Jesse Sullivan, 59, is the world's first "bionic man," his doctors like to boast. But he's surely not who Hollywood had in mind with the "Six Million Dollar Man" TV series back in the '70s. "We can rebuild him. We have the technology," the show's opening narration intoned. But the stuff of the lead character Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, was science fiction. Sullivan, of Dayton, Tenn., was a worker who lost both arms in a power-line accident. Today he's a real-life high-tech wonder. Doctors have "rewired" him by putting his severed arm nerves in his chest muscles. Now his mind actually "senses" his missing hands and he moves his mechanical arm by contracting those muscles. The TV character was worth $6 million, Sullivan jokes; "I'm not."
The technology Sullivan's testing, though, is worth a lot more. The government is pouring about $50 million over the next four years into building a better arm. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)--the Pentagon folks who brought us the Internet--has pulled together 30 science and industry leaders to do what the private sector could never do alone. The market for mechanical arms is just too small. Some 80 percent of the more than 1 million Americans missing a limb have lost a leg--most often due to diabetes. But the population of amputees is changing a bit because of war. Good body armor has left about 400 service members alive yet missing an appendage. "These amputees have 60 years of life ahead of them," says Stuart Harshbarger, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins's Applied Physics Laboratory, the lead DARPA partner. "We want to give them a chance to do the things they enjoyed before."
Before government funding, one of the DARPA team members-- the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC)--had already overseen Sullivan's surgery and different experimental arms for him to try. (He busted one trying to start a lawn mower.) Now, DARPA has given academia and business a jump-start to develop a more sophisticated thought-controlled arm that Sullivan--and eventually other patients--can use.
Sullivan wants to be able to tie his shoes himself. He would never have believed he'd be able to when he lost his arms five years ago. Back then, he was shocked when doctors fitted him with an old-fashioned "hook." "You mean we haven't come any farther than that?" Sullivan asked. But arms and hands are a lot harder to replace than legs and feet. While there are roughly two dozen "degrees of freedom"--independent movements--in the wrist and hands, there are only about six in the foot and ankle. The most advanced motorized arm on the market today is slow and makes only three movements--one at a time. "Half the people who need these things won't even wear them because they're ugly and don't give you a lot of functionality," says DARPA's Col. Geoffrey Ling, an Army doctor who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he got his inspiration for the project.
Ling has brought military discipline to his far-flung team of academics, engineers, doctors and business people. He hopes to produce a prototype that weighs no more than a typical human arm (eight pounds) and allows for 22 independent movements, which means an amputee could play the piano or thread a needle. "People say this is an impossible task," says Ling, who holds weekly teleconferences with the team and regularly briefs the FDA in hopes of starting clinical trials in 2009.
Sullivan's current arm allows three movements, and he still uses his old hook on the other side. He longs to bring home the lab arm he's been testing at RIC that makes six movements. With it, he can pick up and drink from a bottle. It all took practice, as he had to learn how to "tell" his arm nerves in his chest to move his prosthetic. But now, he says, "I lift my phantom arm just like you do."
A better prosthetic arm won't come cheap. The world's largest maker of prosthetics, Otto Bock HealthCare, expects that a new prototype will cost about $100,000. While vets will get it free, most civilian insurance companies won't cover it. Even with that price and pent-up demand, the company doesn't expect to do more than break even on a commercial model once the DARPA prototype is done.
As the first patient to test the new technology, Sullivan knows he's lucky. But what he really wants is the next-generation arm. By 2010, Ling hopes, a prosthetic will be on the market with sensors that will allow users to feel heat, cold and pressure. One day Sullivan hopes his prosthetic fingertips will really know when one of his 13 grandchildren is holding his hand. Steve Austin's parts cost $6 million. Jesse Sullivan's would be priceless.