UC San Diego doctor and former partner team up to provide prosthetic limbs to Ukrainian amputees

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LIMBER Hongyuan Intern Haley Zhang, Co-Founder Josh Pelz, Intern Savanna Turner, and Co-Founder Luca De Vivo. Photo by Erik Jepsen/University Communications.

University and LIMBER Prosthetics aim to deliver 100 3D printed prostheses worldwide

A young man gets a prosthetic leg fitted and begins walking without crutches within minutes. An older man walks first with crutches, then without, shortly after being fitted with his prosthesis. A young double amputee was also able to walk on crutches within minutes.

These are three scenes from a video featuring success stories from a pilot program held in Ukraine by LIMBER Prosthetics and Orthotics, a company co-founded by two UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering alumni.

One of the patients who received LIMBER prostheses was a double amputee.

One of the patients who received LIMBER prostheses was a double amputee.

The pilot project in Ukraine was the first step in a much larger endeavor: to provide 100 custom 3D-printed prostheses to people around the world, including war victims in Ukraine. LIMBER is working hand in hand with UC San Diego to raise funds for this proof of concept project, known as Mission 100.

Joshua Pelz and Luca De Vivo teamed up with Certified Prosthetist Herb Barrack to co-found LIMBER. For the pilot project in Ukraine, they partnered with Dr. Manoj Monga, chair of the department of urology at UC San Diego Health.

Funds raised for Mission 100 will be used to build 10 more custom 3D printers, purchase materials for the prosthetic limbs, and hire additional staff to help build the prostheses.

LIMBER will revolutionize access to prosthetics for amputees, said Diana Zambrano, a San Diego resident who is an amputee herself and who helped the company test its devices.

“Mobility is a necessity,” Zambrano said. “LIMBER can print a leg in a day, and right away you have a leg to walk on. It’s amazing.”

The idea of ​​helping Ukrainian amputees originated with Dr Monga, who spent a week in April working in Poland providing emergency care to Ukrainian refugees crossing the border. “I felt there was a lot more to do,” he said.

Dr. Manoj Monga makes a minor adjustment to a prosthesis during a fitting.

Dr. Manoj Monga, chair of the department of urology at UC San Diego, visited Ukraine. Here he makes a minor adjustment to a prosthetic limb during a fitting.

When he returned to San Diego, he read a story about LIMBER Prosthetics and immediately realized that the company could help meet the needs of amputees in the field. Dr. Monga then contacted Dr. Laura Bukavina, a urology fellow in Philadelphia, who is of Ukrainian descent and was in contact with a hospital near Lviv, one of Ukraine’s major cities.

Dr. Monga also contacted LIMBER, and the three co-founders were immediately eager to help. They trained Dr. Monga in scanning residual limbs using a smartphone app and fitting prostheses in the field.

“I was very aware and appreciated that this is a skill that takes a lifetime to learn,” Dr Monga said. “Grass [Barrack] took his time and I appreciated his patience.

Data collection in Ukraine

Dr. Monga flew to Warsaw, then traveled to the Polish-Ukrainian border with a group of doctors. The border can only be crossed on foot, so the team put $10,000 worth of medicine in two wheelbarrows and walked to the Ukrainian side. The drugs were obtained through the Cleveland Maidan Association. Bukavina’s parents met them there and drove them to Lviv. “Lviv is a dynamic city,” said Dr Monga. “Like many European cities, in other times it would be a wonderful place to visit. The juxtaposition of war and peace in the city is now heartbreaking.

Over the next week, Dr. Monga, Pelz, De Vivo and Barrack spoke via FaceTime late at night here in San Diego as the doctor scanned patients at a rehabilitation clinic in Lviv. The scans were sent to the cloud and then retrieved by the LIMBER team working in the Design and Innovation Building at UC San Diego.

Manufacture and delivery of prostheses

Pelz and De Vivo used the scans to design custom prostheses, which were then fabricated on the company’s custom 3D printer. The prostheses are made from a mixture of materials, which allows the prostheses to have a stiffness gradient – ​​stiffer in the foot, for example, but softer in the socket that connects to the residual limb. The structures of the prostheses are inspired by the cholla cactus, both flexible and resistant to strong winds. Barrack inspected the prostheses and also helped find foot-shaped blankets, as well as socks and shoes.

Dr. Monga with three of the patients who received prostheses from LIMBER.

Dr. Monga (left) poses with three of the patients who received prostheses from LIMBER.

One of the challenges was finding someone who would be able to travel to Poland on short notice to deliver the prostheses. San Diego teacher Viktoria Ladygina, also of Ukrainian descent and fluent in the language, flew from Los Angeles International Airport to Warsaw, where Dr Monga met her. He then took the prosthesis back to Lviv.

“The team is so grateful for all these big-hearted volunteers, who have supported us throughout this endeavor,” Pelz said.

More nightly calls between Dr. Monga and the LIMBER team followed as the prostheses were being fitted. The results were quite remarkable. A young man was able to walk unsupervised within minutes of being fitted with his prosthesis. An older patient was able to walk with crutches immediately after fitting and without crutches soon after. A double-leg amputee patient was also able to walk on crutches within minutes.

The structure of LIMBER prostheses is inspired by the structure of the Cholla cactus.

The structure of LIMBER prostheses is inspired by the structure of the Cholla cactus.

The LIMBER team and Dr. Monga ensured that the patients would benefit from rehabilitation services. Prostheses work for everyday life, but not for more strenuous activities, including sports and combat.

The Mission 100 Project

The LIMBER team considers the pilot program a success but also learned some lessons that they plan to apply to the Mission 100 project.

One of the goals is to find the right partners for a long-term relationship, not only in Ukraine, but also in Ethiopia, Mexico and here in the United States. LIMBER wants to train people in the country to scan patients’ residual limbs and upload the data to the cloud. They also want to ensure that patients will have access to rehabilitation after receiving their prosthesis.

LIMBER also assesses whether the manufacture of the prostheses should take place in the country where the patients are located. “We are creating jobs, training the local workforce,” Pelz said.

Bigger goals

In any case, the company will have to increase its production. With just one 3D printer, they can make one leg a day, if all goes well. Doing 100 legs would take more than three months. With 10 3D printers, LIMBER could easily manufacture 200 prosthetic legs per month, but that would also require hiring more employees. This will require raising $850,000, in partnership with UC San Diego.

Two patients watch Dr. Monga fit a prosthesis on an amputee.

Two patients watch Dr. Monga fit a prosthesis on an amputee.

LIMBER’s business plan is twofold. The company plans to sell its custom prostheses in developed countries while offering its services to developing countries at reduced prices or free of charge.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are 40 million amputees in developing countries, 95% of whom have to manage without a prosthesis. Indeed, prosthetic limbs are expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. Patients must undergo repeated visits to doctors’ offices and must have access to specialists.

If you would like to donate to the Mission 100 project, donations can be directed to the Institute for the Global Entrepreneur Founders Fund (6719), part of the UC San Diego Foundation Fund. You can also contact Adrienna Bolli at [email protected] or Laura Lothian at [email protected]


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