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Technological Breakthroughs in Prosthetic Limbs Examined

Aired April 27, 2013 - 14:30   ET



Today a special edition of THE NEXT LIST. You have the devastating bombings at the Boston Marathon that left more than 260 people wounded and at least 13 amputees. The idea of waking up to the news that you have lost a limb is just unthinkable. But one man has a unique solution that could provide some real hope. You're about to meet Hugh Herr, innovator, scientist, and can inventor of prosthetic limb that is move like flesh and bone. He is helping the victims of the Boston Marathon in a way only he can.

HUGH HERR, BIOPHYSICIST: My research group at the lab has teamed with the mass technology leadership council and a not-for-profit called no barriers on two initiatives. The first initiative with the Mass Technology Leadership Council is we are forming a council, a committee of technologists, experts, to look at each individual that has gone through the horrible blasts and experienced traumatic leg injury, and to assess the technological needs.

If you know the technology can help, go to TLC, and let us know about the technology that you are aware of that may help.

The second initiative is we have established a No Barriers Boston Fund. This fund will be used to provide advanced, highly technological prosthesis to enable the persons that have gone through these bombings to return to an athletic, active lifestyle. If a person wishes to run, the No Barriers Boston Fund can help. If they wish to cycle, go back to swimming, play tennis, or even dance, the No Barriers Boston fund can help.

GUPTA: It all stops MIT's lab. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and this is THE NEXT LIST.

HERR: In the bio-mechanic group here at MIT, the mission is to blur the mission between humans and machines. What we do here is we build robots that attach to the body, to the leg, that will augment the person's physicality and allows them to move again when they're not able to move.

GUPTA: Why do you call them robots that attach to the body?

HERR: We're talking very advanced systems. I call them bionics, stealing from the Hollywood term. They're robotic because they have sensors and have computers, various computers across their structure. They have motor muscle like, tendon like systems that push and change stiffness and dampen and allow a person to move again across various terrains.

GUPTA: Hugh Herr knows he is able to fine-tune his bionic legs unlike anyone else in his field because he was not only a brilliant innovator but also a double amputee.

HERR: I am careful never to use the word "disabled" when describing human beings. I quickly realized after my limbs were amputated that I no longer viewed my biological body as broken and disabled. Instead I viewed those things as broke and disabled.

GUPTA: How do most prosthetics, I use that term, how do most prosthetics work now?

HERR: For the most part devices for the legs are passive. What I mean by that, the energy that the person puts into the device is the only energy that they get out, and often it is less energy. With these devices it is not true. You get a lot more energy out than you put in from your own human energy.

It is a surprise to people when they find out the scientific community does not yet deeply, deeply understand something as prominent as walking. But we're getting there. We're starting to developed mathematical models where we can say that muscle does this. That muscle does this.

I am just in love with an enamored with the design of the body its elegance. We steal from the cookie jar of nature and steal concepts that emulate that functionality.

What he is wearing here is an emulation of the biological knee joint.

GUPTA: Can we see the whole thing then?

HERR: It extends all the way up. We spend years developing prototype after prototype after prototype, iterating, iterating, and iterating. Often in the beginning it doesn't work at all. It is farce worse than commercial devices. By the end we often come above the water and there is a clinical benefit.

When my legs were amputated, obviously a lot of critical nerves were amputated, were cut. Those nerves used to feed muscles I used to have in my lower legs. So what we want to do in this field of bionics long-term is be able to talk to nerves, both collecting how a person wants to move and sending it out to a bionic device and stimulating into the nerves, into the nervous system, so that we can then take sensory information on the bionic limb and reflect it on the nervous system. And the dream is that one day amputees will be able to walk across sand and actually feel the sand against their synthetic device.

I am often asked if I was granted a wish from a magic fairy, would I wish my biological legs back and I say absolutely not. My bionic limbs are part of my creation. They have become part of my identity. And what is really fun is they're upgradeable. So every few months I get a hardware and software upgrade. And as my biological body ages, my artificial limbs get better and better. So it's interesting that I am kind of getting better and better, at least that part of my body anyway.

