Plastic surgeon’s brain-sensing prosthetics work – Fast forwarded with help of a grant from Frankel Innovation Initiative

December 9, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

For more than 12 years, Paul Cederna, M.D, chief of plastic surgery, Robert Oneal Professor of Plastic Surgery and professor of biomedical engineering, has been following one path after another in search of a way to control prosthetic devices so that patients can be provided with a prosthetic limb that can move and sense like a normal limb. 

Knowing that peripheral nerve signals are too tiny to capture or manipulate, he used his surgeon’s perspective to consider a new approach — using muscle contraction to amplify the peripheral nerve signals. With the help of a team of biomedical, design and mechanical engineers, as well as other scientists, the Regenerative Peripheral Nerve Interface (RPNI) approach was born.

“By developing these peripheral nerve interfaces, we have been able to improve prosthetic control and provide sensory feedback from prosthetic limbs to the patient’s brain,” Cederna said. “We have also been able to improve phantom pain and neuroma pain with RPNIs in patients with limb loss.”

Now a new grant from the Frankel Innovation Initiative, administered by Fast Forward Medical Innovation (FFMI) in the U-M Medical School Office of Research, will propel his project to the next level. The fund is a generous gift from the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation, and is designed to support research and development of transformative and life-saving therapies at Michigan Medicine. It will help to rapidly accelerate development of Cederna’s research, and ultimately transform the lives of those living with amputations.

Sharing ideas, solving problems

“This grant will help us to develop the technology we need to build a device that is totally implanted in the human body for motor control of the prosthesis using brain signals. This device will be like a really complicated cardiac pacemaker,” Cederna said. “This will allow people to feel and move their limb in a more natural way. This has never been done before. I’m grateful to the Frankels for funding this transformative program, as the Frankel Innovation Initiative offers the chance to create cutting-edge discoveries with groundbreaking impact.”

It’s been a long road of trial and error to reach this point of discovery, but, according to Cederna, that is exactly what innovation is all about.

“People say ‘winners never quit,’ but that’s not true. Winners quit all the time. A real winner knows when to quit at the right time,” Cederna said. “They know it’s important to fail early, recognize you’ve taken a wrong path, stop and consider a new path.”

He credits the creative, collaborative nature of the team for the project’s success.

“The more people involved in a solution the better. The more you listen to every team member, the better. We were able to share our discoveries and do great things,” he said, adding, “I think the era of the closed door laboratory is over. When you bring a team together and share ideas, that is when big problems get solved.”

When asked why this work is so important, Cederna explained: “There are nearly 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States. Think of the impact we can have on those people. We have tried to make artificial limbs for people forever, to allow them to become gainfully employed and live their lives normally, but it is almost 2021 and so many people are still using hooks. We have to do better than that. “Think of how it feels to hold your child’s hand. Imagine how that would feel for those people to have that sensation again. We could help so many people.”

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