Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Prosthetic technology advances to meet wounded troops' needs

Amputees - The new devices eventually will serve a much larger civilian demand
Monday, July 16, 2007
DAVID DISHNEAU The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- With time and determination, Minnesota National Guard Sgt. Darrell "J.R." Salzman has learned to tie trout flies with his mangled left hand and the shiny metal hook that serves as his right.
But he lacks patience for another prosthetic device -- the Utah Arm -- that the Army gave him after he lost his right limb below the elbow to an enemy bomb in Iraq in December.
The myoelectric Utah Arm, made by Motion Control Inc. of Salt Lake City, has circuitry that reads muscle twitches as electric signals to open and close a hook or hand attachment. But its response time, even at less than a second, is so slow that Salzman prefers an old-fashioned, "body-powered" prosthesis, controlled by a cable and rubber bands.
"I don't like having to wait if I want to grab something," said the 27-year-old from Menomonie, Wis.
The Defense Department has contracted researchers and prosthetics manufacturers to build a thought-controlled arm at a cost of about $30 million.
Dozens of companies have received grants to invent and improve prostheses that will be used first by wounded troops and eventually by civilians.
Because today's approximately 600 war amputees account for a tiny fraction of the 1.9 million Americans living with limb loss, leaders of the nation's $900 million prosthetics industry say the government's investment will be seen less on balance sheets than in the sophistication of new prostheses.
"That is, in my mind, almost like what the space program did," said Thomas Kirk, president of Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., the nation's largest provider of prosthetic services.
The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are buying more prosthetic products and services. For example, the VA said it spent $1.1 million last year on prosthetic devices and services, compared with about $529,000 in 2000.
Wounded soldiers historically have pushed the boundaries of prosthetic technology by demanding more functional, durable, comfortable devices. These days, the military aims to restore functionality to the point that some have returned to battle.
Hanger, with nearly a quarter of the nation's 2,700 prosthetic and orthotic patient care centers, had 2006 sales of $599 million. Its share price hit a nearly three-year high of $12.40 in April. In May, it said sales at patient care centers open more than a year grew at an annual rate of more than 2.5 percent.
The company was founded in 1861 by a Civil War amputee, James Hanger of Virginia, who fashioned an improved artificial leg out of whittled barrel staves, rubber, wood, and metal components and started selling them to other Confederate veterans.
Germany's Otto Bock HealthCare, the world's biggest manufacturer of prostheses, also has wartime roots. It produced devices for World War I veterans. The private firm now has annual sales of about $500 million.
Bock's C-Leg, a microprocessor-controlled knee joint introduced in the late 1990s, is the standard prosthesis issued to U.S. fighters who have lost a leg above the knee, according to the American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association. It costs $30,000 to $40,000 delivered and fitted by a certified prosthetist and equipped with a socket, liner and foot.
Otto Bock is also the commercial partner in the $30 million project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to develop a thought-controlled arm by 2009.

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