Iraq war veterans among first to get prosthetic implants

Darth Vader and Robocop have long seemed light-years away. However, thanks to two post-9/11 veterans, the bionic man may not be science fiction for much longer.

Iraq war amputees Bryant Jacobs and Ed Salau received the first implantable prosthetic legs in American history [last month] through a Food and Drug Administration trial at the VA hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, their doctors said at a press conference Friday. Called a percutaneous osseointegrated prosthesis, the device features a titanium rod that is surgically implanted into the bottom of the femur. An exterior portion will be attached [this month], barring any complications.

Having a prosthetic rooted in the bone is designed to alleviate socket wear, fit and energy expenditure issues that plague current amputees. Doctors for the men likened it to skiing with a loose boot versus getting one specifically fit for you. Doctors warned against too much optimism, as the technology is still potentially decades away from the commercial market, but were hopeful that their work will eventually improve the lives of wounded veterans.

We won’t “feel like this was a successful event … unless we see people functioning with their implant … 10 years down the line,” Dr. Erik Kubiak said at the press conference. “This is just the beginning of a process that potentially makes this available to more people.”

Neither Jacobs nor Salau were available to comment following the surgery. Doctors declined to provide details on how the surgery went or the men’s conditions, but said both were “excited” and had gone home ahead of schedule.

Last week’s surgeries were the culmination of several decades of work in both the U.S. and Europe, Kubiak said. The surgery has already been performed in Germany and Sweden, and American doctors had experimented with the implants on sheep in recent years.

Jacobs and Salau were ideal candidates because they are young, have had few medical problems and had enough residual limb left to work with, doctors said.

If the trial is successful, and approximately 10 patients have minimal complications for a year, then the study will go back to the FDA, Kubiak said. It will then go through a larger trial with potentially hundreds of patients before it is ready for the commercial market. Kubiak said it could take as long as 30 years.

By Matthew M. Burke Stars and Stripes
Originally published December 16, 2015
Reprinted with permission