Monday, September 18, 2006

Device to ease pain of amputees

MSU biologist plans "smart" mechanism to release medicine around prosthetic limb.

Kathleen O'Dell

Hundreds of men and women have returned home from service in the Iraq war with one or more limbs amputated — often the victims of roadside bombs.

Many heal and resume active lives with the help of high-tech prosthetic limbs.

But often the pain and suffering doesn't end there, said Paul Durham, a cell biologist at Missouri State University. Amputees are at a high risk of inflammation and infection around the amputation site, made worse by pressure and abrasion from using a prosthetic arm or leg, he said. Skin tends to rip around the scar tissue.

"A lot of them end up with sore stumps," said Durham, who believes there's a way to relieve their pain.

Durham's dream — and one he hopes to fulfill through MSU's role in the Jordan Valley Innovation Center: Develop a controlled-release mechanism for medicine embedded in the lining material of a prosthetic limb that can help block infection, promote healing and inhibit inflammation for the wearers.

"It's a 'smart' device," Durham said. "Long term, we'll have 'smart bandages' that can sense inflammation and release (healing) chemicals to the actual site."

He will work in the JVIC with partners from Crosslink, a Fenton polymer manufacturer.

"We bring the biology side and they bring the engineering-technical side," Durham said. "We'll tell them how much (medicine) to put in and if it's working and on what organism it's working on.

St. John's surgeons who treat amputees will collaborate by evaluating whether the materials and devices work in real life.

Tom Quesenberry, practice manager of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, looks forward to the smart devices for his clients. But he doubts health-care providers will embrace them unless private and government insurers begin reimbursing for these expensive products.

Ken Rutherford, MSU associate professor of political science, had frequent infections on the leg that was traumatically amputated when his vehicle hit a land mine in Somalia in 1993. The left leg, which had to be surgically amputated later, never got infected.

"I can see where that's extremely advantageous for someone prone to a lot of infections ... with that constant release of medicines into the stump," Rutherford said.

Durham anticipates having a product within two years. After tests on bigger prototypes, it's on to the federal approval process before production for widespread medical use.

"My long-term thinking is it will help the private sector, too," Durham said. "If it works for soldiers, it will help people with diabetes and other diseases."

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