MassDevice Q&A: Grant McGimpsey

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s impact on both the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the country will live on in the policies he helped shape and push through Congress.

But another, lesser-known contribution from the youngest Kennedy brother to the field of prosthetics research will be on full display at Worcester Polytechnic Institute Sept. 16, when WPI hosts Neuroprosthetics 2009, its first symposium, at the Center for Neuroprosthetics.

Grant McGimpsey, director of the Bioengineering Institute, told MassDevice he first met with the late senator to discuss starting a neuroprosthetics research institute at WPI more than four years ago. Out of that meeting, and a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center’s amputation ward, began a mission to help build a better arm.

McGimpsey told us about the genesis of the symposium, Kennedy’s impact and the challenges facing the advancement of upper extremity prosthetics.

For more information about the event, which is free and open to all, visit the symposium website.

MassDevice: Can you tell us the genesis for this symposium? What’s the goal?

Grant McGimpsey: About four years ago, we had a conversation with Sen. Kennedy. We knew about his interest in prosthetics and we were able to obtain some funding from congressional sources to start a multi-pronged project on implantable prosthetics. At that time I took a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s amputation ward. I saw folks there that had come back from Iraq and I just knew I had to do something about it personally. It became a bit of a crusade for me.

We spent some time here thinking about how we might build a center for neuroprosthetics research. We approached the John Adams Innovation Institute in Westborough (Mass.) and asked them how we might get some support to build a center that would become self-sustaining as a research organization, with a focus on implantable prosthetics and neuroprosthetics. We submitted a proposal and got that funded last year. As part of the proposal there was a section on holding a national conference on prosthetics and that’s what this symposium is.

The idea is not to just have a few people in to talk about their research. It’s very much about finding out what the prosthetics research landscape looks like across the country, finding out who potential collaborators might be, in order to solve the major challenges that still exist for implantable prosthetics and try to identify sources of support — government, private, or corporate support that would allow us to push those opportunities ahead.

MD: When you talk about natural limbs, I assume you’re speaking of prosthetics that function naturally, not the ability to regenerate limbs?

{IMAGELEFT:}GM: We’re actually talking about both. The “blue sky scenario” is there would be some series of processes that would allow regeneration of limbs. Certainly research is being done on that now and here at WPI in particular. What we’re aiming for is, on an upper limb amputation, the ability to implant a synthetic titanium post and to regenerate the tissue around that post. Regenerate the skin, regenerate the musculature, regenerate the neural tissue, fatty tissue, the vascular tissue, so that the post has all the physical support that a normal limb would have, and then to be able attach to that anything from a relatively primitive prosthetic to a more sophisticated prosthetic, which would perhaps be controlled externally, but eventually controlled by nervous impulses.

There’s quite a bit of research going on with that right now. There are externally warm prosthetics that are controlled by amplified nervous signals that come through voluntary muscle contraction, but we’re actually thinking of growing that beyond the neural tissue, so that it has a much more intimate link with the artificial part of that limb.

This is a long process and there a lot of challenges. We’re biting off a piece of that. This is very much in keeping with WPI’s history in engineering research and solving real-world problems, and that’s why it seemed natural for the senator to throw his support this way and for John Adams to support us.

MD: You don’t see a lot of advances being made commercially with prosthetics. Can you talk about the push-and-pull between academic research and government-funded research? Can the government pull the private sector along?

GM: The market is small, particularly for upper-limb prosthetics. What we’re trying to do is solve problems associated with amputations that are either the result of injury, rather than the result of diabetes.

The lower-level amputations are usually due to complications from diabetes or heart disease. Those are a little bit more tricky, because the amputation is because of poor circulation, and there’s the extra problem of stabilizing the vascular structure in the limb. But I think because it’s a relatively small market, people who have had amputation due to an accident, it does fall to government to help push the research along to the point where it can be commercialized.

There are some companies like iWalk, which just got $20 million, but those are relatively few and far between. So I think it really does fall to government to fund these kinds of programs. Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more amputations from injury due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I really feel personally that it’s our responsibility as citizens and as supporters of our government to try and make those people whole again.

But there’s a lot of very complicated scientific issues here and there’s a lot of work to be done. The people with the deeper pockets are the federal government. So I’m not expecting any corporate sponsorship of the basic research.

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