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FDA approves 'Star Wars' bionic arm

Brandon Griggs, CNN
  • FDA approves the DEKA arm, a prosthetic controlled by brain signals
  • The DEKA project was overseen by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway
  • Kamen nicknamed the arm "Luke" after Luke Skywalker from "Star Wars"
  • The arm can perform delicate tasks such as handling an egg without breaking it

(CNN) -- Amputees will soon get help from a groundbreaking bionic arm, thanks to the inventor of the Segway and a little inspiration from "Star Wars."

After almost eight years of research and testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the DEKA arm, a prosthetic controlled by signals from the brain. Unlike most current prostheses, the DEKA can perform such delicate tasks as zipping up a coat, unlocking a door with a key or handling an egg without breaking it.

Funded by DARPA, the research branch of the Pentagon, the DEKA project was overseen by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway personal vehicle. Kamen nicknamed the DEKA arm "Luke" after Luke Skywalker, the "Star Wars" hero who was fitted for a prosthetic after losing his right hand in a light-saber duel with Darth Vader.

The FDA is calling the device the first prosthetic arm that can perform multiple, simultaneous movements via electromyogram electrodes, which detect electrical signals from the contraction of muscles close to where the prosthesis is attached.

The DEKA bionic arm can control multiple joints simultaneously to pick up small objects such as this coin.
The DEKA bionic arm can control multiple joints simultaneously to pick up small objects such as this coin.

The battery-powered arm is about the size and weight of a natural limb and has six different grips. A computer in the device can tell what type of movement its wearer wants to make.

"This innovative prosthesis provides a new option for people with certain kinds of arm amputations," said Christy Foreman, director of the FDA's Office of Device Evaluation. The DEKA arm "may allow some people to perform more complex tasks than they can with current prostheses in a way that more closely resembles the natural motion of the arm."

The DEKA bionic arm can be configured for people with limb loss at the shoulder joint, mid upper arm or mid lower arm, the FDA said. It cannot be fitted for someone whose arm was amputated at the elbow or wrist.

One of the device's first users was double amputee Chuck Hildreth, who lost both arms in an electrical accident. Hildreth has been demonstrating the DEKA arm on national TV news programs since at least 2009.

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"I never thought in my lifetime I'd see something this functional come out," he told CNN's Sanjay Gupta in 2010. "It's definitely going to change my life, and more importantly it's going to change the life of my family. Because ... I'm going to be less dependent on them."

In considering whether to approve the device, the FDA reviewed a Department of Veterans Affairs study involving 36 participants fitted with DEKA arms.

The study found that about 90% of participants were able to perform activities they were not able to perform with their current prosthesis, such as using keys and locks, preparing food, feeding themselves and brushing their hair.

A video demonstration on DARPA's website shows a man using the bionic arm to transfer eggs from one carton to another without breaking them.

The device was developed by DEKA Integrated Solutions in Manchester, New Hampshire. FDA approval means that DEKA can now legally market and sell the bionic arm in the United States.

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