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YOUR HEALTH: The new generation of bionic legs

This prosthetic could change the lives of millions of people around the world

SALT LAKE CITY — There are more than two million people living with limb loss in the United States.

That number is expected to double by 2050. 

Whether it's the result of a disease or an accident, having a limb amputated drastically changes your life.

That moment came quickly for Alec McMorris.

He was removing a tire from the road when a car sent him flying 30 feet.

"That was kind of the last time that I took steps with two feet."

Alec lost his leg but gained a new perspective.

"This gave me a lot of direction, a lot of drive."

Alec was called on to be the first person in the world to test the first truly bionic leg.

"I love anytime I get the call to go up there, what are we going to push today? What boundaries are we going to try to test?" 

The leg is designed to be lighter, stronger, and faster than any prosthetic invented before.

"It's the first device that can really replicate the biomechanical functional of the biological legs," explained University of Utah mechanical engineer Tommasso Lenzi.

He and his team at the University of Utah's Bionic Engineering Lab is creating the self-powered prosthetic leg with computer processors and motorized joints in the ankle and knee. 

Smart sensors pick up electrical signals from the skin.

"It looks if there's load on it, if it's moving in the space, if it's impacting the ground. And that's one thing that it does to understand what the user wants to do," said Lenzi.

Based on that real-time data, it provides power to the motors in the joints to assist in walking, standing up, and walking stairs. 

"We'll do a test or something and Doctor Lenzi will look at me and be like, 'Well, now you're the fastest person to ever walk on a power leg in the world'," said Alec.

It uses custom-designed force and torque sensors as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes to help determine the leg's position in space. 

Lenzi and his team developed a new controller that adapts to the movement of the user. 

This controller continuously looks at the user's movement and updates the trajectory of the robotic leg 1,000 times each second to replicate what the biological leg would do in similar conditions. 

"Like the biological leg, with this controller each step is different," Lenzi said.

 "When the user encounters an obstacle, he or she can just cross it by doing what they would do with their biological leg. No need to stop and go around it."

Now Alec's using what he's learning in the lab and transferring it to the playing field as an assistant coach.

"Teaching yourself boundaries, accountability, discipline, how to work hard, how to work through adversity when hard things hit." 

The researchers at the University of Utah received two grants to further advance the technology. 

One is a $2.2 million dollar award from the National Institute of Health.

The other is a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. 

If all goes well, Lenzi hopes to get it on the market in the next five years.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.