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Boston Bombing Survivors Are Getting Cutting-Edge Bionic Limbs

Last year's marathon bombing cost 14 runners their limbs. Here's a campaign to give them the advanced prosthetics being developed at MIT.
April 21, 2014, 9:05pm
Image: BiOM

The tragic bombing at the finish line of last year's Boston Marathon left hundreds of runners injured, and 14 lost one or more limbs. Today, as 36,000 people gathered in Boston to run the iconic race—including some 9,000 runners who never got the chance to finish last year—it's a good time to look at a campaign underway to fit those 14 survivors with cutting-edge bionic devices designed to let people run, bike, swim, and dance just as well—or even better—than flesh-and-blood limbs.

The campaign, called No Barriers Boston, is spearheaded by Hugh Herr, a prosthetics pioneer who runs the biomechanics lab at MIT and is himself a double-amputee and avid athlete. You may have heard his name kicked around last month after he gave a rousing TED Talk on the evolution of bionics.


Herr’s MIT research and startup company, BiOM, are producing some of the most advanced prosthetics in the world, that not only overcome disability but transcend “normal” human ability, by using computational intelligence to emulate nature.

To wit: After the marathon bombings last year, he rallied researchers to create a custom prosthetic for Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who lost her left leg in the attack. The team spent 200 days studying how dancers moved, took that data and embedded the intelligence into a bionic ankle for Haslet-Davis specifically programmed to respond to the various movements of dance. She showed it off to the world by performing for the first time since the injury, on the TED stage last month.

That heartwarming success story inspired Herr and Haslet-Davis to do the same for the other survivors who lost limbs in the bombing, and No Barriers Boston was born. The project is crowdfunding money on Indiegogo and the project's website with the goal of raising $100,000 dollars to fit each person with the advanced, athletically geared prosthetics, which, unlike standard devices, aren't usually covered by insurance companies and can be prohibitively expensive.

They've raised $32,000 as of today, David Shurna told me. He's the executive director of No Barriers, a nonprofit that helps people with injuries and disabilities. "Do we know if we're going to reach a hundred thousand? No," he said, "But we feel there is some momentum now because of the Boston Marathon."


Herr, who used to sit on the board of No Barriers, is considered a thought-leader in the bionics world that’s working to change the way disability is viewed. He believes we can transcend disability through technological innovation. "A human can never be broken," Herr said in the TED Talk. “Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate."

But electromechanics attached to the body are beginning to bridge the gap between disability and ability, human limitation and human potential, he said. To use himself as an example, he uses his robotic legs to rock climb, and can adjust their height to extend his ability and reach on the mountain. He's fond of saying that while most people’s bodies are deteriorating over time, his legs get an upgrade every six years.

"We're beginning the age where machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger and faster and more efficient," he said. "But bionics is not only about making people stronger and faster. Our expression, our humanity can be embedded into electromechanics.”

The devices at BiOM (formerly called iWalk) mimic the biological functions of knees, ankles, and calves to make movement feel more natural. In an article on the latest bionic ankle, the BiOM T2 earlier this month, MIT News explained how it works:

Using battery-powered “bionic propulsion,” two microprocessors and six environmental sensors adjust ankle stiffness, power, position, and damping thousands of times per second, at two major positions: First, at heel strike, the system controls the ankle’s stiffness to absorb shock and thrust the tibia forward. Then, algorithms generate fluctuating power, depending on terrain, to propel a wearer up and forward.

When fitting the prosthesis to patients, prosthetists can program appropriate stiffness and power throughout all the stages of a gait, using software created by Herr’s group—a process the company calls “Personal Bionic Tuning."

About 900 patients are now sporting BiOM limbs, including about 400 war veterans, and Herr gets about a 100 emails a day from people around the world interested in the devices, according to MIT News.

With the Boston Marathon fresh in people's minds this week, No Barriers Boston is hoping to climb closer to its fundraising goal so as many survivors as possible, who want one (there’s an application process on the website), will be fitted with bionic limbs from BiOM or other companies creating advanced prosthetics to support an active lifestyle.

"[Herr] really painted a vision," said Shurna. "He believes within 75 years we will have a completely new way of looking at the world 'disability.'"