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Artificial arm stirs hopes of wounded

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post / June 5, 2009
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WASHINGTON - As director of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service, Frederick Downs Jr. has more than a professional interest in the devices the department offers veterans who have lost limbs.

In 1968, while serving with the Army, Downs lost his left arm to a land mine in Vietnam.

When the VA began examining an experimental prosthetic arm with reputedly far greater capabilities than anything now available Downs volunteered as a subject. "I was skeptical at first," he said. "I couldn't believe it would work as well as they said it would." Downs, however, found himself brought to tears when the prosthetic arm allowed him to smoothly bring a water bottle to his mouth and drink.

"For the first time in 41 years I was able to grasp with my left hand," Downs said. "I wasn't expecting that. I'm so used to being an amputee, it was an emotional thing."

Last week, the VA announced the start of a three-year clinical trial, the first large-scale testing of the arm.

If the trial is successful, the robotic arm could restore a measure of freedom for injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significantly higher proportion of whom have lost arms than in previous conflicts.

The device was developed by Deka Research and Development, the New Hampshire company whose founder, Dean Kamen, invented the Segway and various medical devices. Deka undertook the project 30 months ago as part of a $100 million program to revolutionize prosthetics sponsored by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The robotic arm allows those who have lost a limb up to the shoulder joint to perform movements while reaching over their head, a previously impossible maneuver for people with a prosthetic arm.

"It's actually light years closer to a real arm," said Joel Kupersmith, the VA's chief research and development officer.

About 22 percent of the 820 American troops injured in Iraq or Afghanistan who have suffered major amputation have lost arms. In Vietnam, it was about 4 percent, Downs said.

The reason is ever-improving medical treatment in the field and speedy evacuations. "In Vietnam, the blast that would blow off your arm was usually able to damage your torso so much it would kill you," Downs said.

The DARPA project aims to bring arm prosthetics into the 21st century.

The VA study is being conducted with DARPA under the direction of Linda Resnik at the VA Medical Center in Providence. Veterans fitted with the arm will provide feedback to help engineers refine the prototype.

Users control the arm via sensors embedded in a shoe, maneuvering it by putting pressure on different parts of the foot. Wires relay the signals to the arm, but future versions will be wireless.

Downs sometimes visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center to encourage soldiers who have lost arms, but he said he has tried not to oversell the Deka arm's potential.

"It's important not to get expectations too high when things are at this stage," he said.

Still, interest in the arm is growing. It was featured in a recent "60 Minutes" episode on CBS.

"The soldiers do ask me about it, what I think about it," Downs said. "They're anxious to try it."