It perhaps sounds mad to some people that I had this mountain climbing accident, and I immediately turned around and returned to mountain climbing. But it was in fact tremendous therapy.


GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The amputee victims in the Boston Marathon bombings have a long road of recovery ahead. But they may be able to gain insight and even hope about their own struggles after Hugh Herr's own remarkable story of tragedy, recovery, and ultimately success.

HERR: It is interesting because I grew up in a devout Mennonite family, and our neighbors were Amish. And there is kind of a suspicion within those communities of technological progress. So it's fascinating now that I am pushing the boundaries of technology.

I started mountain climbing when I was seven-years-old. I grew up in a very adventurous family. Every summer we would go on these extended road trips across North America, sometimes across Canada into Alaska. These trips would last three months, and we would fish and canoe and climb mountains.

And by the age of 12, 13 I was considered a child prodigy in climbing. I was climbing walls that had never been climbed before. At that point in my life my focus was to be the best climber in the world. My focus was not at all academics. In fact, I did everything to get out of school.

In 1982 I was mountain climbing in New Hampshire, Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the northeast. We were ice climbing an 800-foot fall. And we got struck by a tremendous blizzard. What we intended to be a single day turned into a four-day mountaineering. Because we were on the mountain for a longer period of time than expected there was a search and rescue launched, and one of the climbers was struck by an avalanche and killed.

So when we were plucked from the mountain via helicopter and told of this tragic, horrible news, it was profoundly difficult for me to deal with personally.

I suffered severe frostbite to my lower legs and after months of effort my medical team gave up the fight to save my biological limbs. I thought, well, I have two choices. I can give up and wallow in depression and self-pity, or I can really make a best effort, do everything I can to make my life into a positive force. I thought, given Albert Dow's ultimate sacrifice, I thought of course the right thing to do was to make my life worthwhile.

GUPTA: What was available to you back then in the early mid-80s?

HERR: Back then the foot ankle was made of wood and foam and stiff metal. The devices were heavy, non-adaptive, and just dumb. There is no better term for it. After two weeks in the rehab center, the rehab center made the mistake of allowing me taking them home for the weekend, and it was that weekend my brother took me out climbing again. So I could barely get to the face of the mountain because I could barely walk. But once I got to the vertical world, I was like a quadruped on all fours, and I was home. It felt completely natural. I was home again. And it was a rocket out of my anger and depression.

Only a few months after my limbs were amputated and I was climbing with the artificial limbs that were given to me, I realized that, quote, the -- my artificial limb I used for mountain climbing need not look like a biological limb. I said I don't need a heel. I cut the heel off. It was just extra weight. I optimized the angle of the foot, and I made them very, very lightweight, far lighter than human flesh. So I actually carved out a few advantages. It was a fun process.

Because of advanced technology, today I can drive a car. I have a very active work schedule at MIT. I can run and climb mountains. My advice to those that suffered these leg amputations in the Boston bombing is initially take one day at a time. Be patient with yourself and the process, and know that your long-term diagnosis is very good. You will get there. You will get to the point where you're leading the life you wish to lead.

OK. I like these. It's exhilarating.


GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. More than 260 people have been wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings, and 13 of those are recovering from amputations. Hugh Herr has invented a bionic prosthetic ankle called a Biom. It is the key for many amputees facing the long road to recovery.

You call it the Biom, which stands for what?

HERR: Bionic motion. Here you see the Biom, and inside this metal shield we have a muscle tendon like that we call an actuator motor system. And we have several computers, three computers. Here is the battery, the power supply.

GUPTA: People walk. They put their heel down to their toe. They're bending their knees slightly when they walk. You can tell when someone has an older prosthetic device the walking is unnatural.

HERR: You want to race?

GUPTA: I do not want to race.

How about with you? What is different?

HERR: There is a lot that is different.

