U.S. Veterans Affairs (VA) Assistant Secretary L. Tammy Duckworth visited Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Massachusetts, on June 19 for a briefing on the university’s research program aimed at developing a new generation of osseointegrated neuroprosthetic limbs. Duckworth, a decorated Army helicopter pilot, lost both legs after being shot down over Iraq.
According to WPI, the university’s Bioengineering Institute is one of a few centers across the United States at the forefront of the research needed to enable neuroprosthetics. Some 30 researchers are working through the Bioengineering Institute’s Center for Neuroprosthetics, spanning multiple science and engineering disciplines including regenerative biology, tissue engineering, biomedical signal processing, surface science, and nanotechnology. Their research projects include efforts to safely integrate an osseointegrated limb’s shaft with bone, create a robust skin seal around the shaft, regenerate supporting soft tissue, and enable nervous system control of the external prosthesis. Ultimately, by regenerating nerves, WPI researchers anticipate connecting an osseointegrated limb directly to the nervous system, enabling it to send feedback to and receive commands from the brain.
“We are honored to host a visit from Secretary Duckworth,” said W. Grant McGimpsey, director of the Bioengineering Institute at WPI and professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and biomedical engineering. “On a personal level, she represents the people we hope to help one day through our research. At the national policy level, it’s important that we brief leaders like Secretary Duckworth about the substantial challenges we are facing in this research. If this were easy work, it would have been done by now, so keeping our leaders informed at the highest levels, I believe, is important for their support of this research.”
Duckworth was accompanied on her visit to WPI by Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and state Veterans Services Secretary Thomas Kelley. “I am pleased Secretary Duckworth was able to come to WPI today because the research going on here is truly at the leading edge of the technology development that we need to help not only our veterans, who have sacrificed so much, but also the civilians all across the Commonwealth and the country that have lost limbs,” Murray said.
A major in the Illinois Army National Guard, Duckworth flew combat missions in Iraq as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. On one fateful mission in 2004, she was flying north of Baghdad when the aircraft she was co-piloting was ambushed and hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. After the grenade hit, she continued to fly the aircraft until passing out from blood loss. The attack cost Duckworth both of her legs and partial use of one arm. For her service, she received the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and the Combat Action Badge. Since her recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), Duckworth has dedicated her life to public service, advocating on behalf of veterans and the disabled. She was appointed to her current post by President Obama in 2009.
“The mission of our life sciences research program at WPI is to try and solve real-world problems and develop new knowledge that can be applied to help people,” said Eric Overstrӧm, professor of biology and biotechnology and incoming provost, ad interim, at WPI. “We couldn’t do this work without the support of people like Secretary Duckworth, and our state and federal leadership, so we are very appreciative of their visit today and their ongoing support.”