In George Lucas’ science fiction epic, The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker lost his hand to a decisive light saber blow from his father, Darth Vader.
Upon the conclusion of one of film’s most memorable battles, Luke’s hand is replaced with a prosthesis that replicates natural function. While perfect mimicry of natural physiology is still an obstacle that modern medicine has yet to overcome, a new device has brought us closer than ever before.
BeBionic, a UK-based design and manufacturing firm, is preparing to bring its myoelectric bionic hand to market this month. A myoelectric prosthesis uses electrical signals from voluntarily contracted muscles within a patient’s residual limb to modify the movements of prosthesis. Electrical signal inputs are converted into hand motion via a computer. In this case, electrical signals can control rotation of the wrist (supination/pronation) or the opening or closing of the fingers in the hand.
While other myoelectic mechanical hands are available on the market, the BeBionic hand is the first to offer full rotational articulation. Additionally, the hand is equipped to communicate wirelessly with a control that can monitor and change the configuration of the device. However, the main advantage to the device is the ability for users to customize exact commands in terms of speed, force and grip patterns for common tasks. This should great simplify everyday chores including picking up objects and typing.
Artificial limbs may be needed for a variety of reasons, including disease, accidents and congenital defects. Industrial, vehicular and war-related accidents are the leading cause of amputations in developing areas, such as large portions of Africa. In more developed regions, such as North America and Europe, disease is the leading cause of amputations, cancer, infection and circulatory disease are the leading diseases.
Mechanical hands and feet are currently offered by smaller niche manufacturers, largely academic startups. The market for prosthetic hands remains relatively untouched by large, multinational orthopedic companies, such as Synthes, Medtronic and Zimmer. Continued improvement and innovation in myoelectric technology may eventually draw the attention of larger companies, but the relatively small number of cases in which an artificial hand or foot are indicated is limiting. For now, the market for artificial hands remains an area of heavy research and development.
More information on BeBionic’s myoelectric bionic hand can be found at the BeBionic website.