U.S. amputee to climb skyscraper using bionic leg

A groundbreaking bionic leg whose design is being led by a New Brunswick engineer will be put to the test this weekend when an amputee attempts to climb 103 flights of stairs in Chicago's Willis Tower.

Terry Fox inspired N.B. engineer to research robotic limb that responds to thoughts

Amputee Zac Vawter kicks a soccer ball with an experimental, thought-controlled bionic leg as biomedical student Aaron Young makes adjustments at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. (Brian Kersey/Associated Press)

After losing his right leg in a motorcycle accident, 31-year-old software engineer Zac Vawter signed up to become a research subject, helping to test a trailblazing prosthetic leg inspired by Terry Fox that's controlled by thoughts.

He will put this groundbreaking bionic leg — with input from a New Brunswick engineer — to the ultimate test Sunday when he attempts to climb 103 flights of stairs to the top of Chicago's Willis Tower, one of the world's tallest skyscrapers.

If all goes well, he'll make history with the bionic leg's public debut. His whirring, robotic leg will respond to electrical impulses from muscles in his hamstring. Vawter will think "climb stairs," and the motors, belts and chains in his leg will synchronize the movements of its ankle and knee.

Vawter hopes to make it to the top in an hour, longer than it would've taken before his amputation, less time than it would take with his normal prosthetic leg — or, as he calls it, his "dumb" leg.

"Somewhere down the road, it will benefit me and I hope it will benefit a lot of other people as well," Vawter said about the research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Taking the device to the market is still years away.

11 electrodes on thigh

Bionic — or thought-controlled — prosthetic arms have been available for a few years, thanks to pioneering work done at the Rehabilitation Institute. With leg amputees outnumbering people who've lost arms and hands, the Chicago researchers are focusing more on lower limbs. Safety is important. If a bionic hand fails, a person drops a glass of water. If a bionic leg fails, a person falls down stairs.

The Willis Tower climb will be the bionic leg's first test in the public eye, said lead researcher Levi Hargrove, a biomedical engineer from Bath, N.B., who works at the institute's Center for Bionic Medicine. The climb, called SkyRise Chicago, is a fundraiser for the institute with about 2,700 people climbing. This is the first time the climb has played a role in the facility's research.

Biomedical engineer Levi Hargrove of New Brunswick, left, watches Vawter practise walking on stairs with his experimental bionic leg. (Brian Kersey/Associated Press)

To prepare, Vawter and the scientists have spent hours adjusting the leg's movements. On one recent day, 11 electrodes placed on the skin of Vawter's thigh fed data to the bionic leg's microcomputer. The researchers turned over the "steering" to Vawter.

He kicked a soccer ball, walked around the room and climbed stairs. The researchers beamed.

Vawter likes the bionic leg. Compared to his regular prosthetic, it's more responsive and more fluid. As an engineer, he enjoys learning how the leg works.

It started with surgery in 2009. When Vawter's leg was amputated, a surgeon repositioned the residual spaghetti-like nerves that normally would carry signals to the lower leg and sewed them to new spots on his hamstring. That would allow Vawter one day to be able to use a bionic leg, even though the technology was years away.

The surgery is called "targeted muscle reinnervation" and it's like "rewiring the patient," Hargrove said. "And now when he just thinks about moving his ankle, his hamstring moves and we're able to tell the prosthesis how to move appropriately."

Terry Fox's influence

Hargrove's inspiration came not from fiction, but from his fellow Canadian Terry Fox, who attempted a cross-country run on a regular artificial leg to raise money for cancer research in 1980.

"I've run marathons, and when you're in pain, you just think about Terry Fox who did it with a wooden leg and made it halfway across Canada before cancer returned," Hargrove said.

Experts not involved in the project say the Chicago research is on the leading edge. Most artificial legs are passive. "They're basically fancy wooden legs," said Daniel Ferris of the University of Michigan. Others have motorized or mechanical components but don't respond to the electrical impulses caused by thought.

"This is a step beyond the state of the art," Ferris said. "If they can achieve it, it's very noteworthy and suggests in the next 10 years or so there will be good commercial devices out there."

The $8-million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Defence and involves the University of New Brunswick, Vanderbilt University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Rhode Island.

With files from CBC News