Pitt, UPMC’s mind-controlled robotic arm tops bracket naming ‘best innovation in science and medicine’

The robotic arm beat out a 3-D printed hyperelastic bone, a rapid diagnostic test for sepsis and more.

University of Pittsburgh bioengineering graduate student John Downey holds a computer chip with points that get inserted into the brain. The tips record neurons enabling those with spinal cord injuries to control a robotic arm.

University of Pittsburgh bioengineering graduate student John Downey holds a computer chip with points that get inserted into the brain. The tips record neurons enabling those with spinal cord injuries to control a robotic arm.

Jasmine Goldband / THE INCLINE
MJ Slaby

Update, April 3: Pitt and UPMC’s mind-controlled robotic arm is the winner of STAT’s NCAA-style bracket for the “best innovation in science and medicine.” Pitt and UPMC topped the University of Michigan by about 500 votes.

Update, March 29: Pitt and UPMC’s mind-controlled robotic arm advanced to the championship round of STAT’s NCAA-style bracket, where it will face University of Michigan researchers.

The Michigan team is working on a “rapid diagnostic test for sepsis” by finding gut microbes that can be in the lungs during the blood infection.

Voting is open through Sunday, and the winner will be announced Monday.

Original post:

Remember when former President Barack Obama was in Pittsburgh and shook hands and fist-bumped with Nathan Copeland — a man with quadriplegia who uses his mind to control a robotic arm?

Thanks to researchers at Pitt and UPMC, Copeland regained the sense of touch through the mind-controlled robotic arm and chips implanted in his brain.

Now, that same mind-controlled robotic arm is in an NCAA-style bracket by STAT, a national health, medicine and science publication, which aims to name the “best innovation in science and medicine.” The winner, along with the Editor’s Choice, will both be featured in the publication.

Last week, the robotic arm advanced to the “Sweet Sixteen” and is now up against a 3-D printed “hyperelastic bone” from Northwestern University. In the first round, the arm faced UCLA’s “minimally invasive ultrasound” for brain injuries.

Voting in this round ends Thursday. (You can vote here.)

To qualify for the contest, entries had to come from an accredited university or college in the U.S. and have a paper published in a peer-review in the last year, said Arvind Suresh, a science writer for UPMC and Pitt Health Sciences, who entered the robotic arm in the contest. Though this research has been happening for years, he said, a paper about Copeland’s story was recently in “Science Translational Medicine” journal.

Plus, Suresh said it didn’t hurt that the robotic arm made national news when Copeland got to shake hands and fist bump with Obama. The then-president even mentioned Copeland in his Frontiers Conference speech:

Think about this: He hasn’t been able to use his arms or legs for over a decade, but now he can once again feel the touch of another person. So we shook hands. He had a strong grip, but he had kind of toned it down … And then we gave each other a fist bump.

“It was a great moment for Pittsburgh,” Suresh said adding that he hopes the innovation is a point of pride for the entire city. (Suresh is also hoping the attention can help with fundraising for Copeland’s modified van.)

The sense of touch helps people interact with the world around them, for example people use different grips for a glass of Coke vs. a marshmallow, Suresh said, adding that Copeland now has that sense back after years without it. Watch more here:

Video via UPMC YouTube

Overall, Suresh said he hopes more people learn about the research.

“Well, it made an impression on the President,” Suresh said. “We’re hoping other people will be impressed, too.”