Pittsburgh startup aims to ease prosthetic process for amputees
Bruno Moretti continued to go hunting even after he lost one of his legs below the knee.
But the prosthetic legs he'd bolt on made it difficult to walk through the woods. He worried about falling down and not being able to get back up. He always had someone following close behind to help him.
This hunting season, however, was the first in nearly a decade since losing his leg that the retired coal miner walked through the woods without worry or help.
"I even got a deer," said Moretti, 62, of Springdale, a volunteer coordinator for the Allegheny Valley Regional Emergency Management Agency.
Moretti, who had tried several different prosthetic legs over the years, credits the technologically advanced foot and ankle he received this past summer. Made by Freedom Innovations in Irvine, Calif., it has a microprocessor in it that moves it like a real foot and ankle. Moretti can adjust the stiffness and flex of the heel, ankle and toes with his smartphone and program it to recognize different shoes, from the sneakers he wears to work to his hunting boots.
Prosthetic limbs now come packed with microchips, sensors, electric motors and even artificial intelligence that allow amputees to live the life they had before they lost an arm, leg, hand or foot.
A scrappy robotics startup operating in the backyard shed of a Pittsburgh home wants to make matching an amputee with the right prosthetic leg easier, so amputees don't have to hunt around for the right one.
Josh Caputo is the CEO and founder of HuMoTech, a two-year-old Carnegie Mellon University spin-off robotics company operating out of Caputo's backyard shed in Stanton Heights. The three-person company has also taken over some of Caputo's basement. There are signs posted in the shed reminding people not to work too late.
HuMoTech makes a robotic leg that can mimic a prosthesis. The team at HuMoTech, short for Human Motion Technologies, can tweak the leg to emulate different stiffnesses in the foot and ankle, simulating different prosthetic limbs.
"Most prosthetic limbs operate with a spring," Caputo said. "What you can imagine is virtually tuning that spring while the patient is walking. I can make it stiffer, and I can say, 'Hey, how do you like this?'"
Caputo said HuMoTech's emulator will allow patients to try out many different feet without having to strap on many different ones. Patients can experience different feet in near real-time without pausing and changing.
Being able to test-drive a prosthetic limb is a big deal, said Dr. Mary Ann Miknevich, a clinical assistant professor at UPMC's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the amputee clinic chief at the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Prosthetic feet and legs can cost tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The limbs are often custom-made and companies aren't always willing to ship one out for a demo. Miknevich likened it to walking into a shoe store and walking out with a pair of shoes you've never seen or tried on before.
HuMoTech's emulator could also provide data on how different feet perform on a specific patient, making it an easier sell to insurance companies, Miknevich said.
"They want to see research on how foot A is better than foot B or foot C," Miknevich said. "A device like his would provide real-time, patient-specific information."
Equipped with the right prosthesis, an amputee's life can be just as it was before.
Leo Parks, 67, of North Fayette, still plays golf and can now hit a drive more than 200 yards less than a year after receiving a prosthetic leg.
"That first time I went golfing, let me tell you, for two and a half hours, I truly forgot I only had one leg," Parks said.
Parks had an aneurysm behind his knee that formed a blood clot and cut off circulation to his leg. In August 2016, doctors amputated one of his legs from the knee down.
In the beginning of 2017, Parks received a Rheo Knee by Össur, an Icelandic company with its U.S. headquarters in California. The Rheo Knee has a microprocessor in it. It swings freely and locks into place with Parks' gait, allowing him to walk. He plugs it in every night. It counts his steps — more than a quarter million so far — and learns.
"It's starting to learn how I work and how I move," Parks said.
By May of this year, Parks wasn't just golfing, he was playing with his grandkids in their backyard.
For Moretti, who had one of his legs amputated below the knee soon after he retired from a 30-year career of working in a coal mine in 2008, the search for the right prosthetic leg took much longer. He's glad he found the perfect match.
"It's just like walking normally," Moretti said. "If I have long pants on, people don't even know I have a prosthetic leg."
Neither Moretti nor Parks used HuMoTech's emulator to match them with their prosthetic legs. But Caputo hopes HuMoTech's technology will create more stories like theirs.
"I came at this from a robotics-enthusiast prospective. I just love robots and tackling hard problems," Caputo said. "It's just so compelling to apply my robotics skills to this real-world, very human problem."
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.