Health

Prosthetic limb maker plans Yellowknife 3D printing centre


A manufacturer of cost-effective prosthetic limbs and scoliosis braces for developing countries is turning its attention and resources to Canada’s north. 

With $1 million from an innovation fund, the Victoria Hand Project plans to open a 3D printing centre in Yellowknife, working with health professionals to provide low-cost hand prostheses and scoliosis braces to people across the North. 

The project uses 3D printing to produce body-powered hand prostheses – those controlled with other parts of the body, rather than electric power – for a cost of $110. The project says that compares to $3,000 or more for an ordinarily produced body-powered hook with the same functions.

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Research and development is provided by university engineering students on a voluntary basis, reducing costs, while 3D printing is also said by the group to save money. The 3D printing takes place after scanning the arm to create an exact fit.

Nikolai Dechev, a University of Victoria mechanical engineering professor, is the project’s executive director. He said the resulting prostheses are “so comfortable that often people don’t thinking about wearing it. They’re just wearing it, which is exactly what we wanted.”

The same technology is applied to braces for scoliosis, a curving of the spine. Braces created by the project to prevent further curving cost $150 in materials and, said Dechev, take a tenth of the time normally needed for manufacturing.

The money comes from the TD Ready Challenge, an annual initiative offering up to 10 separate million-dollar grants that develop “innovative solutions for a changing world.”

By expanding to the Northwest Territories, the project hopes to address major challenges faced by northerners needing prostheses or scoliosis braces: the distance they must travel and difficulty in accessing a clinic.

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“In the North, our challenge in deploying this project is going to be getting that travel working,” Dechev said. “Interestingly enough, we have had that experience in developing countries where – although there are roads in developing countries – travel is really difficult for people there.” 

Dechev described being shocked to discover Canada’s northernmost scoliosis clinic is in Edmonton. The project wants to set up permanent 3D printing centres in Yellowknife, Whitehorse, and potentially a third northern location to be determined.

“In each of those communities there would be at least two printers, a scanner, a computer, and somebody that we would have retained to do the work on contract that would produce the devices right there,” Dechev said.

The plan is to fly up a specialist every four months to fit people with prostheses in one or two-week sessions. In between, small repairs can be done locally.

Putting together a 3D-printed scoliosis brace. Photo: Victoria Hand Project

One of the Victoria Hand Project’s 3D printed prosthetic hands. Photo: Victoria Hand Project

The project is looking for local partners to set this up.

“Something like a makerspace, but with a bit better full-time staff” is one option, Dechev said. “In some countries, we actually put the print centre right in a local health facility.”

Project staff would offer training in 3D printing to anyone interested during visits to the centres.

For scoliosis braces, Dechev said, the project is preparing a research trial in Canada for the next 18 months. Right now, people can register an interest and be contacted once the trial is approved.

The project says its focus on the NWT is part of a broader push to reach people in underserved and remote communities across North America.

The group’s goal over the next three years is to fit 200 people with hand prostheses and 160 children with scoliosis braces. Half of these, Dechev said, will be deployed in Canada. 

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