Prosthetic Categories

Chicago Lab at the Forefront of Developing Next-Gen Bionic Limbs

    The World Health Organization estimates that there are at least 30 million people worldwide who require some type of prosthetic limb. And the impact of global conflicts, from Ukraine to Gaza, is contributing to an increase in these numbers.

     A Chicago-based lab is beginning to create more intuitive and responsive prosthetic limbs.

    Over the years, experts have noted minimal progress in prosthetics; however, there have been significant advancements in prosthetic limb technology in recent decades. The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago is leading the way in developing cutting-edge bionic prostheses for the next generation.

    In an interview with WTTW News, Dr. Levi Hargrove, who leads the team at the Regenstein Foundation Center for Bionic Medicine, said that advancements in prosthetic limb development picked up in the late 1990s when computerized bionic limbs were being developed. Then researchers started adding more sensors and motors to the bionic limbs “to give them a sense of response to the user.”

    Now, Dr. Hargrove revealed that the researchers developing next-generation prosthetic limbs are not just making advancements; they are on the verge of a revolutionary transformation in clinical care, promising a future where prosthetic limbs are more intuitive and responsive than ever before. 

    More than a decade of development  

    Chicago-based sculptor Terry Karpowicz, who has been testing and developing prosthetic legs with the lab for over a decade, was impressed with the latest version of the leg he is testing. Karpowicz lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in 1975 and, in an interview with WTTW News, says that he has seen the progression from wooden to fiberglass legs to powered knees.

    Karpowicz compares the latest version to a Tesla compared to a pickup truck and says that the freedom of movement the new prosthetic leg provides allows him to concentrate on other things.  

    “A leg like this will change someone’s life overnight,” Karpowicz told WTTW News.

    Suzanne Finucane, director of research operations at the Center for Bionic Medicine, has also seen remarkable progress during her time at the lab. In an interview with WTTW News, Finucane notes that their first device was considerably heavier than the current one.

    Sensors within the prosthetic leg pick up signals from the muscles in Karpowicz’s residual limb, controlling the limb's movement. Based on Karpowicz's actions, different muscles are activated, and the sensors relay data to the lab’s engineering team, which can fine-tune the movements.

    Designed for mass production  

    Despite the sophisticated technology involved, Dr. Hargrove said they are making every effort to reduce the overall cost of the prosthetic leg. One way to do that is by using components from other industries whenever possible. This is a conscious strategy, as getting the parts at a reasonable price will make the prosthetic leg available to millions of people in the future.

    The lab’s research is funded by multiple sources, including philanthropic support and the military. Dr. Hargrove noted that the Department of Defense is interested in this technology and has funded much of the original work.

    Research engineer Frank Ursetta finds great satisfaction in designing and developing components for the lab’s prosthetics. He takes pride in knowing that his work is improving the lives of others. For him, it’s not just about creating products that people use, but more importantly, creating products that genuinely help people.

    The groundbreaking work at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab represents a significant leap forward in prosthetic limb technology. The future of bionic prostheses looks brighter than ever.