Boston, MA – In this post, I’m going to tell you how you can make a functioning prosthetic hand with $5 of materials. But, the story you’ll want to tell your friends will probably be the one with the sneaky tennis balls.

We’re about to enter a new era in science. One powered by the mass availability of DIY materials, like DNA testing kits and 3D printers. One that is making it possible for savvy “makers” to create incredibly sophisticated solutions to very personal problems.

From entrepreneurial physicians to a professional puppeteer


Not long ago, Sam Cannizzaro sent us a story about a newborn in Michigan who was diagnosed with a condition that caused her airways to repeatedly collapse, not allowing oxygen to enter the lungs. No device existed to fix her trachea, but that didn’t mean the doctors couldn’t invent one.

They used a 3D printer to create a splint, completely customized to the baby’s tracheal tubes, based on a “computed tomographic image of the patient’s airway.” Even better – the material is bioresorbable; so, as the baby’s respiratory system grows and gets stronger, the materials will simply be absorbed into her body.

An even more unlikely story comes from a cross-Atlantic partnership powered by Skype. It started in a workshop outside of Johannesburg, South Africa where Richard Van As lost control of his table saw. The carpenter amputated two fingers and mangled two more on his right hand.

He was determined to fix his hand, but could not even begin to afford the pricey prosthetics doctors showed him. So, he rigged up a temporary index finger for his right hand and went about finding someone to help him build a real hand.

Van As found a YouTube video of Ivan Owen, a special effects artist and puppeteer in Bellingham, Washington. The puppet hands Owen created relied on thin steel cables to act like tendons, allowing the metal digits to bend. Van As talked Owen into trying to create that functionality on a human scale.

Working remotely and then eventually together, they were able to quickly create a working mechanical digit for Van As’ hand. The real magic, though, came in the next phone call they received: A woman called Van As seeking help for her 5-year-old son, Liam Dippenaar, who was born without fingers on his right hand. The two collaborators were on it. They said, “Yeah, easy, no problem.”

In five days, they built a crude functioning hand for the boy. Then, Owen returned to the U.S. and built a collaboration that would make the hands “printable” at home. He emailed MakerBot, a firm that makes 3-D printing equipment, and was granted the gift of free printers for both himself and Van As. What had previously taken the pair a week’s time or more now took 20 minutes to redesign, print and test.

Liam’s crude, hand-milled fingers were soon replaced with a 3D printed prosthetic “Robohand.”

They posted the design and instructions for Robohand on Thingiverse, a website for sharing digital designs, so that anyone could download the plans and custom-fit a hand. The latest design can be printed for only $5 in materials and snaps together like legos.

Uncovering the furry culprit with tennis ball testing


By the end of this year we’ll be able to sequence the 3 million bits of information in our DNA in less than a day for less than a thousand dollars. That’s pretty big. If you know what to do with it.

All over the world, biohackers are gathering in labs and shared spaces to experiment with their new access to the equipment and speed of science. What once might have been a basement hobby is now becoming a mainstream collaborative at places like GenSpace in Brooklyn, Biotinkering in Berlin, Hackspace in London, and the brilliantly named Biocurious in San Francisco.

Ellen Jorgensen, founder of GenSpace the world’s first government-compliant DIY biotech lab, says we’re just starting to understand the possibilities: “You might be asking yourself, ‘What would I do in a biolab?’ Well, it wasn’t that long ago we were asking, ‘What would anyone do with a personal computer?’” (Check out her TED talk.)

Some of the initial uses have been inspired – like making it possible for two members of a same-sex marriage to have a biological child by mixing and combining their own DNA. Others are kind of delightfully DIY – like a biohacker in Germany who was endlessly frustrated by the piles of dog poo he kept finding in his yard. With no neighbor admitting to not scooping, he knew he had to use biology to break the mystery.

Instead of cleaning up one of the piles, he brought it inside and tested the DNA. Then, he threw tennis balls to every dog in the neighborhood. By testing the DNA on the saliva on the balls, he was able to find the furry culprit and confront its owner.

A celebrity role model for biohackers

Dominic Basulto put out a powerful question on FutureLabs: Was Angelina Jolie the world’s first celebrity bio-hacker?

Those bio-hacking labs I mentioned above are focused on mixing and matching DNA in new ways, creating new synthetic forms of life (like glow-in-the-dark trees designed to replaced streetlights), and understanding what parts of our DNA are responsible for specific traits and features. They’re essentially creating the practical case for why everyday people should understand the code in their DNA and proactively make changes to improve their chances at health, success, longevity, etc.

Given that logic, Basulto says, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is a celebrity early adopter of bio hacking. She spent thousands sampling her own DNA and isolated the genetic markers for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. From there, she was able to calculate the probability of those markers leading to early cancer (roughly 87% for breast cancer and 50% for ovarian cancer in Jolie’s case). She then took action to change her own body and improve her chances by electing to have a double mastectomy and a follow-on reconstructive surgery with breast implants.

That’s a hackers definition of truly personal medicine.

Posted by: Leigh Householder

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for shaping the company’s perspective on the next era of healthcare marketing. Through thought leadership, strategic innovation workshops and new products and capabilities, Leigh focuses on identifying marketing approaches that will fuel that new era and generate significant growth for clients. Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for over 17 years. She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she had several leadership roles at one of our agencies, GSW. There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business. Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes. A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice, Leigh also was recognized as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.