After Sean McHugh lost his right forearm in a construction accident 11 years ago, he was fitted with a prosthetic arm and hand. But simple acts, such as picking up a wine glass, putting on a coat or carrying a briefcase, were complicated undertakings, often fraught with frustration or mishaps. His grip might change unbidden or require a taxing effort.
McHugh tried two types of prostheses: One was cable-operated, and the other was myoelectric, which means it used a sensor to convert muscle movements to electrical signals to open and close the hand and vary grips. Both had limitations in terms of reliability and ease of use.
That changed last year when McHugh was fitted with a myoelectric prosthesis equipped with a built-in radio frequency identification reader. He keeps several RFID tags in his shirt pocket, on his belt and in other convenient locations, and each is programmed to affect a specific position, such as a pinching grip. To get his prosthetic hand to move the way he wants, he simply passes it over the appropriate tag. He is now able to control his right hand, making it easier to put a gallon of milk in the refrigerator and carry out other routine tasks.
McHugh was one of several amputees chosen to test the prosthetic device, called MORPH (Myoelectrically Operated RFID Prosthetic Hand), and provide feedback to the researchers at Infinite Biomedical Technologies, which developed the system. "The day I got the prototype, it was a joyous occasion," McHugh says. "It changed my future. It's a wonderful feeling to reach for something and have my hand go in the right position. This saves me time and gives me confidence. It replaces disability with ability."
Infinite Biomedical Technologies, a Baltimore-based medical device maker spun out of Johns Hopkins University in 1997, describes its mission as finding innovative breakthroughs to improve prostheses. And the company believes it has done just that with its MORPH product. "The power of RFID is that it allows the patient to take control of their environment to whatever degree they want," says Ananth Natarajan, co-founder and board member of the privately held firm.
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