A Helping Hand

DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, launched 15 years ago, represents one of the most successful government technology programs of all time. As we opined in this space 10 years ago [NBR Jul10 p2], the program not only succeeded in developing a next-generation prosthetic arm for soldiers returning from battle with missing limbs resulting from their injuries. Together with DARPA's HAPTIX and other neurotech programs, it helped build a critical infrastructure of vendors, investigators, and clinicians that today benefits a wide range of individuals with neurological and physical impairments—and not just veterans.

Commercial firms and research institutions are still benefitting from that initial 2005 program, which was led by the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. The University of Utah biomedical engineering department recently received an IDE from the FDA to begin trials of the next evolution of the Utah Slant Array implant under the HAPTIX program. With FDA approval for further peripheral nerve research using the Slant Array, a take-home trial will begin investigating whether the university's prosthetic arm system improves amputees' performance of activities of daily living. Until now, all human peripheral nerve studies using the Slant Array under the HAPTIX program have taken place in the lab using the DEKA LUKE Arm, a prosthetic device with multiple powered joints and sensors. Previous work has shown that the Slant Array can create natural sensations, and the sensory feedback enhances interaction with the prosthesis in a meaningful manner.

Gregory Clark, who leads the UofU team, notes that the Slant Array has other neurotech applications such as auditory nerve implants, pain neuromodulation, bladder control, or motor nerve stimulation for reanimating paralyzed limbs after spinal cord injury or stroke. "Because peripheral nerves innervate almost every body part and organ system, there are multiple opportunities to provide clinical benefits for a wide variety of disorders or diseases," he said.

The university's commercial partner, Blackrock Microsystems, has played a critical role in this device's development. "The initial success the UofU has had in this field is precisely what government funds should support—it is crucial financial funding we need to translate an innovative technology such as this into a clinical application to benefit patients," said Blackrock CEO Marcus Gerhardt. Another commercial entity, Atom Limbs, recently executed an exclusive option agreement with JHU APL and intends to negotiate a licensing agreement.

Over the years, DARPA's Biological Technologies Office has demonstrated that it not only understands the critical areas of neurotechnology that merit government funding, but also the key processes involved with translating those technologies into commercial products.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher


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