Touch Bionics, a Scottish firm, has bagged the 2008 Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for its bionic hand. It has been hailed as a world first.
The Duke of Edinburgh presented the team with a £50,000 prize and the solid gold MacRobert Award medal at the Academy Awards Dinner at Merchant Taylors' Hall in London Monday night.
The i-LIMB Hand, developed by Touch Bionics, is a prosthetic device that looks and acts like a real human hand with five individually powered digits, heralding a new generation in bionics and patient care, the Royal Academy said in a press release.
The i-LIMB uses leading-edge electronic and mechanical engineering techniques and is manufactured using high-strength plastics. The result is a next-generation prosthetic device that is lightweight, robust and highly appealing to both patients and healthcare professionals.
"The hand has two main unique features," explained Stuart Mead, CEO of Touch Bionics.
"The first is that we put a motor into each finger, which means that each finger is independently driven and can articulate.
"The second is that the thumb is rotatable through 90 degrees, in the same way as our thumbs are.
"The hand is the first prosthetic hand that replicates both the form and the function of the human hand."
The hand does not require surgery to be fitted to the patient's stump, according to him.
"There are two electrodes that sit on the skin that pick up myoelectric signals," he explained.
signal, also called a motor action potential, is an electrical impulse that produces contraction of muscle fibers in the body.
These impulses are created by the contraction of muscle fibres in the body.
"They are used by the computer in the back of the hand, which does two things: it interprets those signals and it controls the hand," he told BBC News.
What makes a myoelectrical arm unique is its ability to function with the amputee's muscle movements, reacting accordingly. It enables wearers to pinch, grip, and release objects, unlike earlier prostheses. The device is compatible with daily activities and can be donned and doffed independently.
Other companies and organisations, such as the US space agency (NASA) and the country's military research arm, Darpa, have developed more advanced hands.
"All of those are laboratory-based - ours is commercially available," said Mead.
"The i-LIMB Hand is one of the most compelling devices in the world prosthetics market," he says.
"Since we launched it in July 2007 over 200 patients have been fitted with it all over the world - in just a few months it has evolved from an exciting new technology into a new benchmark in prosthetic devices."
Ray Edwards is a quadruple amputee who had the i-LIMB hand fitted a month ago and says it has changed his life. Ray survived Hodgkins Disease only to have all four limbs amputated in 1987 after he developed septicaemia. He now runs a construction company customising houses for disabled people and is acting chair of the UK Limbless Association.
"When I first looked down and saw the i-LIMB hand I just cried," says Ray. "i-LIMB has helped me more psychologically than physically. That was the first time in 21 years that I had seen a hand opening there - it made me feel I was just Ray again. You can do so much with technology but it's got to make the user happy - and i-LIMB does!"
Edwards likened wearing the hand to "carrying a brick".
However, he said, the benefits far outweighed any negatives. "I'm very fortunate," he said.
The i-LIMB Hand started life in 1963 in a research programme at Edinburgh's Princess Margaret Rose Hospital to help children affected by Thalidomide. Touch Bionic's core intellectual property is patent-secured and, through the development of the i-LIMB Hand, the company now leads the upper limb prosthetics market in three core areas: cosmesis (skin), controls and mechanical form factor.
"As a project, it scored very highly on all three of our criteria," says Dr Geoff Robinson, Chairman of the MacRobert Award Judging Panel. "In addition to many specific innovations in the design and fabrication of the artificial hand, Touch Bionics have fundamentally changed the benchmark for what constitutes an acceptable prosthesis. Their approach to marketing, in what is universally acknowledged to be a difficult market to penetrate, showed a very high standard of focus, commitment and success. The social benefit for those involved must be obvious to everyone. Having tried it myself, I can vouch for the fact that it really does work in the way portrayed, even if one is fortunate enough to still have one's own real hand alongside."
The firm is now looking to improve the design of the i-Limb as well as expanding its range of smart prosthetics.
"We are working a full-arm system - we have a prototype wrist, elbow and shoulder," said Mead.
London's Science Museum will be showcasing the iLIMB prosthetic hand in a special display in the Antenna science news gallery. The free exhibition runs from Thursday 12 June for three months. The display will give visitors a unique opportunity to see the prize-winning technology for themselves. The Antenna gallery is devoted entirely to new developments in the fast-moving world of science and technology represented through a series of constantly-updated exhibitions.
The iLIMB technology beat off three competitors to claim the Royal Academy of Engineering award.
The other finalists included a robotic system designed to care for millions of biological samples in sub-zero temperatures; a chemical sensor which could detect early stages of disease and a compact soot filter for diesel cars.