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The three men are the first to undergo what doctors refer to as “bionic reconstruction,” which includes a voluntary amputation, the transplantation of nerves and muscles and learning to use faint signals from them to command the hand.
Previously, people with bionic hands have primarily controlled them with manual settings.
“This is the first time we have bionically reconstructed a hand,” said Dr. Oskar Aszmann of the Medical University of Vienna, who developed the approach with colleagues. “If I saw these kinds of patients five to seven years ago, I would have just shrugged my shoulders and said, ‘there’s nothing I can do for you.’”
Aszmann and colleagues described the cases of the three men in a report published online Wednesday in the journal Lancet. The men decided on amputation only after having the bionic hand strapped onto their injured hand, to see how the robotic one might function.
For Milorad Marinkovic, 30, who lost the use of his right hand in a motorbike accident more than a decade ago, the bionic hand has allowed him to hold things like a sandwich or bottle of water — and more importantly, to play with his three children.
“I can throw things, but it is harder to catch a ball, because my right hand is still not quite as quick and natural (as my left),” said the Vienna based-clerk.
Dr. Simon Kay, who authored an accompanying commentary and performed Britain’s first hand transplant, said there would always be major limits to bionic hands. He pointed out that the brain has thousands of ways to send messages to the human hand but that a robotic prosthetic can’t handle such complexity.
Patients like Marinkovic, however, have few complaints about the bionic hand, which proved especially popular with his son. When he first got the device, his son, then 4, would put on the bionic hand and proudly walk around with it, telling the other kids in his kindergarten class that “my father is a robot.”
“I can do almost everything with it. I just don’t have any feeling in it.”
Aszmann estimated the new procedure costs around 30,000 euros ($ 42,000). The study was paid for by groups including the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development and a laboratory which receives funds from Otto Bock, maker of the prosthetics used.