Changing lives: bionics and technology – science fiction becomes science fact

Many will have already seen the remarkable LinkedIn clip of Tilly Lockey who lost both arms as a baby. Her incredible journey with UK-based company Open Bionics was, until recently, quite simply the stuff of science fiction. Today pioneering partnerships between medical science and technology offer severely injured or disabled people the chance to lead fuller lives. But are such advances available to all? And are those who need it most getting the treatment they deserve?

OpenBionics-15-2-1 - Tilley Lockey

Dealing with a patient who is left with a life-long impairment or disability is a very complex issue. A number of friends of mine who practice as serious injury solicitors or in areas of healthcare law such as clinical negligence, know this all too well. Clients often suffer life-changing injuries with serious implications for both their physical and mental well-being. In any event, dealing with the facts of the case and endeavouring to find an acceptable outcome, often through means of financial compensation is only a very small part of the rehabilitation journey. Even if solicitors are able to secure a solid compensation package, the road ahead can remain bleak.

Having been born with mild cerebral palsy, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. My challenges have seldom compared to those far less fortunate than me. But there is hope on the horizon. Medical science coupled with mind-boggling technology is coming ever closer to offering those with the most critical physical impairments a new lease of life. One area, which has received considerable recent attention is the field of bionics especially in relation to prosthetics.

Not too long ago, prosthetic limbs were clumsy and archaic in their design – something to be hidden under clothes, not displayed with pride to the public. Now they are complex, high-tech feats of engineering. The amazing limbs on display play in the LinkedIn clip are called “Hero Arms” and have been developed by Bristol-based firm, ‘Open Bionics’. Their dexterity and range of movement is quite simply astounding. Also noticeable is just how cool they look! As Tilly mentions, her previous set of prosthetics were “weird and creepy”. Now, she enjoys wearing her new Hero Arms. More than that, she feels “proud to wear them”, she says.

Nevertheless, despite these incredible advances, it is clear there are still a number of practical obstacles which must be addressed, not least the issue of cost and accessibility. A recent article in Raconteur for The Independent highlighted the convoluted NHS procurement processes which prevent patients from accessing the latest in next-gen prosthetics. Whilst Tilly’s Hero Arms may be available in other countries, such as France, patients in the UK must pay for them themselves.

3D printing has often been looked to providing the means to encourage greater production at a more competitive cost. This new form of manufacturing involves creating three dimensional solid objects from a digital file through setting down successive layers of material such as plastic. The method is not just cost effective, but also more accurate, meaning that prosthetics are more likely to be ‘right first time’ removing the need for multiple attempts. Nevertheless, production methods need to improve far more if cutting edge technology is going to be genuinely available for the masses.

That huge leaps and bounds have been made in this field cannot be ignored. Furthermore, the fact that patients such as Tilly are wearing their bionics with pride represents a notable shift in attitude. The increasing positive media coverage surrounding the disability movement especially in relation to worldwide events such as the Paralympic Games has also helped to provide a positive backdrop to an area of medical science which was previously barely spoken about.

Yet more must be done to ensure that the fruits of all this incredible research and development are enjoyed by those who need it most. Production methods and work-flows require further enhancement to ensure treatment is affordable, whilst buying processes need to be further streamlined to ensure access.

Progress in often slow especially in an area as complex and sophisticated as this, though with each halting step it seems things are slowly moving in the right direction.