City Journal: The Bionic Bostonian

How we’re engineering the future—one cutting-edge, very expensive body part at a time.

Racking up $5 billion in sales annually, medical devices are the Bay State’s biggest export. And we’re not talking about just pacemakers and plastic arms these days—a lot of the products push the bounds of medical science. Here are five local innovations that have City Journal muttering, “Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man barely alive….”

1. BrainGate Neural Interface
Approximate price: $20,000+
A spine injury paralyzes a patient when nerve signals can’t travel down the spinal cord. Foxboro-based Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology System’s BrainGate—which includes an array of 100 electrodes implanted in the brain’s motor cortex area—harnesses those signals and sends them in the other direction: up out of the head and into a computer. An early tester of the product learned to play Pong by controlling the game with his mind.

2. Harmony HiResolution Bionic Ear
Approximate price: $25,000
This behind-the-ear device captures multilayered sounds—conversations at a cocktail party, say—and beams CD-quality signals to a nickel-size implant embedded in the skull. The implant then sends a signal, made up of as many as 83,000 electrical pulses per second, directly to the brain’s auditory nerve. Made by Natick’s Boston Scientific, the Bionic Ear doesn’t just amplify sound, as a hearing aid does; it lets the deaf hear.

3. Boston Digital Arm System
Approximate price: $40,000–$70,000
Before Holliston’s Liberating Technologies came along, prosthetic arms tended to be clunky. That changed last year when specialists fitted an amputee with a five-joint Boston Digital Arm System, the most advanced prosthetic ever seen. A microprocessor in the forearm translates nerve signals sent from the chest in order to drive motorized joints (flex your pec, and it moves your arm). For its next trick, Liberating Tech is developing a prosthetic that gives the sense of touch.

4. AbioCor Implantable Replacement Heart
Approximate price: $250,000
This replacement heart, from Danvers-based Abiomed, sounds like the stuff of science fiction—which explains its inclusion in the Museum of Science’s Star Wars exhibit. The two-pound titanium and plastic ticker may be a lifesaving reality for as many as 50,000 heart-failure patients a year (a scarce 2,200 human hearts are available for transplant annually). An implanted rechargeable battery lets the user disconnect from a fanny-pack power source for up to a half hour. Next year Abiomed could implant as many as 4,000 of these while it hones an even more advanced AbioCor II.

5. Andara Oscillating Field Stimulator (OFS)
Approximate price: $20,000–$60,000
Another Cyberkinetics innovation, the OFS is a lipstick-size battery pack implanted in a patient’s back shortly after a spinal cord injury. When its wires are connected around the break in the spine and a low-voltage current is passed through, some patients can regenerate neural fibers. The technology promises to give accident victims who otherwise couldn’t feel their legs some hope of regaining sensation in the lower body.