As medical technology advances, 3D printing is revolutionizing the field of prosthetics, especially for children. The Brandeis Prosthetics Club is contributing to this innovative movement by printing and creating prosthetics for children, in the MakerLab of the Farber library. 

The Brandeis Prosthetics Club was formed at the beginning of the Fall 2015 semester and is comprised of about 15 students. Still in the process of becoming recognized by the Student Union as a chartered club, it works to print prosthetic hands using the 3D printers in the Maker Lab. 

Liz Washington ’17, president of the club, founded the club at the beginning of the semester. She explained in an interview with the Justice that she has always been passionate about the prosthetics field and wanted to focus on a more specialized part of 3D printing. Washington went on to explain that the 3D printing club has been interested in printing hands for a while, and when she expressed her interest in prosthetics to the Service Coordinator of the MakerLab, Hazal Uzunkaya ’14, Uzunkaya suggested that she create a club that focused solely on printing prosthetics. 

Uzunkaya worked at the MakerLab while she was a student at Brandeis. After graduating with a major in Neuroscience and a minor in Physics, she became passionate about neural interfaces, which are systems that operate at the intersection of the nervous system and an internal or external device. While an undergraduate student at Brandeis, she printed her first hand out of flexible material and then ordered parts for a bionic prosthetic hand. Uzankaya is now the advisor to the prosthetics club. 

“I hate to think of it as giving kids with ‘disability’ a normal life; why not turn this ‘disability’ into a benefit? Let’s say you need to read your book after it is lights out. You can easily put a small LED flashlight into your thumb, and there, now your book is lit while you’re holding your book. Or, if you were working at a farmers’ market, you could put a scale in your arm, and instead of having to carry the vegetables to the scale, you can simply lift the bag of vegetables with your prosthetic hand and a small screen on your hand, shows the weight,” Uzankaya explained in an email with the Justice. 

The club uses prosthetic templates from a global organization called e-NABLE and is working to become certified through e-NABLE so that they can begin to print hands for people in the Boston area. “A single prosthetic can cost between $5,000 and $50,000 and kids grow quickly so they sometimes need two or three a year,” explained Washington. By partnering with e-NABLE, the club would be able to print free hands for children.  

Once the prosthetics club becomes certified by e-NABLE, they will receive an email every time someone in the Boston area needs a prosthetic hand, and they will work with the family to determine a child’s exact measurements in order to print a hand that is the most functional for the child. In order to become certified by e-NABLE, club members have to send in models of hands they have printed for approval. Once members are certified, they can head a project and be connected with kids. 

Priyam Shah ’17, one of the club’s research and development specialists, explained the positive impact that the lower costs of printing prosthetics will have on families: “Instead of having that amount of money spent, we could spend a lot less, which opens the doors to more people, it increases accessibility, and I think Brandeis is a university that really focuses on accessibility … so this is a good project for … the type of mindset students have here.”

The club is currently working on reaching out to professors and other organizations such as Boston Children’s Hospital to raise awareness about e-NABLE and is learning how to print more advanced prosthetics. “If we’re going to want to innovate, we’re going to need people who know more than we do,” said Washington.

In addition to striving to become certified by e-NABLE, the prosthetics club is also working to perfect their printed models. 

“On the end of designing and printing a hand, if we were to do that for a client, a challenge would be getting the measurements right, making the hand the right size: if the hand is too big, then you can’t apply enough force to cause the tension strings to move, and so the hand would be useless — you couldn’t grip anything with it,” Shah explained. “We’ve been thinking a lot because these hands are for kids, and they [the hands] have open strings that would get attached to things; even the models we’ve made have broken over the few months we’ve had them…so we’re definitely trying to find ways to innovate [them] and make sure that every hand will last as long as the kid needs it to last,” added Washington. 

e-NABLE provides templates for 3D printed hands that maximize a hand’s functionality, but there are also a variety of creative templates. 

“You could print 3D hands that look like the hands of princesses or there is also … a pattern to print a hand that looks like Iron Man’s hand. That’s more of the fun innovation part and less of the practical, but if a kid is going to have a plastic hand that you print for them, it might as well be cool,” said Washington.

John Deny ’17, one of the club’s research and development specialists works with Shah in the Maker Lab. Both are interested in the intersection between health care and technology: “Prosthetics is a middle ground between emerging technology and medicine … it’s at the intercourse of two of our passions, and it’s something that we both really enjoy doing,” said Deny. 

Washington, who is double majoring in Health: Science, Society and Policy and Sculpture, has always been interested in the health professions and helping people. “I wanted to go into medicine and helping people … [and] this is the middle ground between two of my passions, which is why I’ve always wanted to go into prosthetics … and figuring that out, that this was possible, made my career something I could work on [during] my time at college, which is amazing,” she said. 

Vice president, David Landesman ’17, found his way to the prosthetics club through the 3D printing club. In working with Uzankaya in the 3D printing club, he has printed and constructed a 3D hand before. He hopes that the club is only a few weeks away from being approved by e-NABLE. For the future of the club, Landesman hopes that they can establish a connection with the kids to keep updating their hands as they grow and to keep expanding technology. “I’m a neuroscience major, so I’m also interested in possibly bridging the gap and putting sensors on them to control — which is being done at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Tecnology, but we’d like to put our feet in the door,” Landesman said.

A junior at Brandeis and a member of the prosthetics club, Troia        Reyes-Stone ’17 was curious about 3D printing technology and wanted use the technology to help kids. When asked what she’s enjoyed the most so far, she said, “I mean everything, the club — everyone here is really awesome. 3D printing is really interesting — it’s something new and challenging. Being able to build a hand and be like ‘this could be on someone, this could change someone’s life,’ is a really powerful experience.”

The prosthetics club “connects so many different areas of the sciences with hands-on learning, and I think that’s a really important thing,” Washington said. “We’re doing good for people and for kids and…what feels better than doing good for kids?” 

— Brianna Majsiak contributed reporting.