Six-year-old Alex Pring was born without his right arm from just above the elbow.
“It is not genetic, it is not amniotic band syndrome – it is just one of those things,” Alyson Pring, Alex’s mom, told O&P Business News. “[The doctors] said for some reason the blood supply got blocked to that part of the body when I was 4 weeks pregnant… By the time I was 5 months pregnant, I realized Alex only had one arm and they had no idea why.”
It was not until Alex was older that Alyson decided to look into getting him a prosthetic arm.
“[My husband and I] had always talked about how we would not do anything until he was ready because I am part of a couple of groups who said that Shriners Hospital for Children did not have anything to offer for any child with no elbow,” Pring said. “It would be a claw device or something powered with the elbow and that did not sound like something that would be useful to him.”
Acquiring a robotic arm
With some research, Pring came across a video of a robohand developed by Ivan Owen and Richard Van As, which led her e-Nable, an open-source community that provides plans for prosthetic devices on its website. She began asking questions and found that while they had plenty of prosthetic hands, they did not have anything for someone without an elbow.
Images: KT Crabb Photography
“[e-NABLE] did not have anything because all the hands they have made so far are powered by joint movement,” Pring said. “Everyone said if he does not have a joint that it would not be able to power anything.”
Determined to find a way, Pring contacted Albert Manero II, a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student at the University of Central Florida and volunteer for e-Nable, who offered to develop a brand new solution for Alex.
“We put together a team of engineers from the University of Central Florida ranging from computer, electrical, mechanical, aerospace and civil engineers as well as computer scientists, and we put our heads together to figure out how we use what we have learned in school and in our experience with research and internships and professional work to build a solution for this,” Manero said. “We knew what we wanted to do, and that we could use 3-D printers for it, but the hardest part was to figure out how to tell the hand to open and close. Once we settled on the idea of using electromyography things went a lot faster.”
It took Manero and colleagues approximately 7 weeks to construct Alex’s hand and arm, which cost around $350 in parts. The outside of the arm is made via 3-D printing, but the inside consists of three lithium polymer batteries and sensor boards that tell the hand to open and close when Alex flexes his upper arm.
“It was incredible to help someone with our engineering,” Manero said. “It is a lot different than designing machines that we normally make for our research, but very rewarding just to see his face light up when he had the experience of picking something up for the first time or being able to pull out a chair with two arms. Seeing his confidence grow was what was remarkable for us.”
After Alex received the arm in August, Manero and colleagues began working on another version that includes an elbow, which they plan on giving to him toward the end of the year. Other projects they began working on are an arm for a young girl and an exoskeleton-like device for a child with a genetic bone disease to help him walk and give him more function.
“We are excited to see what else they can do,” Alyson Pring said. “They genuinely seem like they just want to help as many kids as they can and that to me is awesome.”
Limbitless Endowment Scholarship
Through their work, Manero and colleagues want to help build confidence in and inspire children who have a limb deficiency or who are missing a limb.
“We want individuals like Alex to go on and pursue their dreams and try to change the world and that includes going into the sciences,” Manero said. “We want to encourage young kids that they can go and do incredible things and try to change the world as well.”
The group has started the Limbitless Endowed Scholarship that helps individuals with limb deficiencies study science, technology, engineering or mathematics at the University of Central Florida.
“We know that in Alex’s case he did not have as much confidence before he was able to get this arm, so we want people in that field to take their new confidence and go on to pursue their dreams,” Manero said. — by Casey Tingle
Disclosure: Partial funding was provided by Stratasys.