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SAN ANTONIO - Some 350 members and supporters of San Antonio's biomedical industry got a personal preview of internationally acclaimed inventor Dean Kamen's newly developed prosthetic arm days before the project was featured on the fall season premiere of "60 Minutes."
As the 2009 recipient of BioMed SA's Julio Palmaz Award, Kamen was featured speaker at the organization's annual Award Dinner September 17 at the Venues of Valero. The Palmaz Award, now in its fourth year, recognizes innovation in healthcare and the biosciences. Kamen was selected for his lifetime of work developing medical and mobility devices to help others overcome challenges in their lives, including the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, a portable dialysis machine, a battery-powered wheelchair that can climb stairs, and the Segway™ Human Transporter.
"We are proud to add the Julio Palmaz Award to his prestigious list of accolades," said BioMed SA Vice Chair Dr. Brian Herman, who nominated Kamen and introduced him at the dinner. "Our selection committee was struck by the overall breadth of his contributions to the medical community and society in general. His founding of FIRST to motivate the next generation's interest in science and technology was another key factor in his selection. And, his Luke Arm project to develop prosthetic limbs with unique tactile qualities is of special interest to us here in Military City USA."
Founder of New Hampshire-based DEKA Research, Kamen was approached several years ago by Department of Defense officials who challenged him to develop a more functional prosthetic arm for soldiers returning from Iraq with one or both arms missing.
"We have more kids coming back missing an arm than ever before," Kamen said he was told by military officials. "At the end of the Civil War, we put a wooden stick on them with a hook on the end of it. Over 100 years later, at the end of the Vietnam War, we put a plastic stick on them with a hook on the end of it... It's unacceptable."
Kamen rose to the challenge and within a year developed a fully functional robotic arm, now in clinical trials. He showed BioMed SA dinner attendees video clips of a bilateral amputee using the prosthetic arm to pluck a single grape from a bunch on the table, then put it up to his lips and eat it without crushing it.
Dubbed the "Luke Arm" after Star Wars character Luke Skywalker, the strap-on, surgery-free arm, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), offers greater freedom and flexibility than currently available prosthetics. It weighs about the same as a human arm and can adapt to various control schemes - from foot pads and pull switches to more advanced methods - to suit patient preferences.
While in San Antonio, Kamen visited Brooke Army Medical Center, including the Center for the Intrepid rehabilitation facility for amputees and the world-renowned burn unit. He also met with the Army's Institute for Surgical Research to discuss other unmet military medical needs. His BAMC visit was hosted by Commanding General Joseph Caravalho and Deputy Commander Col. Mary Ann McAfee, who represents military medicine on the BioMed SA Executive Committee.
Kamen also utilized his introductory visit to San Antonio to highlight the importance of science and technology education - not only at the BioMed SA dinner, but also by delivering the 2nd Annual Presidential Distinguished Lecture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he rode a Segway onstage to address several hundred students, faculty and university supporters. BioMed SA and UTSA also conducted a joint news conference to introduce Kamen to local media.
In addition, Northwest Vista College hosted a breakfast meeting for local industry representatives interested in supporting robotics competitions being organized through Kamen's nationwide non-profit organization, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of science and Technology). Northwest Vista hosted a FIRST Tech Challenge for area high school students earlier this year and will sponsor a FIRST Lego League tournament for younger students in November at the Witte Museum.
As Kamen told dinner attendees in extolling the importance of programs like FIRST, "The only shot at having health and wealth and growth in an economy in the near future is going to be technical competence. All the other barriers are gone. All the other core advantages people had in the 18th and 19th centuries are not going to be there. Show me a world-class, smart group of people around universities and high tech centers, and I'll show you wealth and health and a good society."
Among the dinner audience were two tables of local high school sophomores participating in the prestigious new Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The young Voelcker Scholars will experience three years of intensive summer programs mentored by university faculty members.
Representing the dinner's Platinum Sponsor, Medtronic Diabetes, were two tables of staff members from the company's newly opened Diabetes Therapy Management & Education Center in San Antonio and its head office in Northridge, California.
"This is more than a company coming to San Antonio," said BioMed SA Chair Henry Cisneros, who played a key role in the community's recruitment of Medtronic. "It is part of our health strategy. It is how we are going to heal people in San Antonio and South Texas. It's a great partnership, a great win."
Katie Szyman, newly named President of Medtronic Diabetes, explained how the company's insulin pumps and glucose monitoring systems give patients more control over their disease, while call centers provide an important support network.
She acknowledged the support Medtronic has received from local government, academic centers, and BioMed SA since selection of San Antonio as the expansion site for its diabetes division. "It's coming here because there is great talent in the city of San Antonio. We're already well ahead of our schedule in terms of hiring the people and opening up the call center," said Szyman. "Thank you so much for the warm Texas welcome."
Also recognized, along with other dinner sponsors, were representatives of the Targeted Technology Fund, San Antonio's first venture capital fund focused on the biomedical industry; the three founding partners of the city's newest medical technology company, MCD Life Sciences; and a visiting industry leader from Monterrey, Mexico, Dr. Martin Hernandez Torre, Director of the School of Biotechnology and Health.