The Bionic Man; A High-Tech Prosthetic Arm from the Pentagon Could Change the Lives of People Needing Limbs

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Byline: Martha Brant

Jesse Sullivan, 59, is the world's first "bionic man," his doctors like to boast. But he's surely not who Hollywood had in mind with the "Six Million Dollar Man" TV series back in the '70s. "We can rebuild him. We have the technology," the show's opening narration intoned. But the stuff of the lead character Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, was science fiction. Sullivan, of Dayton, Tenn., was a worker who lost both arms in a power-line accident. Today he's a real-life high-tech wonder. Doctors have "rewired" him by putting his severed arm nerves in his chest muscles. Now his mind actually "senses" his missing hands and he moves his mechanical arm by contracting those muscles. The TV character was worth $6 million, Sullivan jokes; "I'm not."

The technology Sullivan's testing, though, is worth a lot more. The government is pouring about $50 million over the next four years into building a better arm. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)--the Pentagon folks who brought us the Internet--has pulled together 30 science and industry leaders to do what the private sector could never do alone. The market for mechanical arms is just too small. Some 80 percent of the more than 1 million Americans missing a limb have lost a leg--most often due to diabetes. But the population of amputees is changing a bit because of war. Good body armor has left about 400 service members alive yet missing an appendage. "These amputees have 60 years of life ahead of them," says Stuart Harshbarger, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins's Applied Physics Laboratory, the lead DARPA partner. "We want to give them a chance to do the things they enjoyed before."

Before government funding, one of the DARPA team members-- the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC)--had already overseen Sullivan's surgery and different experimental arms for him to try. (He busted one trying to start a lawn mower.) Now, DARPA has given academia and business a jump-start to develop a more sophisticated thought-controlled arm that Sullivan--and eventually other patients--can use.

Sullivan wants to be able to tie his shoes himself. He would never have believed he'd be able to when he lost his arms five years ago. Back then, he was shocked when doctors fitted him with an old-fashioned "hook." "You mean we haven't come any farther than that?" Sullivan asked. But arms and hands are a lot harder to replace than legs and feet. …