'Ironman hands': MUN medical students using 3D printers to make prosthetics

They've printed 3D models of everything from their own heads to heel fractures, and now a group at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) is using their lab to create prosthetic hands for children and young adults in Zimbabwe.

"There is a great need for this. Statistically in Zimbabwe seven per cent of the population has some form of disability," said Bo Simango, the assistive technology and outreach lead with MUN Med 3D.

"And that amounts to 900,000 people." 

The group was started about a year ago by two medical students — Michael Bartellas and Stephen Ryan — with a $25,000 grant and an interest in applying 3D printing technology to the medical field. 

Now they're planning to create hand prosthetics for 15 young people at the Jairos Jiri Southerton Children's Centre in Harare.

The hands are made from polylactic acid plastic, and it only takes about seven dollars worth of the material to make a child-sized prosthetic. 

"It's a harder plastic, it lasts long, you can sanitize it, it's water resistant, it's durable," said Michael Bartellas, project lead and co-founder of MUN Med 3D.  

How does it work? 

"Imagine you have a candle that is burning, and you hold it sideways so the wax drips out onto the table," said Simango.

"First it will be one drop, and you add another drop on top of it, and you keep doing that until you build a big tower of wax, so 3D printing works in this exact same way."

It takes about 15 hours to print all the components for a hand, which is then assembled with wiring so that it is mobile.

"When you rotate the joint it makes the hand close so you can grasp with it, and then you can open it when you rotate the forearm in the other direction," said Bartellas.

"All you need is a CAD model, which is a computer aided design model, of the object which you wish to create, a 3D printer, and from there you can work some magic," Simango said.

Hand-a-thon 

The group is planning to involve Newfoundland high school students in the assembly process at the end of April with a Hand-a-Thon — an international event that brings together members of a community to print and assemble prosthetic hands.

Simango said the idea is to bring students together to focus on giving back, while fostering goodwill toward other young people in developing nations.

This year the program is focusing on prosthetic hands, and the group hopes to eventually add lower extremities and arm prosthetics.

"We don't quite know what the future holds but it would be really exciting for us to create a bionic arm," said Simango.

MUN Med 3D may not be creating bionic limbs just yet, but Simango has shown the kids in Zimbabwe videos of the 3D printed hands, and they think the plastic versions they'll be getting are pretty cool.

"I've looked it up on YouTube and some of the children think of it as Ironman's hands, so..." he laughed.