Pioneering research that could relieve pain and discomfort for thousands of Britain's amputees is underway at the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow.
Approximately half of the 62,000 people living with limb loss in the UK are affected by skin infections or irritation thought to be caused by bacteria in the prosthetic liners that separate a prosthetic limb from the skin.
But a clinical scientist, microbiologists, mathematicians, physicists and engineers from the universities are joining forces to help reduce the scale of the problem. The multi-disciplinary team will examine the bacterial and other microbial populations in prosthetic liners with the long-term aim of designing new technologies, including antimicrobial lining materials.
The research team is being led by Dr Rebecca Lunn of the University of Strathclyde's Department of Civil Engineering in close collaboration with Dr Margrit Meier of Strathclyde's National Centre for Prosthetics and Orthotics.
Dr Margrit Neier (left) and Dr Rebecca Lunn (right)
Image credit: University of Strathclyde
Dr Lunn said: “At the moment, sockets are designed for structural performance and to stop chaffing, but this tight connection between the prosthesis and the limb provides ideal conditions for bacterial growth."
Dr Meier added: "Even if a person keeps their prosthetic socket meticulously clean it is inevitable that bacteria will settle over its lifetime. This can lead to infection and ultimately, a breakdown of the whole prosthetic system. Infections negatively impact the use of the prosthesis and are highly detrimental to their owners’ quality of life.
"Conservative estimates suggest that every year around 4,500 new lower limb amputations occur within the UK, of which the large majority will be fitted with a prosthetic liner. We hope the outcome of this research will have a real impact on the quality of life for amputees through the future development of innovative prosthetic liners."
The study will collect data on the microbial populations present in a number of liners from users who’ve experienced skin infections and those who haven’t had any problems. Experts will image and compare the size and location of microbial populations using electron microscopy; model the growth of bacteria and investigate the behaviour of bacteria in porous materials.
As more information is revealed on the type and nature of the microbial populations, the team will combine their expertise to come up with novel ways to reduce the risk of infection.
The multidisciplinary team was awarded an 18-month £200,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop research proposals on how to improve the biological and mechanical performance of prosthetic limbs.
William Sloan, Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of Glasgow said: "There have been huge leaps forward in the technologies for investigating the microbial world that are revealing just how diverse and complex it is. We are beginning to realise that setting all of this new information in context to engineer solutions to problems of infection and biodegradation requires truly multidisciplinary teams of scientists. This EPSRC funded project is an example of the research councils' commitment to mixing up expertise to catalyse radical solutions."
The team will have the opportunity to apply for further grants to develop these methods from an exclusive pool of funding at the project’s conclusion.
This grant builds on the results of a collaborative feasibility study carried out by Dr Meier and Dr Lunn at the University of Strathclyde in 2007. The research team includes Dr Rebecca Lunn, Dr Margrit-Regula Meier, Dr Charles Knapp, Dr Stephen Webb, Professor Robert Martin and Dr Tara Beattie of the University of Strathclyde, and Professor Bill Sloan and Dr Vernon Phoenix of the University of Glasgow.
Source: University of Strathclyde