Powerful prostheses

In days gone by losing a body part would have meant having to put up with a pretty useless substitute for the real thing, think Long-John Silver’s wooden peg leg or Captain Hook’s, well…hook. Nowadays, amazing technology has enabled scientists to create prostheses (artificial body parts) that perform just as well as the original and enables the owner to live a normal life (not being a pirate).

Oscar Pistorius is a world champion sprinter who won a silver medal for his country, South Africa, in the men’s 4 x 400m relay at the 2011 World Athletics Championships. He is an inspiration to many people because he has achieved his sporting achievements using two prosthetic legs – giving him the title ‘the fastest man on no legs’. His prostheses, called flex foot cheetahs, are an engineering masterpiece; they are so good at mimicking the human leg that he is able to compete alongside (and beat many) able-bodied athletes. The cheetahs are made up of a special material called carbon fibre that stores energy from the impact on the ground and then releases it, propelling the runner forwards. They are so good that some people have said that Oscar should not compete against able bodied athletes because he has an unfair advantage!

You can find out more about Oscar and his cheetahs here.

As the engineering of artificial body parts gets more advanced, the idea of the ‘bionic’ man is looking less science fiction and more science fact. Scientists have developed complicated artificial retinas that enable blind people to see and artificial hands that connect nerve endings with tiny electronic sensors which allow the person to feel.

It is not just the design of prostheses that are getting better all the time but also the way that they are made. In June 2011, a woman in the Netherlands had a new lower jaw made by a 3D printer. Powdered metal, called titanium, acted like the ‘ink’ which was sprayed on in layers and melted together using the heat from a laser. Because the jaw was made into exactly the right shape the woman recovered very quickly from the operation used to fit it. In the future, scientists hope to make human organs using the same technique, although this is a way off yet.

You can read the full news story here.

Many scientists are involved in the design and fitting of prostheses and the care of the patients who have them. You could be involved as:

  • prosthetist – designing and fitting prostheses
  • clinical engineer – developing new types of prostheses and the equipment used to make them
  • physiotherapist – helping people with their movement after having a prostheses fitted
  • health psychologist – helping patients and families cope with illness
  • medical physicist – involved in the development of bionic body parts (prostheses that include electronics)


This article was written by Gemma from Snapshot Science.