5th-grader tests 3-D printed robotic arm to help other kids

December 22, 2016
in Kids

The soon-to-be 11-year-old left the Washington University School of Medicine lab with an instruction manual for her new robotic arm. Don't get it wet. Turn it off when not in use. Change the two 9-volt batteries. But for a girl who has adapted to living a life with a left arm that ends just past her elbow, there's no instruction manual for how to incorporate this new technology into her day. That will be up to her to figure out. And researchers at the biomaterials laboratory will be studying her, trying to figure it out, too. Delanie Gallagher of Spanish Lake is the first of 10 children researchers plan to enroll in a study trying to determine how to develop a prosthetic that is useful for children born with all or part of a limb missing, or who lose a limb through trauma or surgery. Most end up living without a prosthetic because it lacks function and only gets in the way. Of the more than 540,000 Americans living with upper limb amputations, only about 20 percent use a prosthetic. Delanie's new arm incorporates myoelectric technology - sensors that detect when muscles in the stump contract and signal parts in the prosthetic to move. Prosthetics with this technology typically cost from $25,000 to $50,000, making them unfeasible for fast-growing children. The WashU lab created a hard plastic arm using a 3-D printer at a cost of just a few hundred dollars. The myoelectric technology was kept simple enough to keep the prosthetic low-cost and lightweight, with one sensor that signals the hand to either open or close, or the wrist to turn. Nick Thompson, a scientist in the lab, hopes the simple route will make arm prostheses more accessible and useful to children. "Tons of people are doing this now, but they are reaching for the fruit high in the tree, trying to develop something with the most functionality that is the closest you can get to your biological limb," Thompson said. "We are going the opposite. We are looking for something quick that can be made and modified quickly. That is our goal." But the big question is how useful it will be. Delanie is proof of how children overcome. She had difficulty thinking of something that she can't already do. What does she hope her new prosthetic will help her do? "I don't know," Delanie said. "I don't know what I can do." ROSY PINK PETUNIA Delanie's mom, Janet Gallagher, remembered when Delanie was a baby and got her first prosthetic to help her crawl. "She just dragged it along," Gallagher said. It was quickly tossed aside. Delanie has had two other prostheses, used only to help her steady and steer her bike, hold up a fishing pole or brace her bow and arrow. "It didn't help her," Gallagher said. "She could do better without it." Using her stump, Delanie figured out how to color, use scissors, tie her shoes, braid her hair, put her hair in a ponytail and play the piano. On a recent day at school at the Gateway Science Academy in south St. Louis, she needed no help. She carried her books...

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