Ontario high-school student aims to create affordable prosthetics for amputees

Seventeen-year-old high schooler Alishba Imran, shown in Mississauga, Ont., Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, makes affordable prosthetics with her 3D printer at her family's home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Alishba Imran knew she had to do something to help when she heard about a family friend who had lost a limb in an accident and couldn’t afford to get a prosthetic.

After having taught herself programming when she was just 13, the 17-year-old teen from Mississauga, Ont., is using her passion for modern technology and artificial intelligence to create a prosthetic that she says could cut costs for millions of amputees in Canada and around the world.

“I think it's huge,” Imran said in an interview.

“We have the potential to solve a huge gap in the world … and create an alternative to a thing that people need, which is obviously prosthetics and mobility and accessibility.”

The World Health Organization estimates that, worldwide, nine people out of 10 needing assistive products, including prosthetics, don't have access, because of high cost, lack of awareness and availability.

The WHO also estimates that there are 35 million to 40 million people globally who require prosthetics and orthotics services.

Imran is using three-dimensional printers to create prosthetics she wants to sell for no more than $500. Prosthetics on the market range between $5,000 and $100,000, she says. Costs are significantly cut, says the high-school senior, because of the materials 3D printers use.

David Hanson, founder and CEO of Hong-Kong-based robotics and AI company Hanson Robotics, says Imran’s goal of creating a prosthetic for $500 is feasible if it is mass manufactured.

“It would be radically impactful to provide an affordable prosthetic; the majority of people around the world who need a prosthesis can't afford the existing solutions,” Hanson, who has been a mentor to Imran on other projects, said in an email.

Riley Dawson, a software engineer in training at the University of Alberta, says robotic prosthetics have been around since the 1970s.

“While the hardware has undergone some incredible advancement, to this day … rejection and denial rates are unexpectedly high," said Dawson, who added Imran's project is trying to tackle that by using computer vision and machine learning so prosthetic can '"learn" how to be used.

Imran is working in a small, scattered makeshift lab in her home, but said it was easy for her to organize her time after school to develop two algorithms that use a patient's behaviour to help the prosthetic adapt to the body.

The first algorithm uses the help of a prosthetic-mounted camera that over time memorizes the type of objects a person uses and "learns" the movement for future use. The second algorithm explores a person's environment and adapts the prosthetic to movements and behaviours.

Imran says she and her team are still looking for more durable materials, but her prosthetic is ready to test on amputees, although COVID-19 has delayed that.

She's aiming to have a final product by next year. “Our goal is … kits that we can just send to people, and they can almost put it together themselves," she says.

“What gets me really passionate and excited is being able to make an impact and solve a gap or problem or need that somebody has.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2020.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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