Walk, work, win: hi-tech knees to get young amputees back on their feet

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Aid prize won by company to produce prosthetic knees that allow disabled wearers 
to navigate rough terrain, work and stay independent
Young amputees in some of the poorest parts of the world will be able to navigate rough terrain to access jobs and opportunities with the help of new, specially developed prosthetic knees, after a non-profit company received a grant from the UK government to develop its design.

For amputees, the type of prosthetic they get can define their lives – making the difference between finding a job and earning a living, or being unemployed and living in poverty.

D-Rev, a development company based in San Francisco, California, has been awarded around $100,000 (£76,280) in UK aid money to develop a polycentric, four-bar knee, which wearers will be able to use over uneven ground.

An estimated 30 million people need prosthetics because they have lost limbs in conflicts, accidents or disasters, but fewer than 20% can ever access them.

For many, this lack of access is down to affordability – a prosthetic knee that can handle uneven terrain and protect against stumbling, can cost as much as $400 – well out of reach of many of those who need them.

The design of the D-Rev knees should bring the cost down to roughly $80 per unit. By 2021, the company will be ready to produce 10,000 knees each year, which are intended to benefit amputees in Bangladesh, Burma, Kenya, Nepal, Rwanda and South Africa.

The knee joint developed by D-Rev.
 The knee joint developed by D-Rev. Photograph: D-Rev

“The reason we went into this field is that there are lots of talented clinicians out there and, due to cost restraints, they were forced to use a lot of knee joints that are really inappropriate for young, healthy people,” said Rob Weiss, product manager at D-Rev.

He said the target group for the new prosthetic would be young people, often young men injured in traffic accidents, who need knees that can allow them to continue with active lives.

During the research phase over the next 18 months, D-Rev will concentrate on exploring how to develop a prosthetic knee with hydraulics or microprocessors, which might help improve walking speed, natural gait and protection against stumbling, while keeping costs down.

The funding was won as part of Amplify, a competition funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID), which identifies solutions to challenges facing people with disabilities in developing countries.

“For too long, disabled people in some of the world’s poorest countries have been denied the opportunities for education and work that are available to others, and disability has been a neglected area of development,” said Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

“Providing people with prosthetics is about more than just mobility. It’s about giving a young person the means to stay in work or school, and the power to take charge of their own lives. It’s about giving them hope for the future.”

D-Rev was among six organisations, out of around 500 entrants, to be awarded grants last week. The other winners included a signing project that will deliver sex education to young deaf people, who are more likely to suffer sexual abuse, pregnancy and HIV than their peers, and a screening programme to identify children with learning disabilities in Zambia.

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