As victims of war, terrorism, and human disease face new lives without their natural limbs, a slate of companies is developing fully replaceable body parts
Recently, a terrorist’s deliberate car crash into a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem permanently injured a 2-year-old Israeli girl. While the child will live, she is left without her left foot, which doctors tried to save but had to amputate.
While we are still years of creative work away from a full repair, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this little girl will be walking on a brand new foot by the time she’s an adult. Thankfully, Israel’s creative medical technologies are quite advanced. They are joined by an upsurge in biomedical advances in the United States, Netherlands, Iceland, and U.K.
Here are five companies laying the groundwork for the once-unthinkable, replaceable limb.
1. ReWalk (Israel)
ReWalk is one of several companies utilizing heavy exoskeletons for those in physical rehabilitation and people with spinal cord injuries. Originally known as Argo, it was founded by quadriplegic Dr. Amit Goffer in 2001. Thus far, ReWalk is the only FDA-approved robotic exoskeleton. They face competition from Rex and Ekso, though ReWalk seems to have the sleekest design in the bunch.
The company went public in September 2014, then went into an extended slump from a trading high of $43.71. Last month, however, the stock surged after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced they would be working with the company.
2. Össur (Iceland)
This company is in the lead. There’s no other way to put it. With their robotic prosthesis, Össur’s Proprio Foot is battery-powered and motorized, removing the need for compensatory movements that strain wearers’ muscles and lead to other injuries. Besides an intuitive and compact look, the company has been testing an upgraded design that connects to users’ peripheral nervous system.
Their beta testers are among the few people in the world with a prosthetic device that can be controlled by human thought. Other companies and research groups are working on the same kind of device, but Össur has eliminated lag time between the neural signal and reaching the device. Using a combination of wired and wireless signals, the time between initial brain impulse and movement is, by accounts heard so far, extremely close to the time it takes for the brain to reach and motorize a natural limb.
“You have to learn how to use those muscles again,” beta-tester Gudmundur Olafsson told Popular Science in 2015. “How to tighten them up, in front and back. And that’s the main thing. Those muscles start getting bigger, so you get better at walking. I have more stamina. My gait is better. I don’t limp as much.”
3. Xilloc Medical (Netherlands)
Xilloc Medical offers 3D-printed, titanium bone replacements. They made headlines in 2011 when one of their products, in partnership with researchers in Belgium and the Netherlands, fully replaced an 83-year-old’s woman’s lower jaw, which had deteriorated due to an infection.
Each print-out is custom made for the patient and theoretically could be printed within several days. However, CTO Carsten Engel said that they haven’t gotten an order yet that was less than two weeks before an operation.
4. Organovo (U.S.)
3D-bioprinting Organovo made headlines in 2013 after producing a 3D-printed liver out of organic material. Bringing the liver to functionality is another issue, but the far-less complicated organ of skin was something Organovo’s technology could do: This attracted the attention of French makeup giant L’Oreal. The partnership has created small samples of human skin for product testing, eliminating the need for human volunteers or much-maligned testing on animals.
There’s no word yet on progress on the project, but if it’s successful, it will have far greater implications than just the suitability of lipstick. Organovo has raised over $66 million in four rounds since November 2011, and also went public in 2012. The company is managed by Chairman and CEO Keith Murphy, CSO Gabor Forgacs, CTO Sharon Collins Presnell and CFO Barry Michaels.
5. 3Dynamic Systems (Wales, U.K.)
3Dynamic Systems Ltd (3DS) is also using bio ink, though they’re not just skin-deep. They research transplantable bone printouts like some other companies, but the big difference in their research is a focus on muscular tissue. While they also use materials that make up the structure of true human body parts, their materials serve as scaffolding right now for the growth of new cells. Their Alpha device produces poly-capro-lactone, calcium phosphate and hydrogel-based biomaterials for compound muscle fractures. 3DS’ Omega printing device series is focused on muscle and skin.