Plastic muscles lend a healing hand

Thursday, 24 July, 2003

Bionic man - or more accurately polymer person - has arrived, thanks to a team from Wollongong University and Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.

Using recently discovered plastics that store and conduct electricity, a team from Wollongong University and Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital has built a glove that stimulates muscle movement. The new technology has been woven into the glove for use by patients with hand injuries or arthritis. The research will move eventually to develop artificial muscles for use within the body.

Director of the team, Dr Tim Scott from Royal North Shore's Quadriplegic Hand Research Unit, said the glove was for use by patients after hand surgery, spinal cord injury, arthritis, burns and strokes.

"It's designed to help patients keep the hand moving, especially for people who've had damage," Dr Scott said. "While the healing process is occurring sometimes you can get tendon adhesion where scar tissue causes the tendon to adhere to the tendon sheath, preventing the fingers from moving.

"This sort of device can move the hand in a therapeutic way to maximise the condition of the joints as they heal."

The 'intelligent' polymers, whose discovery more than 20 years ago earned a Nobel prize for chemists Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid and Hideki Shirakawa, are stimulated by an electric current. A single-joint prototype of the glove is in use and a full-hand unit is in development. The team, including a hand surgeon, a physiotherapist and engineers, is seeking further development funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, and there is already commercial interest in the project. "I'm hoping that if we are successful with the NHMRC grant within one year we will be in a position to look for a manufacturer," Dr Scott said. He hoped the technology would be available within a few years.

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