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Speaker who develops affordable prosthetics visits BU

Nov. 11, 2010

By Meghan Hendrickson
Staff Writer

There are about 11 million amputees in the developing world and biomedical engineering students are working to find sustainable solutions to meet the global prosthetics need.

Dr. Roger V. Gonzalez, founder and executive director of LeTourneau University Empowering Global Solutions (LEGS), spoke to Baylor engineering students about his research as a part of the Baylor Engineering and Research Seminars (BEARS), given each week in the Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building.

LEGS is a team of faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students from LeTourneau University that is working with partners across the globe to bring sustainable prostheses to Third World countries.

Nick Berryman | Lariat Photographer
Dr. Roger V. Gonzalez, founder and executive director of LeTourneau Engineering Global Solutions, holds a prosthetic kneecap at a lecture Wednesday in Rogers Engineering and Computer Science Building.

The mission of LEGS focuses on designing, creating and testing prosthetic devices that will be inexpensive, maintenance-free and will improve gait.

The prosthetics devices being used in developing countries are not durable and often cause further injury when they break, which is why LEGS emphasizes global sustainable solutions.

Gonzalez said they can make their patented prosthetics knee for only $20 and can do repairs for just $1. Gonzalez said LEGS prosthetics are highly compatible with other brands, but are made for a fraction of the price.

Longview senior Rachel Unhruh is an engineering student who heard about the LEGS program at LeTourneau before she came to Baylor. She was interested to learn more about the program at the seminar.

"The fact that they can take the materials and make the legs at such low cost and still make them as efficient as a $200,000 or more U.S. leg is incredible."

LEGS established its global network by hosting seven training centers located throughout the world. Gonzalez said LEGS distributes technology to the training centers, which then give the technology to locals.

This model of technology distribution and teaching is based on the biblical concept of equipping people to teach others.

LEGS is working with a ministry in California called "Friends of the Church" which is setting up a manufacturing facility in Cambodia to make their knees.

"We want to support what the Lord is doing around the world," Gonzalez said.

LEGS developed a jig design kit that provides the framework necessary to assemble the prosthetics device overseas. A jig set case is $1,200 and can make 1,000 knees without having to replace the components.

When Gonzalez's students go overseas to help train those at the global training centers, they must demonstrate competence in the workings of the prostheses in order to explain them to locals in places such as Kenya, Bangladesh, Senegal, Bolivia and Haiti, where LEGS is partnering with local hospitals and charities.

Biomedical engineering graduate student Joel White attended the lecture because he is interested in prosthetics and development of products for the Third World.

"It's encouraging to see people actually taking things the step forward from developing, and actually helping with amputees and corresponding with other worldwide groups who are also working there already," White said.

LEGS defeats the language barrier when providing biomedical engineering solutions to developing countries by hosting a website written in five languages and distributing a manufacturing guide that uses only numbers and pictures.

"We studied IKEA manuals before we developed our wordless manufacturing guide," Gonzalez said.

"We used it to teach elementary kids in the U.S. how to make them, and they did it."

Another obstacle that LEGS faces in providing such low-cost technology to Third World countries is the cosmetics of the prostheses.

"What it looks like is more important than what it does," Gonzalez said. "In most of the developing world, if you don't look normal you aren't normal, and no matter how good it works they won't wear it."

The team has adapted a British discovery to use silicone to coat a cast and dye it whatever skin color necessary to create a water-resistant, lifelike prosthetics limb.

Following the lecture, Gonzalez said he hoped the engineering students understood that they can develop a great technology, but if they don't consider all the pieces that must work together to make it successful, then it's not going to have an impact.