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Giving our warriors a better grip on life, Manchester inventor creates prosthetic arm

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 16. 2014 8:45PM
Inventor Dean Kamen demonstrates DEKA's new prosthetic arm at the company's headquarters in Manchester's Millyard on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - Inventor Dean Kamen developed a new prosthetic arm that offers a wide range of motion that amputees, primarily wounded U.S. soldiers, can operate via Bluetooth sensors attached to their shoes.

Kamen, who also invented the Segway Human Transporter and the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, hopes the arm, developed with $40 million in federal money, won't be a big seller."We just know relative to most medical equipment, it's very, very, very small (in number), and we hope it stays that way," Kamen said last week at his DEKA headquarters in the Millyard.

"We are not looking to expand the market for our Luke arm by having this country continue to send young brave people out in the world to have interactions with IEDs and terrorists by which they lose their arms, so we don't think it will ever be a big business," he said.

"We didn't start making these things because we thought it would be a big business," Kamen said. "We made these things because these soldiers deserve the best possible technology that's available."

Extra flexibility

The fingers, thumb, wrist, elbow and shoulder all move on the arm, which weighs about the same as a human arm but provides greater wrist flexibility with 270-degree rotation, he said. A person will be able to order specific parts of the prosthetic arm, such as a hand and a wrist, he said. And sensors the size of a matchbook help guide the Luke arm, named after the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker.

"If they wiggle their foot up and down, your arm goes up and down. If they tip their foot in and out, their arm moves in and out," Kamen said.

"If they do some other motion with another of one of our sensors, the hand becomes a fist or it can grab a grape or it can open a doorknob, so we worked very hard to make ways to remotely control the arm from other pieces of your body that you already have control over," he said.

"I think to some people this is a very bionic arm because when you watch it move, it looks so eerily real that the average person might say, this is an early example of what's going to come to be the integration of engineering components in a biological human system," Kamen said.

Gets approval from FDA

In May, the Food and Drug Administration allowed DEKA to pursue manufacturing and commercial opportunities for the arm.

He said his team is looking for a company to make up to two thousand arms over a period of years. He hopes the cost to manufacture them would run less than $100,000 each but expects a private company would add to that the costs for maintenance and training staff as well as an amount of profit, he said.

"If we can't find a medical company that is ready, willing and able to do that, as we told DARPA, we will do it, but it's not our first choice; it's our backup plan," Kamen said, hoping some government agency will purchase the arms for wounded warriors.

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense with a mission to create breakthrough technologies for national security.

DARPA provided DEKA "approximately $40M (million) in total since 2006 for its work on the DEKA Arm System," the agency's public affairs department said in an email.

"DARPA is a place where we can bring dreams to life," Dr. Geoffery Ling, director of DARPA's biological technologies office, said in a statement.

Kamen said that money was spread among various companies that teamed up to produce the arm.

According to Kamen's office, about 30 DEKA people worked solely on the Luke arm and about 100 other engineers worked on some aspect. How much money DEKA received for its share of the work wasn't immediately available, his office said.

Early approval

The Luke arm already is winning praise from wounded U.S. soldiers who tested it.

"Here are young people that have literally given up their arms, and we're giving them back something that is way, way better than a hook, which is what they had, but it's nowhere as good as the original equipment," Kamen said.

"I'm not naive. I would not take one of my arms off and be happy to replace it with the Luke arm, and yet the most singular consistent characteristic of every one of these soldiers is how grateful they are that somebody is giving them something that improves their lives," Kamen said. "It almost makes you feel guilty. We should be thanking them and instead, they are thanking us. It's just not right."

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