“We’re going to be able to give people limbs that are not made of flesh and bone, but carbon, fiber, and metal. There’s going to be a time, at some point in the future, when it’s not going to make a difference what you’re made out of.”Hugh Herr, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, and co-leader of the Yang Center for Bionics at MIT.
Last week, PBS aired a documentary film directed by Matthew Orr, formerly of STAT News (Boston Globe Media) and now on the faculty at Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. “Augmented” shows how a climber, Hugh Herr, became an MIT biophysicist whose work developing brain-controlled prosthetic limbs has benefited people all over the world—including Jim Ewing, a climber friend from his early days. This includes the development of the kind of versatile prosthetics that enabled Mr. Herr not just to return to rock climbing but excel further at it—modular feet and adjustable leg shafts that allowed him to climb in places, and across surfaces, that might have been impossible before he was injured. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:
The more futuristic objective of “Augmented,” however, is reached during the story of Jim Ewing, a rock-climbing acquaintance of Mr. Herr who has become the namesake of a surgical technique developed by Mr. Herr and Matthew Carty, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Carty points out in the film that amputation had been a procedure that hadn’t advanced since the Civil War. As “Augmented” illustrates in several straightforward and cogent ways, the standard removal of a limb and the use of skin and muscle to create a stump thwarts the natural messaging from the brain. By redirecting the traumatized nerves and muscles into a prosthetic that channels the messages properly (this is, admittedly, a simplified explanation), the brain can control the prosthetic. Mr. Ewing, who suffered a fall from a cliff face in the Cayman Islands and eventually was going to lose a foot, became the first amputee to undergo the process that Mr. Herr and Dr. Carty developed.
The long-term hope for the procedure is that people with Ewing amputations will be able to further adapt to the bionic limbs shown in the film, which Herr’s team is developing at MIT. When the film shows Ewing wearing a bionic foot, Carty explains how it mimics an attached limb through electrodes that send signals back and forth between the man and the machine. The foot is, for all intents and purposes, controlled by his brain. More testing is needed on the bionic leg, but a version of the device could be publicly available in a few years.
The end of the documentary shows Ewing returning to the site of his injury. Outfitted with a bionic foot specifically designed for the sport, Ewing confidently scales a cliff. Later, in a TED Talk, Herr introduces Ewing as “the first cyborg rock climber.”
Despite Ewing’s improved quality of life, the documentary points out that the ethics of this emerging technology are murky. In the film, a bioethicist, Keisha Ray, raises questions of equity — who will get access to the advanced limbs? This issue is brought into sharper focus when it becomes clear that people could use these bionics “to run faster, to jump higher, to do all kinds of things that you can’t even imagine today,” as Herr opines in the film.
The team recently held a virtual event where key players in the film talked about their research and experiences and looked forward to what’s next. You can watch a recording of that event from STAT here.
It’s science-fiction, except it’s not fiction, and the science is made accessible in Mr. Orr’s fascinating documentary. As of November 2019, the below-knee operation has been performed on 20 patients. The research team has received funding to develop the procedure for arm amputation as well. The researchers predict that adapting the Ewing procedure for the upper limbs could be a game-changer for patients who need arm amputations. Like the original Ewing procedure, the upper-limb amputation procedure aims to similarly link muscle pairs to better enable prosthetic control, preserve limb volume and eliminate neuropathic pain. Together with MIT and Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center, Dr. Carty and his clinical team are recruiting patients for a three-year elective upper-extremity amputation clinical trial. With funding from the Department of Defense, the team has performed three surgical simulations at Walter Reed and New England Donor Services.
If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, you can watch it on the PBS Video app. Or, if you are a PBS subscriber you can watch it using PBS Passport. Either way, it’s the best hour I’ve spent watching TV in a long time.