TOPICS > Science

New High-tech Prostheses Being Developed for Amputees

September 19, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: On a clear, crisp fall morning
in La Jolla, California, athletes gather to compete in a
triathlon. As participants prepared for the race, it looked like an ordinary
sporting event, except that many of these competitors weren’t made just of
flesh and bone.

Sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, this annual
competition is geared towards the physically disabled, many of them amputees. As
the race began, the athletes faced a daunting course, starting with a 1.2-mile-long
swim in the Pacific Ocean. Once back on dry
land, they competed in a 56-mile-long cycling leg, followed by a 13-mile run.

This triathlon not only demonstrated the strength and
stamina of disabled athletes, it also showcased recent advances in prosthetic
technology, developments that are benefiting the disabled around the world,
including some of America’s
nearly 2 million amputees.

SARAH REINERTSEN, Amputee: I’ve been an amputee for over 20
years, so I have seen such a tremendous change in the technology, and truly the
breakthroughs that I’ve experienced have helped me to live a fuller life.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sarah Reinertsen is something of a superstar
in the amputee community. Born with a deformed leg that was amputated when she
was 7 years old, she’s crashed through barrier after barrier as a disabled
athlete, from being the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic team, to becoming
the first woman to finish the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on an
artificial leg.

During her athletic career, Reinertsen says, new prosthetic
devices, such as a specially designed racing foot, had been essential to her

Prosthetics move forward

SARAH REINERTSEN: The design is based on the hind leg of acheetah, which is the fastest land animal. When I come down on that foot, itcompressed and, then when I release, come off that toe, it's actually giving mea bit of a bounce, a bit of a push, which helps propel me to the next step,thus making me faster.

JEFFREY KAYE: Advances in prosthetics include thedevelopment of new, tough, but lightweight materials, better shapes anddesigns, and most recently the increased use of computers embedded withinartificial limbs. They allow prostheses to more closely mimic the movements andagility of real limbs.

PETER HARSCH, Ossur: We've made the technology smarter. Notonly it's mimicking natural function, it's actually thinking smarter, thinkingfaster, outthinking just the typical mechanical knee systems or regular footsystems.

JEFFREY KAYE: Peter Harsch, seen here at a mobility clinicfor amputees, is a prosthetist with Ossur, an Icelandic-based manufacturer ofartificial limbs. Among the company's wares is a computerized prosthetic knee. Itdoes thousands of calculations a second to keep the wearer quite literally onhis or her feet.

PETER HARSCH: It knows when the patient is on its toe, andthey know when it's on their heel. And it knows when it's in space or in aswing mode. So what you have is you have a very smart software package that'sconstantly downloading data.

Driving innovation

JEFFREY KAYE: Some of the advances in prosthetic technologyhave come, as they long have, as a result of war. According to the U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs, some 300 American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have lost limbs.

One of them is Army Captain David Rozelle, who participatedin the La Jolla triathlon. He was wounded in Iraq in 2003.

CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE, U.S. Army: I ran over an anti-tank minethat the terrorists had laid in my route, which blew up underneath the Humvee,destroyed the right front end of my Humvee, and, unfortunately, my right foot.

JEFFREY KAYE: Two years after his foot and ankle were blownoff, Rozelle became the first amputee to return to combat in Iraq. He's also competed innumerous athletic competitions.

Rozelle says military amputees, like disabled athletes, arechanging expectations about what amputees can do. Because of their youth andfitness, they're also demanding more from their artificial limbs and from thepeople who make them.

CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE: Our amputees say, within the year,"I want to run a marathon." It's those soldiers that are driving theresearch, driving the science, to make things now to give these American heroesthe ability to be able.

JEFFREY KAYE: According to the Department of VeteransAffairs, the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars onprosthetic research and development. Researchers forecast a day where amputeeswill be outfitted with bio-hybrid prostheses that they will control just bythinking.

Maurice Mulligan is a prosthetist with the VeteransAdministration.

MAURICE MULLIGAN, Veterans Administration: There's researchgoing on now where they link into the nervous system so there will be nolearning curve. In other words, a guy loses an arm. You put the arm on. Thesame brain pathways that activated it before will activate his artificial hand.

Growing pains for prosthetics

JEFFREY KAYE: But steps forward in prosthetic technologyhave been accompanied by growing cost concerns. A state-of-the-art artificialleg, for instance, can come with a more than $30,000 price tag.

Military amputees have the expense of their prostheticscovered by the government, but many in the civilian world don't have thatadvantage.

Laura Brumund lost her leg 14 years ago in an automobileaccident. She's eager to get a new prosthetic leg with a computerized knee, buther insurer has twice denied her request for coverage.

LAURA BRUMUND, Amputee: They're saying that it'sexperimental knee, that it's not a necessity. You know, I'm 33 years old. Ihave a 4-year-old son I need to keep up with. And I'm pretty active. I'm in thegym, you know, three to five times a week. And I think it would be a perfectfit for me if I could get that knee.

JEFFREY KAYE: Parents with amputee children face anotherchallenge: As the youngsters grow, their artificial limbs must be frequentlyreplaced.

SARAH REINERTSEN: When I was a kid, my health insurancecompany said the policy originally stated we will give you one artificial legfor your lifetime. I was 7 years old when I had my amputation. How am I goingto use the same leg for my entire life from the age of 7 on?

JEFFREY KAYE: Away from athletic competitions, SarahReinertsen has become an advocate for expanding insurance coverage to amputees.

SARAH REINERTSEN: They're capping now $1,100 for thelifetime of an amputee. So they're not saying, "Look, we'll only give youone leg." "We'll only give you one payout for $1,100 for yourlifetime." Eleven hundred dollars isn't going to even get you the wholefull leg.

You know, my full prosthetic knee, foot, socket -- thesocket is so expensive, because it's the custom part -- you're looking about$30,000 to $36,000, up to $40,000 for an above-knee amputee. So $1,100 isn'teven going to get you a toe.

JEFFREY KAYE: To increase access to new artificial limbs,the Amputee Coalition of America is lobbying state governments to draftlegislation requiring insurance companies to cover prosthetics. Such bills havepassed in Colorado, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.

But the insurance industry argues such laws amount to healthcare mandates. It also contends that paying for expensive artificial limbs for relativelyfew people boosts health care costs for the wider population of the insured.

At the triathlon, the joys of competition replaced concernsabout costs and coverage. Participants here said, as technology improves, thedivide between the able and the disabled will inevitably narrow.

CAPT. DAVID ROZELLE, U.S. Army: I'd say to the able athletesout there, you know, that are worried about us having some mechanicaladvantage, well, sure, watch out. You know, we're coming after you.

JEFFREY KAYE: Some experts in artificial limbs foresee theday when amputee athletes will be able to beat their fully-abled competitors.

COACH: Awesome. This is her first time running, you guys. That'sawesome. Feeling good?