As of right now, our lab’s main bread and butter is working with the muscle protein titin. Turns out this little protein’s role in muscle function has been overlooked for almost a century, and our lab is uncovering its role. In recent work, we have observed that titin has two identities: by day (relaxed muscle) the protein works as a passive elastic element that helps with the structural integrity of the muscle cells. By night (active muscle) it plays a much larger role in muscle properties (check the literature of the “winding filament hypothesis” or my earlier blog post for more).
Anyhow, these properties can be understood in an equation (which we have one, thanks to collaborators), and this understanding can help us comprehend human locomotion better…and therefore has led us to start developing better prosthetics…foot prosthetics to be exact.
There are countless collaborators working on this foot prosthetic project all over the world…and there are a lot of moving pieces to the development process, but let me try to sum it up short. We are taking a foot prosthetic already in production (the Iwalk), and working with that company to make it better by adding our new understanding of muscle properties to the existing framework of the current prosthetic.
This prosthetic is used for trans-tibial amputees (below the knee leg loss). Thanks to an onboard computer, motors, accelerometers, and all these other great goodies, the prosthetic can make informed decisions about its environment and react the foot accordingly (like how the real foot works). The overall goal obviously is to make a Luke Skywalker-esque prosthetic (just not the hand). Our addition to the current prosthetic should help us get one step closer to this goal.
Progress: We are very early in the process, but making great progress. Many people are working very hard to get a working program into the prosthetic. We (that is a post doc Robert, an undergrad Eileen, an engineering grad student Jeremy, and I) are currently working on obtaining parametric data from non-amputee subjects. We are doing this by walking our subjects over a force plate while being filmed under high speeds. The force and video data is used in biomechanical analyses, which allow us to retrieve the parametric data necessary to help program/calibrate the prosthetic. Other groups are working on re-designing the motor aspect of the prosthetic (mechanical engineers) and building the program we hope to place into the newly designed prosthetic.
We have a long road ahead of us, but never fear: I will keep you posted on the developments.