A New Concept For A Constantly Adaptable Prosthetic Limb

Most amputees go through a lot of prosthetics in a lifetime. This can be expensive, especially in the developing world. The Beth Project aims to change that by making a prosthetic that can change along with the human body.

Van Phillips, who designed the Flex-Foot Cheetah blades that carried Oscar Pistorius to the Olympics, describes a bad prosthetic limb socket like a stone in your shoe: a nagging discomfort you have to live with until you get the thing adjusted, or replaced.

Many prosthetics wearers live with pain and soreness, either because the socket is badly fitted, or their residual limb changes volume and shape, pushing the socket out of place. According to Jason Hill, co-designer of a new type of prosthetic system, some amputees go through 20 sockets in a lifetime, because the old one no longer fits properly.

The aim of the new concept, called the Beth Project, is to give amputees something more customizable and adjustable. Instead of fabricating the socket in a specialist’s workshop, the socket is shaped with a vacuum pump. The wearer places a silicon bladder over their limb, and then sucks the air out, making it hard like a vacuum-packed bag of coffee.

"We imagine that if their volume has changed over three months, and they are starting to get a sore, they would be able to reshape the surface," Hill says.

The product is aimed particularly at the developing world, where up to 30 million people require prosthetics, according to the World Health Organization. The issue is not so much about cost—cheap prosthetics exist, and many used ones are donated—but the need for specialists to adjust or replace the sockets. WHO says 180,000 trained staff are needed, and that there’s a current shortage of about 40,000. Outfitting an average prosthetist’s clinic, complete with grinders and vacuum formers, costs $70,000, according to Hill, and that’s before you hire personnel to run it.

"Initially, we were thinking about making a cheaper socket, maybe using 3-D printing, or some other advanced manufacturing technique," Hill says. "But then we found out the real problem was the shortage of trained care. The 40,000 figure really jumped out at us."

BETH, or Benevolent Technologies For Health, grew out of a Hacking Medicine event at MIT, where it won a prize. The project was also picked as a runner-up prize in this year’s Dyson Awards. Hill, and partners Elizabeth Tsai, and Asa Hammond, are now looking for investors, and running through new prototypes.

Aside from the technology, one of the main challenges may be to persuade specialists who understandably take pride in their ability to shape sockets for their patients. "It’s quite disruptive," Hill says. "So far, of the prosthetists we’ve talked to, the ones at the VA have been more supportive. They really look at it as in 'what is the best way we can provide affordable care?' Some of the private prosthetists don’t want to relinquish what they do."

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  • Wolf Schweitzer

    I am not sure whether the creators of these "save the third world, millions of amputees need limbs" schemes realize what a prosthetic limb is. Weight really is an issue. It will break. It will have to be sturdy. It will have to be functional. Above all, it must be possible to make it, and to repair it, at the place where it is being worn, with the resources and skills present at that place where it is being worn. This article and what is behind it is to the real world like a fluffy cream cake is to ploughing an acre. - A recent news article about a Chinese farmer who built his own "bionic" arms and who now helps other amputees is a good example of actually sustainable technology that would truly be worthy of an innovation prize. 

  • Ramina

    Eiko's is speaking from a position of ignorance about all the facts that led to this article and his/her criticism of Jason Hill is completely unjustified and unfair.  Knowing Asa, I am sure he is mortified at Eiko's zealous reaction.

  • Eiko

    I meant to say, I DO NOT regret my original post. Although I may not respect the attitudes and the way all this has been expressed and handled. I still respect the work and intention of BETH.

  • Veronika

    I apologize to the readers who want to know more about BeTH and how it will improve lives. Eiko's inflammatory and misinformed comments about the Beth Project, who is in what role, who is doing what, are jeopardizing what the Beth Project has been working so hard to accomplish. I congratulate Asa, Jason, Liz and Ramin for the work they have done and the recognition they have received after winning a number of competitions and awards. Please check out the facebook page to see their timeline! https://www.facebook.com/thebe... 

  • Eiko

    How do we turn all this negativity to something positive. Perhaps we should listen to Bamban and thank Fast Company for taking the time to write this article. The project is awesome Bamban and thank you for your opinion. And thank you Ben Schiller for your gracious correction. I am aware of all the facts and I still believe credit should be given where credit is due and do regret my original post. Perhaps we should now turn our attention to BETH. 30 million potential people who have no better alternative could be served. These people are more important than my opinions or comments and in attempting to be inclusive to all the people who have all tirelessly worked to bring this to fruition. In that spirit, I thank Jason, Elizabeth and Asa for their hard work. I wish the best that those people who are underserved will get the medical help they so desperately need. In that spirit I freely admit all this negativity is not worth any more attention from us. There's a lot more important things to focus on.

  • Eiko

    By the way, I should also state that as far I know Ramin is in some sort of advisory position to the group. Good advisor.

  • Eiko

    Ramin, perhaps you should learn all the FACTS before taking sides. Ever since I have stated my opinion, I have been harassed with name calling emails for over 10 hours. Although I'm an exhausted mother of a three year old you can be sure that neither Asa thinks I'm zealous nor even after being harassed by Jason's girlfriend Veronika, all day do I feel badly about what I commented or will retract. I don't know you but I don't respect you, nor Jason, nor his harassing girlfriend. And frankly I will pay no more attention to this negativity. This is not the first time, this has happened and most likely not the last. I have never met either one of you and I certainly don't care to.

  • Ben Schiller

    Asa Hammond's name has now been added above. Thanks for the "good journalism" comments. 

  • Mira

    I totally agree with the comments below. It is absolutely shameful that Asa Hammond, the very person who came up with this idea at Hacking Medicine in the first place is completely left out of this entire article. No credit was given for his artwork and video used above which is just bad journalism. Any good journalist let alone person, notified of vital fact corrections would make these changes to ensure their pieces include the full factual story. 

  • Eiko

    It's very short-sighted and shameful on both Jason Hill who gave the interview and Fast Company who declined to add the correction, that the person who actually came up with the original idea at the Hacking Medicine at MIT is not mentioned at all in this article. Half of the article's page is filled with Asa Hammond's artwork and visual concepts, not to mention the original goal to come up with idea to serve the 30 million people who need prosthetics and are unable to afford the specialist.  This is poor journalistic ethics to say, "we don't like to change the article once it's published"! And Jason Hill needs to go back to the sandbox in Kindergarten and learn the basics of relationship and team building by giving credit where credit is due. Asa is also the only member of the three, that is pursuing a medical degree and is currently working with the department of prosthetics at UCSF. The heart of the story is that Asa Hammond is a successful film visual effects supervisor, artist, and robotics designer/ programmer who has worked with likes of A list directors, such as Alfonso Cuaron, in his upcoming film Gravity featuring Academy Winner Best Actress Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. After being in the business for 13 years, Asa Hammond felt he could do more with skills to directly help the underserved in need and decided to leave his successful career and enter medicine. Since Asa made this decision 2 years ago, he has worked non-stop to realize his goals by researching ways to served the those in the world who can't afford traditional medical care and needs. Giving credit where credit is due and getting one's facts right is the cornerstone of good journalism and just plain good ethics!