Press release | 26.4.2016
Munich, 26 April 2016 - The human capacity to walk with fluidity is the sum of complicated micro-movements and delicate adjustments. This becomes painstakingly clear when limbs are replaced with prosthetic body parts, which typically lack the body's innate gift for graceful movement. A new generation of "smart" prostheses invented by American biophysicist Hugh Herr (51) solves the problem: Equipped with sensors and micro-processors, the innovative knee and ankle prosthetics adjust to changes in posture, walking speed and terrain for an unprecedented level of natural motion. Moreover, the "bionic" prostheses even allow amputees to resume sports, all the way to the competitive level.
For this achievement, the European Patent Office (EPO) has named Hugh Herr as one of three finalists for the European Inventor Award 2016 in the category "Non-European countries". The winners of the 11th edition of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Lisbon on 9 June.
"Hugh Herr's inventions have launched a new generation of intelligent prostheses that have helped thousands of people to regain a natural walk and mobile lifestyle," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli announcing the European Inventor Award 2016 finalists. "The fact that the invention helped the inventor to realise his lifetime goal of climbing mountains again after a tragic injury makes the achievement even more remarkable."
Considered a leading pioneer in the field of biomedical devices, Herr heads the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab with a prolific output of innovations. Inside Herr's knee prosthesis, marketed as the Rheo Knee, a "magnetorheological" fluid adjusts its level of resistance based on feedback from sensors, thereby mimicking the changing flex of the human knee. And built into the world's first powered ankle-foot prosthetics device, the BiOM T2, is a motor drive that actively propels the wearer's step for a natural walk.
"This is the first prosthesis in history that's powered, that emulates lost muscle function," says Herr. "It actually injects energy into the walking or running gait, emulating lost muscle function."
The state of the art in prosthetics was in dire need of improvement when Herr, an amputee from a tragic climbing accident at the age of 17, began his lifelong pursuit of designing artificial limbs to resume his climbing career. From 1971 onwards, the rigid Jaipur Foot - crafted from solid rubber - had allowed wearers to walk clumsily with a realistic-looking limb, forgoing the fine motor-skill adjustments of the appendage. Even the newer generation of carbon-fibre prostheses fell short of providing the impact dampening and fluid load adjustments needed for a full-fledged range of motion, not to mention athletic pursuits such as running or mountain climbing.
In order to solve the problem, Herr studied the delicate micro-movements involved in a person's natural gait and searched for ways to emulate the process through an adaptive prosthesis. And because a natural walk requires by-the-second adjustments to changing posture and environmental factors, his research focused on creating artificial limbs that can alter their movements instantly, based on feedback from microprocessors. This approach, called biomechatronics, led to the invention of a knee prosthesis loaded with computational intelligence and sensors to monitor weight load and body position. The constant sensory feedback serves to actuate the resistance of the prosthetic knee using "magnetorheological" fluid, a dampening liquid controlled by an electromagnet. In a similar fashion, Herr's ankle prosthesis uses computer signals to activate a battery-powered spring to recreate the active boost needed to propel the wearer forward in a fluid motion.
The Rheo Knee and BiOM T2 ankle take prosthetic design into the realm of bionics - the intersection of medicine and information technology - with life-changing results for amputees worldwide. Not only has the inventor fulfilled his personal dream by becoming the world's first athlete with a major amputation to perform in a sport on par with elite-level, able-bodied persons - in Herr's case as a competitive climber - over 1 000 people have since been fitted with his bionic prostheses, many of them war veterans and fellow athletes. At the 2015 International Paralympic Committee's Athletics World Championships in Qatar, the team of Icelandic prosthetics company Ossur - licensees of Hugh Herr's invention - dominated with 17 medals and six world records.
Ever since his injury at the age of 17, Herr began fashioning his own prostheses with the goal of once again scaling mountains and rock walls as a world-class athlete. Channelling his pursuits into an academic career, he earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at MIT in 1993, followed by a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University in 1998. As a postdoctoral fellow at MIT in the field of biomedical devices, Herr started research on advanced leg prostheses and so-called orthoses; devices capable of mimicking the functionality of the human leg. Since becoming the head of the Biomechatronics Group at MIT's Media Lab in 2000, Herr perfected the "bionic" knee and ankle prosthesis, authoring more than 30 patent applications and patents, and publishing more than 60 peer-reviewed papers in the process. Herr's inspiring personal story is also the subject of a biography, Second Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr.
In 2007, Herr founded spin-off company iWalk (now BionX Medical Technologies, Inc.) and mobilised EUR 20 million to perfect bionic limbs technology. Marketed since 2007, the gait-adaptive knee prosthesis are licensed to Ossur, an Icelandic company that is currently #2 in the prosthetics market with EUR 434 million in turnover (2015). Released in 2010, the BiOM T2 foot and ankle prosthesis is also a great success on the market with more than 1 000 devices distributed as of April 2014, half worn by US veterans. Third party analysts expect the value of the global prosthetics market to reach EUR 19.2 billion by 2017.
Through the implementation of microchips and sensors, "bionic" prostheses are at the intersection between rehabilitative sciences and computer technology. Powered by patented inventions, this new generation of prosthetics not only compensates for lost body functions, but hold the potential to enhance the human body beyond its ordinary capabilities. Read more about prosthetics in the 21st century.
Director External Communications
European Patent Office
Tel. +49 (0)89 2399 1820
Mobile: +49 (0)163 8399527