🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

Prosthetic limbs gain sophistication

Stephen Beard Jul 25, 2011

Prosthetic limbs gain sophistication

Stephen Beard Jul 25, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: A couple of weeks ago, President Obama awarded only the second Medal of Honor to have been earned by a living American soldier from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, in itself, is extraordinary.

What happened next was perhaps even moreso. A simple handshake between the president and Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry — whose right hand had been blown off and replaced by an extraordinary prosthetic device made by a small Scottish company called Touch Bionics.

From the European Desk in London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: Patrick Kane lost his left hand as an infant. So performing this small everyday task is a major achievement.

Patrick Kane: Make a loop in my right hand. Go ’round it. Grab it through there. Undo that. Grab the loop and pull.

Fourteen-year-old Patrick has just tied his shoelace, using his i-limb — the world’s first electrically powered prosthetic hand with fully flexing fingers and a rotatable thumb.

Kane: People really love it at school. And it’s always fascinating people; if I bump into someone on the street or someone I meet, they say: oh, what’s that? And they’re always completely fascinated. People don’t expect it to be this good.

The i-limb was developed here at Touch Bionics, a small medical technology company in Scotland.

Man at factory: Let’s run this hand through a final testing, Lorraine.

Before the i-limb was launched four years ago, the most advanced prosthetic hands were three-fingered claws. The i-limb — says production manager Chuck Orzechowski — has five digits with knuckles and joints, all computerized.

Chuck Orzechowski: In that knuckle block are wire connections and those wires are connected to an onboard computer that rests in the back of the chassis. We also have to attach what’s called a thumb rotator which allows our thumb to swivel much like our own thumb swivels.

The hand is activated by muscle activity in the arm. Users learn how to flex their muscles to send the right signals to the i-limb’s onboard computer. Danny Sullivan of Touch Bionics says the key to the hand’s dexterity — as with the human hand — is the flexibility of the fingers and the opposable thumb.

Danny Sullivan: In this orientation, the thumb is able to grasp a plate or to pass a business card or to grasp a key to turn in a lock. We have users who are confident to pick up an egg with a hand like this.

The hand is expensive: $50,000. That might explain why they sell only 500 a year. But the company believes the potential market could be 25,000 a year. It’s just a matter of getting the message across. Last week’s bionic handshake in the White House might help.

Handshake seen beginning at 19:19

Sullivan: A very iconic moment we thought when we saw the cover of the Wall Street Journal with the hand of President Obama reaching out to grasp an i-limb hand. And certainly one I think brought it home to us how far this technology has come from the research stages to being out there in the world.

The i-limb comes with a very life-like simulated skin covering, but the soldier at that ceremony — and many other younger users — don’t wear it. They are happy to show off the bionic hand in all its metallic glory, proud of its futuristic appearance.

At Touch Bionics in Livingstone, Scotland, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.