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UT Southwestern working to restore sense of touch to amputees

A program is working to create a prosthetic hand system that moves and provides sensation like a natural hand.

In Hollywood, Luke Skywalker loses a hand. No big deal. He gets an animatronic replacement and normal life resumes.

Well maybe, just maybe in the not-too-distant future a Baptist pastor in Mount Pleasant, Texas, thanks to researchers at UT Southwestern in Dallas, will be able to say the same thing.

"The sky's the limit," associate pastor Shawn Findley told WFAA on a recent visit to Nevill's Chapel Baptist Church. "And if you have a positive outlook and a positive approach, you can do anything!"

It's an outlook he's needed in the last 13 years since a day at a machine shop went horribly wrong. “It was about 10 minutes before quittin’ time," he said.

Findley says he slipped and his hand went into a manual punch press, a machine heavy enough and powerful enough to bend metal.

“Foot hit the pedal and hand was in no man’s land," he said.

Over the next four years, he endured 13 surgical attempts to recover the use of his left hand. But the attempts were so unsuccessful, and the need for pain medications too frequent, he decided to have his hand amputated above the wrist. And all these years later, he says he has no regrets.

"Absolutely not. If I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know, yes I'd make the same choice," he said.

But even an amputee with a positive attitude, and with a working prosthetic hand that twists at the wrist and opens and closes to allow him to grasp and pick up items, still hopes for so much more.

"There's so many things, even though it's open and close, and it does help every day function, there's still so many things that it does not do," he said.

So for three months, at least once a week, he made the I-30, two-hour drive to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, to meet with surgeon Dr. Jonathan Cheng.

"He's the latest in a line of patients who have given us this enormous gift of participating," Cheng said. "The way that I view it is the ability to feel with your hand is one of the basic five senses that we possess."

By studying volunteer patients like Pastor Findley, Dr. Cheng and his team have managed to attach sensors to prosthetic hands and wire them directly to the nerve endings in a patient's arm. They're getting closer to having amputees feel and move, as if they still have the hands and fingers they lost.

According to UT Southwestern, the federal government's Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program is working to create a prosthetic hand system that moves and provides sensation like a natural hand. Dr. Cheng, an Associate Professor of Plastic Surgery at UT Southwestern, says he believes that the body's natural neural communications pathway, even one that has been severed, can be tapped into using an artificial messaging bridge.

"The problem is not the amputees or the robotic hands," said Dr. Cheng said in a UT Southwestern news release. "The problem has been the biological interface between the two.”

And Pastor Findley, for one, says the neural interface is promising and exciting.

"It felt like I was getting sensation from the thumb all the way to the pinky, even across the hand at points," Findley said of his progress during his 90-day volunteer effort. "It was eye-opening. It was pretty awesome."

"We think this has a huge amount of promise to be able to allow patients like Shawn to control the robotic digits on their hand independently like what you would need to type on a keyboard or play on a piano," said Dr. Cheng. "And we anticipate that is something we can accomplish within the next 2 to 3 years."

Right now, in the United States, there are an estimated 18,000 hand or arm amputees like Shawn Findley. And many of them are veterans.

That's who Pastor Findley thinks about most.

"I'm a patriot. I'm a veteran. And we got a lot of soldier boys coming back damaged. If this could be, not an option, but the standard, man it's worth it. You figure the cost, you figure the hours, you figure the drive time, you figure the lab time, I'd do it again in a heartbeat," he said.

"The goal and the dream is to be able to return service people back to the military career," said Dr. Cheng. "And so it's a complete restoration that we're after. Giving somebody feeling and the ability to control each finger individually I think is not too much to ask. It's been an incredible journey so far, and I think we're really close!"

"And just to know that I'm a part of something great is remarkable," said Findley.

Click here for more detailed information on the study.