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Project Promotes Radical Rethinking of Prosthetics

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Project Promotes Radical Rethinking of Prosthetics


Project Promotes Radical Rethinking of Prosthetics

Project Promotes Radical Rethinking of Prosthetics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Kuniholm lost his arm last year while on patrol in Iraq. Not satisfied with his prosthetic choices back in America, he decided to do something about it — the Open Prosthetics Project, which is making new designs available on the Web for free. Kuniholm speaks with NPR's Scott Simon.


Last year in Iraq, Marine Reserve Captain Jonathan Kuniholm lost an arm to a bomb while he was on patrol. Back in the U.S., Captain Kuniholm was just not satisfied with his options for a prosthetic device. He's a biomedical engineering student and thought that he could do better. So he and some of his fellow graduate students at North Carolina State started the Open Prosthetics Project to try and do just that. Captain Kuniholm joins us now from Durham, North Carolina, our station there WUNC.

Thanks so much for being with us, Captain.

Captain JONATHAN KUNIHOLM (Open Prosthetics Project): It's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: And help us understand from the perspective of someone who needs one, what's wrong with or limiting with existing prosthetic devices?

Capt. KUNIHOLM: Well, I think that the problem is that the hand is a very complicated thing. And right now there's nothing that solves all of the problems at the same time. So each prosthetic device is good for something and then has drawbacks. For example, body powered devices, which are closed with a rubber band and you pull open with a cable over your shoulder through the motion of your arm, are now either voluntary opening or voluntary closing. And the one thing that I thought would be nice was if you had a device that could be switched between the two. The problem with the voluntary closing devices is that you have to maintain pressure on them to continue to hold onto anything. And if you forget for a second, you drop it.

So you could certainly imagine times when you might want either one of those and you don't want to have to change hands or arms in order to do that. So one that we still only have in the early prototyping stage solves that problem of toggling between voluntary opening and voluntary closing.

SIMON: I'm told that you designed one device like a fishing pole?

Capt. KUNIHOLM: That was actually a volunteer. Robert Haag is a parent of a child who had a congenital limb deficiency. He was born without his left hand. And he wanted his son to be able to, you know, wind up the fishing pole and go fishing. And so what he did is he modified a Spiderman fishing rod to go on his son's prosthetic arm. But you know, that's sort of the nature of our project here. We wanted not just to publicize our own designs but to invite other people to share their own as well.

SIMON: So is the idea of I guess what you call the Open Prosthetics Project that people have in mind exactly what they need in an arm or a leg, what activities are most important to them, and the design follows?

Capt. KUNIHOLM: You know, that's the hope. We haven't fully realized that on the current Web site, but our hope is that we could create a community where people could share needs and desires they have and then other people could potentially volunteer to create design ideas to solve those needs.

SIMON: I'm intrigued by a quote I've seen attributed to you. You say that your job isn't done until you have a design that's, quote, "so cool people will want amputation to get one."

Capt. KUNIHOLM: Well, you know, that's sort of in response to a reaction that I get, particularly if I'm wearing my myoelectric arm. You know, most people haven't seen one of those and when they see it moving around, opening and closing, you know, the first - often the first question I get is, you know, are you controlling that with your brain? And you know, actually the way it works is I'm flexing the muscles that remain in my arm and there are sensors that sit of the surface of the skin and detect that movement and then translate it into motor motion. And yeah, its pretty cool and it's not something that most of us - you know, I had never seen one before, but you know, as good as it is and as impressive as it is, it's a pretty poor replacement to our 24 degree of freedom hand. So its not that cool.

And I guess I think that we can do better. Another project that I'm working on my graduate research at Duke University now, will be working on the new DARPA Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 Project. And you know, that program probably will come up with something that compares much more favorably with a human hand and arm.

SIMON: Jonathan Kuniholm speaking with us from the studios of WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.

Mr. Kuniholm, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. KUNIHOLM: Thank you. It was my pleasure, Scott.

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