So these offer control, when they come in contact with the ground and steps off the ground. This he propel me forward. So I can do all kinds of things, run, walk at all speeds, run up steps, all kinds of things.

GUPTA: What's that like for you?

HERR: Exhilarating.

GUPTA: Boom, boom, boom. You are sprinting up stairs with bilateral below the knee amputation.

HERR: Pretty amazing, huh?

GUPTA: Is it something you ever thought you would be able to do.

HERR: No. You can hear the motors going. It is like a bionic man.

Hello. Hello.

ED LESOWSKI (ph): Dr. Herr, thank you very, very much. This is the best thing since bread and butter.

HERR: Years ago at MIT I had written a grant I submitted to the veterans administration, the veterans affairs, and that grant was funded, and we used those monies at MIT to develop really science of how the human ankle behaves and mapping that to how you build a synthetic device that emulates functionality.

LESOWSKI: My name is Ed Lesowski (ph). In 1967 I joined the army, and I was medically retired in 1984 after having a motorcycle accident on the 7th of August, 1981, where I took off most of my thigh, broke my femur, severed the artery in my right arm.

HERR: I wanted to focus my walk on the ankle joint initially, because when a person walks, by far they're getting the most power from their ankle compared to any other joint in the body.

LESOWSKI: I had 39 operations between all the hospitals and the last one, number 40. And that was the amputation.

HERR: What we're -- what we plan to do and will do is systematically build body part from the ground up literally. We're starting with ankles. The next act is knees and after that hips, and we'll just rebuild the human from the ground up.

Go down the shallow ramp and then if you would down the steep ramp, either way.

LESOWSKI: I feel more like a human being, complete, where I can watch people in the eye as I walk down the street instead of watching the ground of where I am stepping. It's being a normal person again. It's fantastic. You can't beat it.

HERR: I found that I walk and then I could actually help advance technology that people will use in my lifetime. And I can see the direct results of my invention and my ideas on the world. So it is fun both being the scientist and the professor and also the entrepreneur where I can directly affect society in the short-term.

This is an exoskeleton designed for running.


HERR: This is an exoskeleton designed for running. The idea is in the future when people go jogging, they will routinely wear robots like this to relieve the stress from their joints so that maybe later in life they don't need total knee replacement, for example.

GUPTA: What do you notice when you use this versus not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is a strange sensation compared to running on a trampoline. With every step there is clearly something pushing back.

HERR: Our bodies are not designed for running on hard surfaces like cement. I think in the future you walk down the street, will you routinely see people jogging wearing robots to just protect the joints for later in life.

What I imagine occurring in the 21st century is technologies will just become more and more like us, like humans. As the science of our minds and bodies advance, we're just going to have this deep understanding of what makes us tick as humans and we're going to embed those principles in all the technologies around us.

We will also see in this century, because of all of these new inventions that augment our bodies, the invention of many, many new sports. So looking in the past, there is this great invention called the bicycle, and now we have this fantastic sport called cycling. In the future we'll have devices that attach to our bodies that extend our abilities to swim, to climb, to run, so we'll have power swimming and power running and so on and so forth. The future is bright.

What we're showing you here today, if we project 20 years later, it will be laughable. Innovation is happening so rapidly. And we're just getting started. What will happen, I feel, is that now in society we have a very narrow view of what beauty is. A beautiful woman kind of looks like this and a beautiful man kind of looks like this. In that future you can have all kinds of different human beings with body types and different types of minds, and it won't be ugly, because it won't -- the conversation won't be about disability. It will be about capability, about ability, about expression. I call it the death of normalcy.

GUPTA: Hugh Herr is changing the way we see disability and turning what can be a tragedy in many people's lives into a triumph.

HERR: We live in a day and age it is possible if you suffer a leg amputation to go back to an active lifestyle. So I ask CNN viewers to go to, and if one is able, to help us, to donate funds for this important cause.

GUPTA: He is offering hope and an unprecedented quality of life to amputees all over the world, and that's what earned him a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

I am Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hope to see you back here next week.