U.S. Assistant Secretary L. Tammy Duckworth Visits WPI for Briefing on Neuroprosthetics Research

June 18, 2010

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A decorated helicopter pilot, who lost both legs after being shot down over Iraq, U.S. Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary L. Tammy Duckworth visited Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) on June 19, 2010, for a briefing on the university’s research program aimed at developing a new generation of artificial limbs.

WPI’s Bioengineering Institute is one of a few centers across the United States at the forefront of the research needed to enable neuroprosthetics, which are advanced prosthetic devices that will be integrated with the body and controlled by the nervous system. "We are honored to host a visit from Secretary Duckworth," said W. Grant McGimpsey, director of the Bioengineering Institute at WPI and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and biomedical engineering. "On a personal level, she represents the people we hope to help one day through our research. At the national policy level, it’s important that we brief leaders like Secretary Duckworth about the substantial challenges we are facing in this research. If this were easy work, it would have been done by now, so keeping our leaders informed at the highest levels, I believe, is important for their support of this research."

Duckworth was accompanied on her visit to WPI by Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and state Veterans Services Secretary Thomas Kelley. "I am pleased Secretary Duckworth was able to come to WPI today, because the research going on here is truly at the leading-edge of the technology development that we need to help not only our veterans, who have sacrificed so much, but also the civilians all across the Commonwealth and the country that have lost limbs," Murray said.

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A major in the Illinois Army National Guard, Duckworth flew combat missions in Iraq as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. On one fateful mission in 2004, she was flying north of Baghdad when the aircraft she was co-piloting was ambushed and hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. After the grenade hit, she continued to fly the aircraft until passing out from blood-loss. The attack cost Duckworth both of her legs and partial use of one arm. For her service, she received the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and the Combat Action Badge. Since her recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duckworth has dedicated her life to public service, advocating on behalf of veterans and the disabled. She was appointed to her current post by President Barack Obama in 2009.

"The mission of our life sciences research program at WPI is to try and solve real-world problems and develop new knowledge that can be applied to help people," said Eric Overstrom, professor of biology and biotechnology and incoming provost, ad interim, at WPI. "We couldn't do this work without the support of people like Secretary Duckworth, and our state and federal leadership, so we are very appreciative of their visit today and their ongoing support."

Working through the Bioengineering Institute's Center for Neuroprosthetics are some 30 WPI researchers from multiple science and engineering disciplines including regenerative biology, tissue engineering, surface science and nanotechnology, and biomedical signal processing. Their efforts focus on creating a new prosthetic that consists of an implanted metal post, anchored to the bone, that extrudes through the skin and which enables the attachment of an external prosthetic device. Research on integrating the post to the bone, regenerating supporting soft tissue, creating a robust skin seal around the metal post tissue and enabling nervous system control of the external prosthetic is on-going. Ultimately, by regenerating nerves, it is anticipated that it will be possible to connect the limb directly to the nervous system, enabling it to send feedback to and receive commands from the brain.

The neuroprosthetics research at WPI is funded primarily through the U.S. Army Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC). Furthermore, with a grant from the John Adams Innovation Institute, the Bioengineering Institute established the nation's first symposium series dedicated to advancing the field of neuroprosthetics. This year's symposium, Neuroprosthetics 2010, is set for Nov. 3 and will bring together scientists, engineers, and clinicians from Europe and North America to share their research and discuss the challenges that must be overcome to enable a new generation of artificial limbs. For more information about the symposium see: www.wpi.edu/+NP.

L. Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary at WPI for Briefing on Neuroprosthetics Research (June 19, 2010)