A human connection
Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of New Brunswick, and proud alumnus Kevin Englehart is giving a hand to those who need it the most – literally.
Englehart works with a team at UNB’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, creating artificial limbs for amputees. He says that every person has a unique set of requirements for which they need an artificial limb.
“For amputees – either people who lost a limb because of an accident or those who were born without limbs – many of them get along quite well. But there are some things that are very difficult unless they have a replacement limb,” says Englehart. “For those amputees who have lost both arms, this is particularly important, as dressing and feeding themselves is extremely challenging.”
The Canadian Medical and Biological Engineering Society is recognizing Englehart with its Outstanding Canadian Biomedical Engineering Award for his dedication and contribution to the biomedical community at large.
“I’m very honoured. The society is a group of my peers across the country,” he says. “It was the first conference I ever went to, and kind of cut my teeth as a biomedical engineer in this society. It’s a group of people that I have a lot of respect for, and for them to at least have the notion to award me with something is a great privilege.”
A scientist’s playground
After graduating from UNB with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1989, Englehart left to work for Bell North Research in the communications industry, which at the time was installing digital phone networks throughout Canada.
After leaving Bell North Research, Englehart returned to UNB to take his master’s degree. That’s when a course taught by Professor Phil Parker changed his life, he says.
Leaving one form of communication, he began to study another.
“He taught this course on how nerves and muscles all work and how they communicate with one another, and it was so much more sophisticated than telephones or televisions or satellites,” he says.
“It was basically just how we worked. It’s how our brain communicates through our nerves to our muscles, and that’s way more interesting than telecommunications, and so I was hooked.”
After finishing his master’s degree in 1991, he returned to UNB for his PhD.
“I finally figured out Fredericton is where I want to be.”
Since completing his PhD, Englehart has spent the last 15 years of his career decoding information from the central nervous system.
He also worked closely with the United States military on advanced limb systems for injured soldiers. These artificial limbs they were creating were too expensive for civilians, however.
With the support of the Atlantic Innovation Fund, Englehart and his staff have created a hand that is very dexterous, but also allows insurance companies to support it.
“Things were just crazy expensive and never got to the point where they were fitted on people,” says Englehart. “So we decided to take a step back and say, ‘OK, considering of all that crazy technology, what’s the most important in terms of what an amputee really needs and can we build that for $10,000 instead of $200,000?’”
With years of research and simulations, not knowing whether it would work in real life scenarios worried Englehart.
“About four or five years ago, we built the prototypes, I wasn’t sure if it would ever get out of the lab, but all of a sudden it’s just taken on a whole new life, and companies want this stuff,” he says.
As with any new technology, there will be a small subset of clients willing to try out the new hand.
“The prosthetists and occupational therapists who fit these limbs on people must be comfortable with this new technology,” says Englehart. “Once the early adopters demonstrate its potential, we hope to expand the circle outwards. Hopefully then the technology will be accepted by more people and it will become a standard of care.
From the lab to the real world
Spending years decoding information from the central nervous system, and creating prototypes, Englehart says it’s rewarding to see his years of work meaning something.
“We started to put these on amputees, and one of the first people to use this was an occupational therapist in Chicago who was training an amputee how to use it,” he says.
“This occupational therapist, who was usually quite critical of anything unnecessarily complex, was saying this is the best thing to come along in 20 years.”
Students at UNB are also getting involved with Englehart’s research, and contributing toward future technology.
“All of the leading edge research – the stuff that isn’t going to go into a hand now, but will have impact five years from now – that’s what the students are working on,” he says.
Contributed by Bronté James, Communications and Marketing. This story was made possible through the support of the UNB Associated Alumni.