautman Hook” after waiting 15 years. (Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio)

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