Better limbs, better lives
Alexander Helal has a dream: to help children who need prosthetic devices live more able lives. As a first-year master’s student in biomedical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, Helal is studying prosthetic design and is poised to begin research on new materials and technologies that can provide children with artificial limbs that are more agile, comfortable, and life-like than ever before.
“I want to concentrate on helping kids who will wear prosthetics from their childhood all the way through to their adult years. Designing and creating prosthetics for children means prosthetics have to be scaled smaller and more intricately than adult versions, but as well, kids are more diverse physically than grown-ups, which adds to the challenge,” explains Alex.
For example, a five-year-old fitted with a prosthetic device may decide at ten that he wants to do karate. “I would design a new leg to support that kind of thing. I want to be able to follow patients throughout their lives,” he adds.
Alex believes that the future of better prosthetics lies in new, smart materials such as electroactive polymers, some of which look like silly putty or two-sided tape. These polymers contract and stretch like real muscles when they receive electrical signals from a battery the patient wears in a belt pack. Research holds the promise of designing software that features customized algorithms to control the characteristics of these new polymers; for example, this would allow an artificial leg to stiffen and loosen in sync with the patient’s gait, a huge step forward in comfort and mobility.