VA Tests New Arm That Could Benefit Amputees

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By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

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's 4th Infantry Division as a second lieutenant, Downs lost his left arm to a land mine during a patrol in Vietnam.

When VA began examining an experimental prosthetic arm with reputedly far greater capabilities than anything now available, Downs volunteered as a subject, but he was not expecting anything remarkable. "I was skeptical at first," he said. "I couldn't believe it would work as well as they said it would."

Instead, Downs 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, VA announced the start of a three-year clinical trial that represents the first large-scale testing of the arm, a critical step before it can be made widely available. The first patient was fitted with an arm in April.

If the trial is successful, the robotic arm could restore a measure of freedom for some injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significantly higher proportion of whom have lost arms than in previous conflicts. "When you lose upper extremity, you lose your independence," Downs said.

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, nicknamed the "Luke arm" after the artificial arm worn by Luke Skywalker in the "Star Wars" films, allows those who have lost a limb up to their 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, 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, while the comparable figure in Vietnam was only about 4 percent, according to Downs.

The reason is ever-improving medical treatment in the field and speedy evacuations that has saved the lives of many grievously injured troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "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.

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