The journey of prosthetics: from old fashioned to high tech

By Xinxin Yang


Boston is home to several companies and organizations that have been and continue to make a mark in prosthetics. United Prosthetics has been a part of changes in the industry since World War I while Bionx is a newcomer using newest technologies for devices and Limbs for Life is working to expand prosthetic use globally.

United Prosthetics Inc. has been using every innovation in prosthetics for a century. And it is looking at when 3-D printing will be a technology that will advance the field again.

Greig Martino is the owner of United Prosthetics. He thinks new technology is great but is still in its developing stage. “3D printing is great, it’s absolutely on the way, but right now it cannot give me the intricacy and all the internal mechanism we need,” he said.

Greig Martino adjusts the size of a socket in accordance with the client’s needs. Photo by Xinxin Yang

Founded by Philip Martino, the company followed the traditional way to design prosthetics, as his grandson Greig Martino described today. “At that time they designed prosthetics more like working as a craftsman, they need to pay much attention to every detail,” he said.

Now the landscape  has changed. Most of the prosthetics devices available today have the same design, with a customer-fitted socket, a supporting pylon and a prosthetic foot that touches the ground.

Greig Martino showing the prosthetic foot back in 1950s and the modern one. Photo by Xinxin Yang
Greig Martino showing the prosthetic foot back in 1950s and the modern one. Photo by Xinxin Yang

Greig Martino also saw customers changed during all these years. Back then, his grandfather mostly dealt with U.S. veterans from the battlefield, and a few of them had become the company’s initial investors.  Martino said customers today not only include veterans, but also come from other countries and area,  as well as have severe diseases including cancerous tumors in the bone or muscle of the limb.

“Some of the customers would find out our contact even if they are in a remote area, for example, Africa. We can still make it work to serve them as we can.” Martino said.

Clients from developing countries

That’s an obvious trend in today’s globally connected world: amputees are seeking out help outside of their countries, not only for buying prosthetics, but also for quality prosthetic care. Lucy Fraser, executive director of Limbs for Life, a global non-profit organization dedicated to provide prosthetics care, said the number of international requests has been increasing over the years.

“In the past two years we saw 42 percent increase in our prosthetics care applications. The waiting list range from 60 to 16. Last year we had 500 clients outside of the United States.” Fraser said. Limbs for Life mainly focuses on helping amputees in poor financial conditions. Many of them don’t have insurance that could cover their basic prosthetic device, and many of them cannot find help in their own country, so that’s when Limbs for Life steps in to help these people in need.

“We partnered with clinics from 29 states to provide new prosthetics to clients, and we can let people to apply for a new component after three years, it’s depended on the activity level of the person. ” Fraser said.

As for new technologies coming along the way in prosthetics industry, Fraser said, “we let the clinics themselves evaluate the clients to recommend the best for the individual. Some of our patients can get high technology prosthetics because that best suits their needs, but some may get the basic one just as he needs.”

Fraser added that, “we are really excited about the new technologies. We watched it advance over the couple decades dramatically. There are just new things out there all the time, but the challenge is that a lot are not very affordable, many people cannot use them right now.”

Envision the future

It’s true that a lot of amputees are still looking forward to trying out new technologies that make artificial limbs operate more effectively. Massachusetts may be leading the way of making changes as a few companies strive for more innovative ways of designing prosthetics devices.

BIONX, a prosthetics company in Bedford, provides an example of the cutting-edge prosthetics in the world. The company’s first products are designed from the MIT Media Lab mechatronics department. Led by Prof. Hugh Herr, the team designed the very first and innovative bionic artificial limbs that can mimic a natural gait.

Scroll to first see how prosthetics developed from wood to bionic:

Source: UPMC HealthBeat

Brian Frasure, the BIONX’s clinical education director, noted that the previous products are more than just functional. “The BiOM is the first and only lower extremity ankle/foot system that incorporates powered plantarflexion in late stance (power at push off). We use a combination of a motor, three microprocessors, and sensor technology to mimic the function of the calf muscles to provide both stability and power back to the user. Many of our users tell us that they feel like they have their real leg back.”

As Frasure pointed out, the company’s approach to the world’s most effective and functional prosthetic devices is constantly upgrading.  “We currently have a project and prototype of a powered AFO (Ankle Foot Orthotic),” he said. “This powered brace could have huge implications and benefits for those with drop foot and partial lower extremity paralysis in restoring normal ankle function. This type of device would be useful to a larger market.”

He also talked about how the company is working on making high-tech prosthetics more affordable. And what he suggested may give a lot of amputees a chance in getting these advanced devices. “We have been working with CMS (Medicare) for some time in trying to establish an individual reimbursement code for BiOM. We have made slow progress and are currently working on another phase currently. We hope to have a CMS code by first quarter of 2017 which will also give us access into private insurance as well.”

From United Prosthetics to BIONX, the prosthetics industry has evolved over the past century  in providing more opportunities and services to amputees and extending it beyond New England. Those in the industry now see more change coming in the years ahead.





About Xinxin Yang 3 Articles

Xinxin is an Emerson College graduate with a M.A. in Journalism. She is passionate about storytelling, she believes everyone has a unique story and the best part of being a journalism student is always learning something new by talking to people from all levels of society. Previously she covered topics in politics, social issue, lifestyle and health. In her spare time, she loves traveling around and making her favorite noodle soup at home, and she loves to meet new friends, so don't hesitate to contact her if you want to chat!