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Blade runners: The future of prosthetics

They are called blade runners, elite athletes who are among the fastest in the world.

They are fastest running with only one or even no legs, and they are among the first to break records with a new generation of prosthetics.

In this Medical Moment, we examine the science behind the blades.

Running faster, stronger, longer – that's what brings Alex and Jessica to University of Colorado Boulder and Dr. Alena Grabowski.

"I had a little baby foot, but that was amputated when I was a year old," Jessica Heims said.

"I had cancer when I was 8," Louisiana State University student Alex Klein said.

Grabowski is helping these amputees sprint onto the world stage.

"We're at a place right now where athletes are very high-caliber and they're working extremely hard to be able to compete at the highest levels, and I'm hoping that we can start to keep up with them," said Grabowski, who specializes in biomechanics.

She is focused on optimizing a prosthetics stiffness, height, weight, shape.

"How they move, how they walk, run, sprint, hop, jump," she continued.

Today they're using cameras and sensors to measure how these sprinters move, track their force and test these new carbon fiber blades.

"I'm on a sprinting blade, which, when I jog on it, it feels different because it's thicker," Heims said.

In one video, world class sprinter Blake Leeper, born without legs, is leading the way. He is being called the fastest human on earth, and in Grabowski's lab was clocked at about 25 mph.

She believes this is just the beginning, giving young sprinters around the world a chance to compete against the best in the world.

"I don't feel like anything is holding me back," Klein said. "I feel like I can do whatever, whenever I want."

"That first day I felt like I could just run forever and never stop," Heims said.

It's still to be decided if amputees like Leeper will be allowed to run in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The International Association of Athletics Federations banned amputees from running against other runners after a German study concluded that blades allowed the runner to expend 25% less energy, even though researchers at Rice University concluded that was false, stating that blades put the runners at a disadvantage because they pushed off with less force than a biological limb would.


BACKGROUND: Prosthetics designed for athletes have a 40 year legacy. These ingenious "blade" prosthetics shied away from earlier heavy designs and focused on the mechanics of muscle movement. Their invention spurred an athletic renaissance in which amputees run competitive distances, climb mountains, and downhill ski. Running blades were invented by American inventor Van Phillips, who lost his lower leg in a water- skiing accident in 1976. Depressed by the limited athletic function of prosthetics at the time, he enrolled as a student at Northwestern University Medical School's Prosthetic-Orthotic Center. He quickly recognized that while most prosthetics tried to mimic human bones, he could focus on replicating ligaments and tendons. He came up with the idea for running blades by observing animals like kangaroos and cheetahs, as well as the mechanics of diving boards and pole vaulting. The result was Flex-Foot – his model of carbon fiber blade prosthetics and the name of his company. His contribution to the history of prosthetic legs has inspired generations of athletic amputees. (Source:

CARE: A prosthesis can be particularly subject to perspiration as it is enclosed in a plastic socket. This can be a source of odor and bacteria, as well as the culprit behind skin problems. Sprinkling the residual limb with baking soda, or if needed, apply an over-the-counter antiperspirant such as CertainDri may help. The more consistently the prosthesis is worn, the more the residual limb will adjust to being inside the socket, with perspiration naturally subsiding. It's important to keep a good supply of prosthetic socks on hand. Swelling and volume fluctuation may occur but a shrinker sock is useful to reduce swelling and should be worn when you are not wearing your prosthesis. (Source:

NEW RESEARCH: Alena Grabowski, PhD, Biomechanics at CU Boulder talked about the hurdles for developing better a better prosthesis, "Running's a little bit trickier than walking because it's so much faster. So if I were to try to design a running-specific prostheses that would enhance running, it would be something that had a very lightweight motor, something that allowed very quick feedback, something that was actually connected to the person so the person could actually drive that prosthesis, not just react to it. And so, there's a lot of aspects that would have to be perfect to really make that prosthesis work the best." (Source: Alena Grabowski, PhD)

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