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The Bionic Man is No Longer Hollywood Fantasy


Although the word “bionic” was only coined in 1958, humans have flirted with the notion of attaching machines to the body to enhance performance since ancient Rome.

The idea was even given the Hollywood treatment in the 1970s, with the character of Colonel Steve Austin in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” Back then, a “bionic man” seemed like pure fantasy.

Fast forward to today, however, and fantasy is becoming reality.

“Only very recently in human history has there been adequate science and technology to really put forth what Hollywood has labeled as ‘bionics,’” says Hugh Herr, Director of Biomechatronics at MIT and a double amputee himself.

Specifically, three crucial breakthroughs have propelled us to what’s being hailed as “a new bionic age.”

  1. Materials have become lighter, smarter and faster at making connections.
  2. Nanotechnology has shrunk complex processes and brought much greater and more precise control over the science.
  3. Advances in additive fabrication (also known as 3-D printing) have sped up the prototyping process.

And it’s morphed bionics from make-believe to big business…

Bionics by the Numbers

The global bionics market is now worth $12 billion per year. And it’s expected to rise to $18 billion by 2017.

It’s changing lives, too. For example…

  • Ear implants made by Cochlear Ltd. (CHEOY) have helped 219,000 deaf people to hear.
  • SynCardia Systems has developed a battery-powered artificial heart, which is a temporary solution for patients until a suitable donor organ is found. It’s been issued to more than 1,000 patients, some of whom are still using it five years later.
  • Last week, the FDA approved the first bionic eye. Made by Second Sight, it could help more than 100,000 Americans who suffer from the degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa. Recipients who are completely blind will be able to locate objects, detect movement, and improve orientation and mobility skills.
  • This week, the British government pledged $10 million to ensure all members of its Armed Forces, past and present, who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan get the most up-to-date prosthetic limbs available.
  • Later this year, trials will begin for an artificial hand that “feels” by sending feedback from each fingertip, palm and wrist back to the brain.

But what if you were to bring together all the bionic parts, either currently available on the market, or in testing? Would you have a bionic man?

“How to Build a Bionic Man”

This is the question that Shadow Robotics Inc. set out to answer for a documentary recently broadcast in the United Kingdom, entitled “How to Build a Bionic Man.”

“Rex” – short for “robotic exoskeleton” – is made up of mechanical organs and artificial limbs constructed in places from New Zealand to San Francisco.

For example…

  • He has a “spleen-on-a-chip,” developed by the Wyss Institute at Harvard University. This uses nanotechnology to replicate the action of a human spleen.
  • A prototype artificial kidney, developed by the University of California San Francisco, which packs the technology of a fridge-sized dialysis machine into a unit no bigger than a coffee cup.
  • An artificial pancreas, developed at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, which responds to the body’s glucose levels to regulate insulin supply.

Rex also has a microchip that acts as a rudimentary eye and interprets images.

In addition to the prosthetic arms and legs, Rex’s components are worth a cool $1 million.

There are some vital organs missing, like the stomach, but 60% to 70% of a human has effectively been rebuilt.

Rich Walker, Managing Director of Shadow Robotics, says, “We were by surprised how many of the parts of the body can be replaced.”

Better… Stronger… Faster

Sitting among his first prototypes, MIT’s Hugh Herr pauses to ask the question on everyone’s mind…

“Can we extend human bionic capability into realms that we can’t even imagine today?”

Ekso Bionics Founder, Eythor Bender, is one entrepreneur leading the charge. He’s developed the cheekily named HULC, or Human Universal Load Carrier.

The HULC is a “wearable robot,” designed to help soldiers carry 200-pound loads for hours over all kinds of terrain. And such technology could be used in civilian life and industrial jobs, in addition to the military.

Bionics are opening up possibilities in brain activity and perception, too. Duke University researchers recently rigged a neuroprosthesis that allowed rats to perceive infrared light. It represents the first time that a brain machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals. The rats adapted well to it, too.

If you’re looking for a route into this market, the key publicly traded players include the previously mentioned Cochlear Ltd., Medtronic, Inc. (MDT), St. Jude Medical, Inc. (STJ), Orthofix International N.V. (OFIX) and Ossur (OSSR), as well as privately held Second Sight Medical Products, Ekso Bionics and Biomet, Inc.

Move over, Steve Austin. You’ve got some competition.

Ahead of the tape,

Elizabeth Carney