Off and running
Groundbreaking prosthetics research helps wounded veterans get back on their feet.
U.S. Army Colonel Patricia Collins was determined not to let a partial leg amputation spell the end of her competitive athletic career. Now, she’s running better than ever with the help of groundbreaking prosthetic limb research that’s designed to help veteran amputees regain the greatest possible level of functionality.
Collins, a 2013 International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon silver medalist and 2016 Paralympics hopeful, is one of several veterans working with faculty member Alena Grabowski in CU-Boulder’s Applied Biomechanics Lab to develop more efficient electrically powered ankle-foot prostheses.
“I am running faster, farther and more comfortably than I have since I’ve been an amputee, thanks to Alena and her team,” she said. “Having the opportunity to try different running legs and test variables such as weight and height alignment was revolutionary for me.”
“The ability to walk and run should never be taken for granted,” said Grabowski, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology. She and her students are working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) to reduce prosthetic limb rehabilitation time and reduce related health care costs, which will allow veteran amputees to resume intensive physical activities and even return to active duty if they so desire.
Her state-of-the-art lab, which is funded in part by a five-year Career Development Award from the Department of Veterans Affairs Rehabilitation, Research and Development Service, includes a dual-belt treadmill, a high-speed treadmill, an eight-camera motion analysis system, sophisticated metabolic analysis machines and more than 60 running-specific prostheses.
With additional funding support from the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, Grabowski’s team conducts its studies using a unique prosOff and running Groundbreaking prosthetics research helps wounded veterans get back on their feet. HEALTH thesis called the BiOM. Developed by Personal Bionics in Bedford, Massachusetts, it helps restore natural gait and balance and lowers joint stress. For the first time in history, veterans with lower limb amputations have regained nearly full functionality while walking and running.
CU-Boulder undergraduates play a leading role in the research as well. “The best part of the experience was taking theoretical principles of biomechanics and putting them into practice,” said Rachel Klomhaus, a recent graduate who worked in Grabowski’s lab during her senior year. “I learned how to use tools and programs to make a difference in someone’s life.”
“My students provide an enormous contribution to my research,” said Grabowski. “Their creative energy is infectious and they offer important insight into research development and implementation.”
Grabowski’s work was featured prominently during this year’s National Veterans Research Week, which calls attention to the achievements of VA researchers and the role they play in providing high-quality care for veterans and advancing medical science.
“With the increasing number of veterans with leg amputations, there is a heightened demand for advanced prostheses,” said Grabowski. “We believe our research will improve advanced leg prostheses for walking and running, facilitating the reintegration of veterans with amputations in all facets of civilian life.”