'Smart parts' for amputees and others: Medicine’s next big thing?

Published: Sep. 13, 2018 at 3:52 PM EDT
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Artificial implants help thousands of people get back on their feet every year, but there can be risks.

Now, engineers and biologists are teaming up to develop “smart parts”.

Every year in the United States, 185,000 people need an amputation. More than 300,000 have hip replacements, and 700,000 have knee replacements.

Infection is a growing problem for patients living with prosthetics and implants. But now, some scientists are researching and designing “smart parts,” which are resistant to dangerous bacteria.

Michael Carroll has spent the past 10 years custom designing replacement limbs for amputees. His work gives patients mobility, but sometimes a prosthesis comes with risk.

“The very nature of a prosthetic socket – warm environment with good amount of moisture and darkness – makes it more likely they’ll have an infection,” Carroll said.

Carroll’s concern about infection is just one medical complication that scientist Melanie Coathup and her colleagues are trying to eliminate. Coathup is an internationally known orthopedic expert, now at the University of Central Florida, working to make traditional replacement parts “smarter” and last longer.

“When you put an implant in, they last very well, but can we make that even better,” Coathup said.

Coathup and her team are taking commercially available titanium implants and coating them with hydroxyapatite, a hard-mineral substance much like human bone or teeth.

“We can spray these onto the implant surfaces with certain designs of hip replacements and knee replacements and they will encourage bone to attach,” Coathup said.

Down the road, Coathup and her team also want to know if coating the implants with drugs could help prevent infection, someday giving Michael Carroll’s handiwork another benefit for patients.

Coathup is also leading the newly formed prosthetic interface cluster, a team of UCF scientists, engineers and biologists working together to develop the smart implants and other prosthetics.




REPORT: MB #4471

BACKGROUND: People can lose all or part of an arm or leg for a number of reasons; including problems with blood circulation, injuries, traffic accidents and military combat, cancer, or birth defects. Some amputees have phantom pain, which is the feeling of pain in the missing limb. Other physical problems include surgical complications and skin problems, if you wear an artificial limb. Many amputees use an artificial limb. Learning how to use it takes time. Recovery from the loss of a limb can be hard. Sadness, anger, and frustration are common.


INFECTION: Any wound from amputation or other surgery is at risk of becoming infected because the skin opening can allow germs or dirt to enter the bloodstream. Infections can cause tenderness or pain, fever, redness, swelling and/or discharge. These infections can lead to further complications or surgery or even death if not treated properly. Signs of infection include a red area that does not go away when prosthesis is off, blisters caused by pressure or friction between socket/liner and skin, the area around the wound is warm or hot, there are red lines running up the extremity from the wound, severe tenderness or pain, and fever.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: Melanie Coathup, PhD, at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine has been hired to lead the university’s new Prosthetic Interfaces faculty research cluster, which will work on issues involving neurostimulator implants and prosthetics. Current prosthetic devices can be prone to degeneration over time, as well as infection. That’s why the materials they’re made from – and the substances they’re coated with – are vital. Vital, too, are the development of smart sensors, which could provide early warning systems for prosthetic device failure. Coathup anticipates interest in their research from hospital systems, government entities like the U.S. Army, Department of Defense and DARPA, and private entities, with the potential for commercialization of any technology developed.