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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

World's first commercial bionic hand

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 10/06/2008

The world's first commercial bionic hand has grabbed Britain's top engineering prize.

  • Gripping stuff - the bionic hand
  • Revolutionary bionic arm unveiled
  • Computer operated by power of thought
  • For years, the best doctors could do was equip disabled people with a glorified claw, a pincer-like device that mimics the opening and closing of a thumb and forefinger.

    Ray Edwards gets to grips with his i-LIMB hand - World's first commercial bionic hand
    Ray Edwards getting to grips with
    his i-LIMB hand

    That has all changed thanks to a more realistic bionic hand unveiled by the Scottish company Touch Bionics, called the i-LIMB Hand, the culmination of decades of research.

    The Livingston based company has now won the 2008 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for its i-LIMB Hand, a prosthetic device that looks and acts like a real human hand with five individually powered digits.

    Ray Edwards, 53, who had all four limbs amputated in 1987 after developing blood poisoning (septicaemia) in the wake of cancer treatment, had the i-LIMB hand fitted a month ago.

    "When I heard about this hand that looked like a human hand I had to get one. I'm right-handed and have got used to a carbon-fibre hook worked by a cord on that arm. So I asked Touch Bionics to put the i-LIMB hand on my left arm instead.

    "When I first looked down and saw the i-LIMB hand I just cried - i-LIMB has helped me more psychologically than physically. That was the first time in 21 years that I had seen a hand opening there - it made me feel I was just Ray again. You can do so much with technology but it's got to make the user happy - and i-LIMB does."


    As if to underline this, Edwards, who works for the Limbless Association charity, went skiing over the weekend at Xscape in Milton Keynes and managed to get down the nursery slope. And he has his first flying lesson on Tuesday.

    The hand started life in 1963 in a research programme at Edinburgh's Princess Margaret Rose Hospital to help children affected by Thalidomide.

    The i-LIMB Hand is one of the most compelling devices in the world prosthetics market," says Touch Bionics CEO Stuart Mead. "Since we launched it in July 2007 over 200 patients have been fitted with it all over the world - in just a few months it has evolved from an exciting new technology into a new benchmark in prosthetic devices."

    HRH the Duke of Edinburgh presented the team with a £50,000 prize and the solid gold MacRobert Award medal at the Academy Awards Dinner in London last night.

    "As a project, it scored very highly on all three of our criteria," says Dr Geoff Robinson, Chairman of the MacRobert Award Judging Panel. "In addition to many specific innovations in the design and fabrication of the artificial hand, Touch Bionics have fundamentally changed the benchmark for what constitutes an acceptable prosthesis.

    "Their approach to marketing, in what is universally acknowledged to be a difficult market to penetrate, showed a very high standard of focus, commitment and success. The social benefit for those involved must be obvious to everyone. Having tried it myself, I can vouch for the fact that it really does work in the way portrayed, even if one is fortunate enough to still have one's own real hand alongside."

    The three team members sharing the prize are: chief executive officer Stuart Mead, director of research and founder David Gow, project manager Stewart Hill, director of technology and operations Hugh Gill and director of marketing Phil Newman, all based at Touch Bionics in Livingston.

    Touch Bionics faced tough competition to win the award - also shortlisted for this year's MacRobert Award were:

  • The Automation Partnership, for Polar, a new robotic system designed specifically for the UK Biobank based near Stockport - the world's leading programme to create a large-scale resource for medical research.
  • Johnson Matthey, for their compact catalysed soot filter for diesel cars.
  • Owlstone Ltd, for their 'dime' sized chemical sensor on a silicon chip that provides a miniature detection system for trace amounts of a wide variety of chemicals. Owlstone's chip can detect explosives at airports, protect workers against gas exposure in heavy industry or detect fires before they begin from precombustion fumes.
  • London's Science Museum will be showcasing the iLIMB prosthetic hand in a special display in the Antenna science news gallery. The free exhibition runs from Thursday 12 June for three months.

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