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Bionics screwy story

7 July 2022
From the discovery that titanium could grow into bones, Gothenburg has developed into one of the world's leading centers in bionics – biological electronics. At the time Brånemark was the star. Now it is Professor Max Ortiz Catalan who is pioneering research.

In the early 1950:s, Per-Ingvar Brånemark, a researcher at  Gothenburg University, found that titanium could integrate into  our bones in a process called osseointegration. Today international companies and many branches of biomedicine have their roots in this unlikely Gothenburg discovery.

The idea was that Per-Ingvar Brånemark was going to study living blood cells, so for this reason a small titanium observation unit was inserted in the back leg of a rabbit. However, when the exper-iment was over Brånemark discovered that the expensive instrument seemed stuck fast – yet it didn’t seem to be causing any medical complications. Nine years later the first patient received false teeth which were anchored into the jaw with titanium screws.

One of the reasons that Brånemark’s research was so successful was the make up of his team. Fifty years before multidisciplinary research became the norm, Brånemark’s team included engineers, instrument makers, metallurgists, surgeons, psychiatrists and bio chemists.

Spectacular success can follow in the wake of a mistake. The hollow titanium screw can also house electrodes to replace lost nerves, and be used for a new generation of prostheses, whose motor function can be controlled by the power of thought.

This leads us to Max Jair Ortiz Catalan, research leader at the Center for Bionics and Pain Research in Gothenburg. He has a background in mechatronics and robotics, but also in artificial intelligence. The Center is a joint project with people from Chalmers, Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Academy.

“We have everyone from engineers to physicians and brain specialists, to physiotherapists, prosthetics doctors and surgeons.”

They are needed. Challenges come in all shapes.

“People have a biological control system, the nervous system, through which we control our body, move and feel. Robot protheses also have a control system, but it’s artificial. I want to join them together so that patients can simply and intuitively control their own robot protheses.”

An exciting product currently in clinical development in Gothenburg (at Integrum) includes advanced electrode interface which can extract nerve signals from muscles and interpret them using AI algorithms.

“If I want to open my hand a control signal travels from my brain via my nerves all the way down to my extremity. We teach the AI system to understand what some of these patterns of electric activity mean. For example – open my hand.”

In Gothenburg, robot prostheses are being developed with a kind of artificial feeling.

“The nerve fibre in my middle finger extends all the way up to my brain, and even if I lose the finger the fibre is still there. If we stimulate it electronically it sends information to the brain, which creates a sensation of touch.”

“And as the prosthesis is located in the place where the phantom body part is located, the patients feel that the sensations they’re experiencing come from the prosthesis.”

Text: Sofia Hillborg
Image: Anna-Lena Lundqvist

The text was originally published in Gothenburg Magazine 2022

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