Written by Leonor Stjepic

Health

Out on a limb

A bionic hand in five days? How awesome is medical science? Here’s Leonor Stjepic, CEO of medical charity RAFT, on some of the innovations we can look forward to next year.

Research scientist Vaibhav Sharma with Smart Matrix, a material developed to aid wound healing without the need for skin grafts. Photos: RAFT.

Research scientist Vaibhav Sharma with Smart Matrix, a material developed to aid wound healing without the need for skin grafts. Photos: RAFT.

I’ve always been passionate about helping others, since I volunteered with Amnesty International in my teens. In fact, I even helped to set up the Amnesty Working Group for Children at the age of 19.

I’ve been chief executive of RAFT, a UK-based charity established by plastic surgeons who make scientific and medical advances to help patients who have suffered physical trauma, for the last decade. And I never cease to be amazed by the new technological developments that take place within our labs. Even more enjoyable is seeing the enormous impact we have had on so many people’s lives.

Next year will be a critical year for us with so many projects in the pipeline involving bionics, wound healing and reconstruction.

3D printers are becoming more commonplace in all industries but are especially useful within the medical field and will continue to play a large part in development over the next few years. They are already being used in the creation of prosthetic limbs, with a bionic hand now able to be produced within five days. It is hoped that this technology can be extended to incorporate the creation of organs, which, as we all know, continue to be in short supply through organ donation schemes.

“It won’t be too long before we have wearable devices which can detect sugar levels in diabetics, ovulation in women trying for pregnancy, shifting chemical balance in the brain and other useful, perhaps even life-saving medical equipment available to consumers for everyday use.”

At RAFT, we are focusing our efforts on developing 3D printing to support face, head and neck reconstruction for those having suffered trauma or congenital anomalies, or who have undergone surgery. This is desperately required, as only limited success has been achieved by the medical sector so far, with the use of metal implants, bone grafts and artificial prosthetics.

The new material we are developing will give a more natural look and encourage the patient’s own bone to grow and shape itself correctly. We hope to be at the pre-clinical trial stage by 2019, so next year will be critical in the development stage of this technology.

Bionics has of course been one of the hot medical topics this year across the globe, with the US successfully trialling a microchip implanted in the brain to control a prosthetic arm. Here in the UK, we have a slightly different focus and the team at RAFT is hoping to help those in the armed forces or civilians who have lost limbs through injury or trauma by way of a microchip planted under the skin.

The aim of this chip is to control messages between the brain and the bionic limb, allowing it to move intuitively, rather than forcibly, and making the wearer much more comfortable. We hope to begin clinical trials in 2017.

samples being cooled

In the US, where great investment is made into evolving medical technology, much is being made of consumer-led health maintenance.  Handheld or wearable technology has crossed over into the realms of fashion, allowing us to measure our heartbeat and test our own blood pressure through the likes of Fitbit and other smart watches.

Other gadgets, such as the BACtrack Skyn, can tell us how much alcohol we have in our system. This field continues to develop at a rapid pace and I suspect it won’t be too long before we have wearable devices which can detect sugar levels in diabetics, ovulation in women trying for pregnancy, shifting chemical balance in the brain and other useful, perhaps even life-saving medical equipment available to consumers for everyday use.

The theme of self-health responsibility continues with the introduction of the free app Antidote in the UK. Essentially, Antidote connects individuals with UK laboratories currently carrying out clinical trials. So if current treatment is not working or a different or supplementary type of treatment is required, the individual can find out what is taking place and where, which may be able to help. Conversely, a pharmaceutical firm can then also identify individuals who are willing to help trial their products.

With increasing pressure on doctors and hospitals, this type of technology is surely invaluable if it allows us to monitor our own health on a daily basis.

www.raft.ac.uk
@RAFT_CEO

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Written by Leonor Stjepic

Leonor Stjepic is the chief executive of Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust (RAFT), a charity established by plastic surgeons who make scientific and medical advances to help patients who have suffered physical trauma.