Australian research in prosthetics technology helps transform lives in low-middle-income countries

Hundreds of patients in the Asia-Pacific region have received custom prosthetics thanks to an affordable, simple technique developed by University of Melbourne experts to revolutionise healthcare.
Hundreds of patients in the Asia-Pacific region have received custom prosthetics thanks to an affordable, simple technique developed by University of Melbourne experts to revolutionise healthcare.

Hundreds of patients in the Asia-Pacific region have received custom prosthetics thanks to an affordable, simple technique developed by University of Melbourne experts to revolutionise healthcare.

Together with a team of researchers, Professor Peter Lee, a biomedical engineer in the University’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and Director of the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Medical Implant Technologies, showed that the low-cost Pressure Cast (PCAST) system can make comfortable artificial limbs. The PCAST system uses a simple, portable unit, water and Plaster of Paris to create customised sockets for a prosthetic limb within a day.

Using water pressure, the system can create a custom socket shape that allows the custom prosthetic to bear the patient’s weight comfortably. Unlike traditional, labour-intensive and time-consuming prosthetic systems that require a prosthesis socket to be shaped manually, the PCAST system is easy to use, which is crucial in remote regions where qualified prosthetists may be either unavailable or unable to meet local demand.

Professor Lee said the system uses scientifically credible, accessible technology to address the needs of people with lower limb amputations in low and middle-income countries.

“We used cutting-edge technology to investigate the underlying science and devise a simple, effective solution. Our success has fostered collaboration with clinicians in several countries to use pressure-casting to make comfortable sockets.”

“We’re challenging the assumption that better technology has to be more complex. Our work shows that you don’t need fancy equipment to make good prostheses,” says Professor Lee.

With the support of the CASS Foundation, Rotary Club Richmond and Sweden’s Promobilia Foundation, the team trialled and successfully validated the technology in Vietnam with around 32 volunteers, receiving reports of high levels of satisfaction with the socket and even showing improvements in physical test performance over time.

Following the success of the trial, Professor Lee turned his attention to making the technology widely available through education and support for clinicians and health staff in regional areas in low and middle-income countries, including Indonesia and Tanzania.

Rita Triharyani, who oversees the rollout of the technology in Indonesia as the in-Country Project Manager at the Digital Health Hub at YAKKUM Rehabilitation Centre, said the system would be life changing.

“For people with disabilities that face barriers to infrastructure such as accessible transportation, we can bring the PCAST system to the field, do the casting process directly, and then bring the negative cast back to our workshop to produce the prosthetic,” Ms Triharyani said.

“Using the PCAST system means that our prosthetic production time is faster and provides a more accurate casting so that the patient gets a socket for the same quality without waiting too long.”

The team at YAKKUM have fitted 133 patients to date and provided over 4000 biomechanical therapy and counselling treatments over the past two years.

Professor Lee said he hoped the low-tech nature of the PCAST technology would help people regain their quality of life.

“Many people with disabilities confront immense challenges in low and middle-income countries, including those in need of prosthetic legs. Poor access to clinics and support, particularly in rural regions, has left many people without the mobility needed for a fulfilling life,” he said.

“Often, there is an assumption that expensive technology is required for this. Our work debunks that myth, demonstrating how innovation and philanthropy can alter lives through simple, yet effective engineering solutions.”

His next project will work in collaboration with the 100 Limbs Project in Tanzania. Professor Lee plans to continue breaking barriers to advance the delivery of quality prosthetic care, and hopes to make the PCAST technology accessible to all healthcare providers and patients, regardless of their economic status or location.