Timothy Jacobsen/AP

Prosthetic Arms Benefit From Open-Source Collaboration

September 18, 2008 02:49 PM
by Emily Coakley
An Iraq War veteran and his team are leading a worldwide collaborative effort to refine prosthetic arms and hands.

Building Better Hands and Arms

A small company in North Carolina, Tackle Design, has created the Open Prosthetics Project, a Web site where people share ideas about improving prosthetic devices for arms and hands. The site is based on open-source software, which users developed collaboratively, and the results are free, not proprietary. Jonathan Kuniholm, one of the company’s founders, lost his arm in the Iraq war.

Only about 100,000 of the 1.7 million amputees in America have a missing arm or hand, according to Scientific American. Though advances in war technology have saved more lives on the battlefield, more veterans, like Kuniholm, are coming home with an amputated limb. The magazine said that as of the end of last year, about 150 of 700 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who were amputees had lost an arm or hand.

Refining prosthetic arms hasn’t been on many industry to-do lists because the market is so small that the investment wouldn’t be returned.

Karl Hovland, president of Hosmer Dorrance Corporation, a company that makes prosthetic limbs, said inquiries into equipment for arms have always been on the “back burner.”

“We would certainly consider it, but the numbers have to add up…We want to do everything we can for the patient, but we are a business for profit,” Hovland told Scientific American.

The Open Prosthetic Project has global implications, says Scientific American. Since using the open-source method is inexpensive, prosthetic arms and hands could eventually be made available at a lower cost to people in countries where conflict and poor health care have increased the number of upper-limb amputees.

Current research into prosthetic hands extends to prosthetic digits. The Evening Standard reports that scientists at Unilever are developing an artificial finger with a sense of touch. The European Union is funding the project, which could produce a working prototype within two years.

Dr. Simon Watson, the project’s leader, told the Evening Standard, “We want to develop a machine with a sense of touch. This brings us closer to the prospect of prosthetic hands that can provide the same sort of sensory feedback as the natural senses.”

Opinion & Analysis: Praise for open prosthetics

Matt Asay, writing on the CNet blog The Open Road, called the project “a great testament to the potential power of open source, offering hope of improved prosthetics. It's great to see open source delivering exceptional software,” Asay wrote. “It will be even better to see it delivering improved medical technology.”

Related Topics: Medical devices under scrutiny; open source in other arenas

Other medical devices are a much more lucrative venture for companies. Some companies and orthopedic surgeons have been criticized for making and receiving payments. Companies say these payments are consulting fees for helping develop products. Some critics say the fees are kickbacks to buy a doctor’s loyalty.

OStatic, an organization that aims to increase the use of open-source software, has a blog describing ways that other industries are using the open-source concept. Open-source efforts are underway to build a green vehicle that gets 100 miles per gallon, a “noninvasive brain stimulator” and even a better pint of beer.

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