Richard Bath at large: Pioneer giving a big hand to the digital future

THE first thing you notice about Donald MacKillop is his swept-back mane of white hair atop an eye-catching beard, a WG Grace-meets-Santa beauty that completely envelops his chin and neck. It frames the cheery former welder's smile. And, despite his troubles, he does give the impression of perpetual happiness.

It's only when you go to shake his outstretched hand that your attention is drawn elsewhere. The first sensation is of your hand meeting a plastic, almost sticky, texture that's reminiscent of a Wii handset. Underneath the soft plastic coating there's a hard, solid mass that brings to mind clichs about iron fists in velvet gloves.

The second sensation is even more forceful. It's an unstoppable trill of sheer fear as you look down at your hand clasped by a shiny piece of industrial equipment straight out of The Terminator.

"Aye, everyone's instinctive reaction is to worry about their mitt getting mangled by the bionic hand," says MacKillop. "The kids are obsessed by the idea that I can crush virtually anything with this hand. They all think I could take a tin can and squeeze it into a mangled mess. They've been watching too much James Bond."

If MacKillop is as far removed from Dr No as you could get, he will live as long in the memory of his fellow amputees as the archetypal baddie has in the minds of Bond fans. The unassuming Scot was the first man to wear a mechanical hand with five digits capable of independent movement, an advance he says "will change so many people's lives – I know because it has changed my life completely".

The prosthetic iLimb hand is a Scottish invention that has its roots in efforts to make replacement limbs for thalidomide babies in the Sixties, and this particular project has been 20 years in the making. No overnight success then, but just a year after its launch as the first commercially available bionic hand it has won a clutch of prizes. The latest came last week when it was named one of the most important scientific innovations of the year by Time magazine, alongside the Large Hadron Collider and the Mars Rover.

Not that the men, women and children whose lives will be transformed by the revolutionary hand from Livingston-based Touch Bionics will be bothered by such baubles. Like MacKillop, they will be more interested in the practical impact of the multi-articulating digits, in which tiny motors let the plastic fingers pick up a credit card, hold a coffee cup, write with a pen and touch type.

"I never thought I'd be able to eat with a knife and fork again, but then again there are lots of things I never thought I'd be able to do again," says the 62-year-old grandfather. "But mainly it means that I can do lots of things more easily and quickly than I could when I just had a hook.

"When you've lost a hand, life becomes one long hassle and it's easy to become genuinely demented. I'm really self-disciplined and I've made sure it hasn't ruined my life, but I've seen what it can do to other people. I've seen men who can't take it."

The scale of the problem is enormous. In America alone there are 118,000 new amputees each year, not counting the rising number of war wounded. With mines still a blight upon the world, and hand injuries particularly common among children, this technology has huge potential.

Not that this will be happen soon. An iLimb, which uses complicated sensors to translate muscular and nerve impulses into movement, costs around 30,000, a sum that puts it way outside the means of the Third World. In fact, of the 400 hands that have been sold in 41 countries since the iLimb hit the market a year ago, more than half have been taken up by Americans fortunate enough to have private healthcare or unfortunate to have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that Touch Bionics is partly owned by NHS Scotland, the cost means that MacKillop remains the only Scottish amputee lucky enough to have an iLimb. And that's only because he has been a volunteer worker with Strathclyde University's National Centre for Training and Education in Prosthetics and Orthotics, and was put forward as a guinea pig. MacKillop lost his hand in 1977, eight years after a domestic accident meant he began to lose the feeling in his fingers when he was just 23. He should never have gone back to work but he was self-employed with two sons to feed, and one day a special wrist support he wore broke and he shattered his wrist so badly with a hammer that he sustained major nerve damage. The pain was so bad that, aged 31, he begged doctors to amputate his hand. It didn't stop the pain.

"This hand can't make the pain go away, but it has given me some relief. I can't sleep so I like to keep active, and I make wooden fridge magnets and calendars for Country & Western groups. They're quite small, so now I can grip them with one hand and paint them with the other. I love painting, it's so therapeutic.

"As soon as I'm in the house on my own, off it comes," he adds of the iLimb. "I'm fascinated by the thing and am still finding out new things about it every day, but the thing to remember is that it's not part of me. I'm always aware of it, always know that it's there and that it's not my hand. It helps me live a better life, but it's not me."

MacKillop talks excitedly about Touch Bionic's plans to bring out a more sophisticated version. The company's managing director Stuart Mead says it will not only feature a full arm in sections that can be bolted together, but it could also use haptic technology that will give the replacement limbs a sense of touch.

Despite his incessant pain, MacKillop is enormously proud of his role in redefining the future for amputees. "This has given me a tremendous sense of achievement," he said. "I'm the first amputee in the world who has been able to wiggle five digits on an artificial hand. And the best thing is I know that I won't be the last."

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