CROP-Zach Visco

Medical students create prosthetic hand with 3-D printer

A prosthetic hand that includes multi-finger movement for grasping can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. For a growing child, that device might need to be repaired a few times a year or replaced several times in the child’s lifetime—expenses that can be cost prohibitive for many families.

Upstate Medical University students Zach Visco, Eric Merrell and Jade Marhaba have tapped into an international, 3-D-printing movement to create a local alternative to costly prosthetics, which could be especially helpful for growing and active children. The cost of their device? $20.

Visco and Merrell met in the spring at an innovation committee meeting of the Onondaga County Medical Society. When Visco learned that Merrell owned a 3-D printer, the two starting talking about the possibilities. That’s when they discovered E-Nable, a global nonprofit that promotes 3-D-printed prosthetics by sharing open-source printing plans and connects printers with people in need.

The students used an E-Nable plan and printed their first sample this summer. So far, they have 3D printed two working models and are in talks with the Central New York Biotech Accelerator and Upstate’s Institute for Human Performance to find a local person who might need the device.

“As we see more and more people with 3-D printers in their homes we’re going to see more and more people printing projects like this,” said Visco, a second-year medical student who has his undergraduate degree in biomechanical engineering.

The type of prosthetic they are creating is ideal for a child or adult with a partial palm or at least a fully functional wrist joint. The bending wrist movement makes the hand clasp, allowing the person to pick up an object or hold a cup.

It takes about 16 hours to print all 20 pieces needed for this model, Visco said. Other necessary parts include fishing line, Velcro straps and a few wood screws. The joints bend using orthodontic dental bands. Assembly, with assistance from a YouTube video, took a few hours.

Traditional prosthetics are created out of ceramics or titanium, Visco said. Injection molding, which would be a cheaper alternative to those materials, would require create a very complex mold.

“To produce something like this out of a solid piece of plastic or to produce it in a traditional fashion takes a lot more overhead,” Visco said. 3-D printing can more easily create complex pieces with the string holes needed to control the fingers. “That’s one of the benefits. If something breaks we can instantly replace it. And kids are growing. We want to make sure these can scale with the kids.”

Merrell’s 3-D printer uses PLA plastic, which is biodegradable and comes in a rainbow of colors. That allows printers to create a variety of color schemes, which has been especially popular among kids, Visco said.

The three Upstate students have been demonstrating their prosthetic models throughout Central New York. They are networking to find a Central New Yorker in need and are considering founding a local organization to keep the printing going, said Merrell, a third-year Upstate medical student.

“When we found E-Nable we saw there’s a chapter in Rochester and Albany but not in Central New York,” Merrell said. “What excited me most was that it’s not available here. It never really took off so it really seemed like there was a need in our area and we were excited to start it here or at least plant the seed to see it take off.”

The students are eager to continue their work and hope to be able to help someone soon.

“The next step is to try and put this in someone’s hands,” Visco said. “I think it’s astounding that for the cost of two dinners you can provide a prosthetic hand to someone and it’s going to last them. For me that’s exciting.”

For more information about E-Nable, visit www.enablingthefuture.org.

Caption: Zach Visco, a second-year medical student at Upstate Medical University, holds the prosthetic hand he and several other students 3-D printed.

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