How close are we to creating the bionic man?

As the world's first "bionic eye" is unveiled, Victoria Raimes looks at how science is working to rebuild us

WHEN The Six Million Dollar Man hit our screens in the 1970s, the idea of super limbs was more science fiction than science fact. Fast forward 30 years however, and mechanical limbs and features have become a reality.

Bionics, put simply, looks at the merging of biological systems with electronics to create a realistic hand or eye that can grip or see in a similar way to the features we are born with.

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Livingston company Touch Bionics has led the way, aided by Sethu Vijayakumar from Edinburgh University. The Professor of Robotics and Department of Informatics head said: "I work with robotic systems that are able to restore some force or energy for those who have lost muscle tone.

"But there are further developed methods such as, for example, bions, which are small injectable electron modules that can be inserted into the muscles. This has been developed into a robotic suit that you can wear. It will allow users to lift double the amount they previously could."

So just how close are we to being able to create a bionic person?


Earlier this year a biotech company in New Zealand revealed that it had created a pair of robotic legs which had helped a man walk again.

The device is not an implant, but rather a robotic exoskeleton, or Rex - a pair of robotic legs that support and assist a person who usually uses a wheelchair. Users strap themselves in and control their movements using a joystick and control pad.


Doctors are currently experimenting with artificial lungs as a way to give patients waiting for a donated lung an increased chance of survival.

One such device is the BioLung, a machine which is roughly the size of a drinks can that is implanted in the chest. The device is packed with hollow plastic fibres perforated with holes so tiny that only gas molecules can pass through them.

As blood filters through the fibres, carbon dioxide escapes through the holes and is replaced by oxygen from the surrounding air.

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Researchers claim it can reproduce 100 per cent of normal lung function. Clinical trials are expected to be under way in the next few years.


Not dissimilar to Will Smith's arm in the film I, Robot, in 2007 there was a bionic revolution close to home when Livingston-based company Touch Bionics introduced the first commercially available bionic hand.

The i-Limb Hand has helped more than 1200 people lift and grip objects including a credit card, cup of coffee or knife.

The hand, which took 20 years to develop, has fingers, grip and even a synthetic skin. The device uses electrodes placed on the skin of the remaining portion of the patient's limb. Whenever the patient moves the muscles that would translate to an extension of their hand, these electrodes pick up on those signals and translate it into individual finger movement.

In May 2010 the firm unveiled the i-Limb pulse, which offers an even tighter grip on fiddly bits such as shoelaces.


While the creation of a true bionic heart is considered one of the holy grails of medicine, there are already artificial hearts in use.

The first, the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart is a "bridge" to help heart patients survive while awaiting a donor. The device is implanted alongside the patient's heart, and takes over the pumping function of the muscle, allowing it to rest and heal.


The first recipient of bionic feet was not a human but a pet cat called Oscar.

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He was fitted with prosthetic pegs, called intraosseous transcutaneous amputation prosthetics (Itaps), which were developed by a team from University College London. The weight-bearing implants combine engineering mechanics with biology. The Itap technology is being tested in humans and has already been used to create a prosthetic for a woman who lost her arm in the July 2005 London bombings. The success of the operation on Oscar is a sign of the potential the technology has to revolutionise prosthetics.


ONCE the preserve of science fiction novels - and used as the bizarre plot device of action flick Face/Off - face transplants have become increasingly advanced, to the point where everything, including tear-ducts and eyelids, can now be replaced.

The world's first full face transplant was carried out in March this year, when 30 experts at the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital, in Barcelona, spent more than 24 hours lifting an entire donor face and placing it, mask-like, on the 31-year-old Spanish patient, known only as Oscar.

A team of specialists in the UK are said to be ready to perform a full face transplant, and are awaiting a donor.


Not a full eye, but a chip implanted behind the eye. It allows a patient to detect objects with their eyes, rather than using an external camera. The chip converts light that enters the eye into electrical impulses which are fed into the optic nerve behind the eye. It is powered via a device that clips behind the ear.