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Posted by Bill Thoet on May 15, 2014
May marks ALS Awareness Month. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. It is also, for unknown reasons, twice as likely in people who served in the military.
Booz Allen has a long history of supporting The ALS Association, which began in 1999 with the diagnosis of one of our employees. I’m proud to be carrying on this tradition in my role as the Chairman of the Association’s National Board of Trustees.
While The ALS Association pursues treatments and a cure for the disease, we are also working to improve the quality of life of people suffering from it every day. Recently, I brought my Association colleagues together with Booz Allen clients, FIRST Robotics and with the founder of FIRST, Dean Kamen, to explore how some of the latest technology can help ALS patients regain their mobility.
In support of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Booz Allen’s Advanced Engineering Group has been working on “Revolutionizing Prosthetics,” a program aimed at creating greatly improved prosthetics for veterans returning with injuries that have cost them one or more of their limbs. DARPA, assisted by Booz Allen and other partners including Dean Kamen’s DEKA, has succeeded in building anthropomorphic robotic arms that can be directly controlled through the nerves and muscles of the veteran. On May 9, the program succeeded in securing approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the DEKA Arm System. During demonstrations, we’ve witnessed a subject picking up and eating a grape without breaking it. It’s incredible work, and has now been extended to patients who do not have muscle control or nerve control to the upper arm.
DARPA and its partner, University of Pittsburgh, with support from Booz Allen, have succeeded in helping patients achieve brain control over a robotic arm. Chips were implanted in patients’ brains that read signals directly from the motor cortex which is processed by a computer to drive a robotic arm. This technology could have major positive implications for people living with ALS. Patients who have volunteered for the testing include those paralyzed from the neck down from a number of ailments including ALS. I had the privilege of meeting one of the patients and shaking her robotic hand. It was amazing!
Today, The ALS Association’s Western Pennsylvania Chapter, along with DARPA and the University of Pittsburgh, are working to create a ”House of Hope” for patients undergoing this treatment and requisite training and experimentation. With FDA approval on this procedure and training, patients could enjoy more productive lives, reclaiming some of the mobility and independence the disease robbed from them.
With 35,000 Americans living with ALS at any one time, and 5,000 new diagnoses every year, it’s important to explore every possible avenue to help people with this disease. My hope is that this technology will create more independence and mobility for patients, improving their quality of life and encouraging them to opt into life extending procedures like ventilators.
I’m proud to support The ALS Association and to be a part of the Booz Allen team bringing the newest technology to help improve patients’ health and well-being. I’m also proud of the recognition the firm has received for our work. It’s exciting to be at the forefront of robotics technology and brain research, and the ALS cause.
Please view and share my story as part of The ALS Association’s campaign to raise awareness and funding during May and through the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech.