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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Boston Marathon bombing survivor Marc Fucarile holds his thigh socket as he tests microprocessor-controlled prosthetic knees at the Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics in Boston.

Thursday, April 12, 2018 1:00 am

Marathon attack inspires advances

5 years changes medical technology

PHILIP MARCELO | Associated Press

BOSTON – In the five years since the Boston Marathon bombing, medical science has made promising advances in amputations and artificial limbs, in part because of lessons learned from the victims and research dollars made available as a result of the attack.

Some of the 17 people who lost limbs in the April 15, 2013, bombing could, like many other amputees, benefit from these developments, since many are coming to a crossroads in their treatment. A number still struggle with pain, and others may be looking to replace their prostheses, which are approaching the end of their useful life.

“The collective experience in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing was a very positive one in the medical community, because there was a lot of crosstalk between military and civilian surgeons,” said Dr. Benjamin Potter, chief of orthopedics at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, where three survivors were treated and doctors are attempting some of the cutting-edge procedures.

Among other places where research is taking place is Boston, where doctors are working to combine an improved amputation method with more sophisticated artificial limbs so that amputees can one day use their brains to control their prostheses.

The new lower-leg amputation technique, which has so far been done on seven people, preserves tendons normally severed during an amputation. Tendons connect muscles to bone and are necessary to move one's limbs.

The hope is that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can then develop technology that will translate brain signals into movement of an artificial leg. Amputees might one day even be able to perceive sensations through their prostheses.

One procedure involves directly connecting artificial limbs to bones using titanium implants. These bone-anchored prostheses have been placed on hundreds of patients in other countries, but it wasn't until 2015 that the use of the devices was allowed in the U.S.

Roughly 50 such operations have been done in this country, including 16 at Walter Reed, according to Potter.

Bombing survivor Marc Fucarile, who was the last to be released from the hospital, said he is intrigued by the new advances, even if he isn't in a rush to go under the knife again anytime soon.

The 39-year-old from the Boston area lost his right leg in the blast, and his badly maimed left leg causes him unceasing pain. He fears another amputation might be his only option.

The artificial limbs that Fucarile and other survivors were fitted with generally last five to seven years, so the patients will have to decide on the right technology for the next phase of their lives.