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Bionic technology gives amputees more natural control over hand, arm

By MICHAEL COUSINEAU
New Hampshire Union Leader

February 22. 2018 10:00PM
Double amputee Ron Currier of Strafford hugs Pam Greenley during a demonstration of the Luke arm at Fratello's in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)



Double amputee Chuck Hildreth of Gilford demonstrates his Luke arm by picking up and eating a grape during Thursday’s presentation. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER

Ron Currier emerged on stage Thursday to shake hands, rotate his wrists and share his bucket list.

The Strafford resident — who lost both lower arms 43 years ago in an electrical accident while in the Air Force in Georgia — debuted as the first amputee fitted with two technologically advanced Luke prosthetic arms.

“This is the closest thing that I have had to a real hand in 43 years — and that’s no hype,” Currier said at a demonstration of the arm at Fratello’s Italian Grille restaurant.

“These are going to give me back my independence,” said Currier, who previously used prosthetic arms with hooks.

Helped by $40 million in Defense Department funding, Manchester inventor Dean Kamen and more than 100 others helped develop the high-tech limbs aimed at giving back many functions, such as shaking hands.

“It truly was a village of people that came together to make this happen,” said Matt Albuquerque, president and founder of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics in Manchester.

Once Currier perfects the use of his LUKE arms, he is planning two trips to celebrate. “One of them is going to be jumping out a perfectly good airplane,” he said, and the other is ice climbing at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway.

So far, five people are wearing the technology; Albuquerque sees it expanding to help those who have lost feet or portions of their legs.

“I think this is just the beginning of opening up a whole new world for people that have had amputations,” Albuquerque said.

The two Luke arms for Currier will cost the Veterans Administration about $300,000.

The technology on display Thursday occasionally faltered, which Albuquerque said was due to the presence of too much other technology in the room.

Aluminum, plastic and carbon fiber were used to make various parts of the arm.

Typically, sensors the size of matchboxes are installed on a person’s shoes to help guide the Luke arm. But trying to fit a person for two Luke arms presented additional challenges to that approach.

So the team developed pattern-recognition software to help read existing muscles in the user’s upper arm, “even though he doesn’t have a hand attached,” Albuquerque said, allowing Currier to manipulate his right arm through impulses like those that would operate a natural limb.

The software “tells the Luke arm when you see that open signal, open the hand; when you see the close signal, close the hand,” he said. “This is the first time this has ever been done, and it truly is remarkable.”

Also appearing was Chuck Hildreth of Gilford, who received the first powered-shoulder prosthesis.

Hildreth demonstrated by picking up a single green grape from a plate and putting it in his mouth.

“To be missing your whole arm from the shoulder down and to be able to pick something up like a grape, without smashing it, and putting it in your mouth, that’s truly remarkable,” Albuquerque said.

Hildreth’s device, which cost more than $200,000, was paid for by private donations since he wasn’t in the military.

LUKE stands for Life Under Kinetic Evolution; the name was inspired by the “Star Wars” character Luke Skywalker.

Kamen applauded the help from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which provided funding.

“I guess in a world where everybody sees dysfunctional, contentious government, it’s nice to see the VA (and) DARPA connected,” he said. “The fact that this whole project came together so well and now we have some people that are benefiting from the LUKE arm is just exciting to me.”

mcousineau@unionleader.com


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