‘We’re No. 1’: NU leads the field in developing 3D-printed prostheses
'We’re the No. 1. It’s not Harvard. It’s not MIT. It’s not even Johns Hopkins or any of those other big medical institutions. It’s our University of Nebraska'
Posted: Thu, Feb 7, 2019
Going to bed hungry, he says, isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s seeing your two little brothers go to bed hungry. And not being able to help.
“Let me tell you, that is a life-changing situation,” says Jorge Zuniga, an assistant professor of biomechanics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who grew up in Chile with little chance of changing the world.
Yet he did. In a superhero way.
“When you see other people suffering, all of a sudden you’re not the center of the universe,” Zuniga said. “And when you have that deep into your bones, the only thing you want to do when you reverse your own situation is to give it back.”
Zuniga has become a hero to thousands of kids around the world who need prosthetic hands and upper limbs — and to their families, who often can’t afford the super-expensive standard models — and in the process, he’s helped the University of Nebraska become the strongest force in the world within this sub-area of biomechanics.
“I’m not ashamed to tell you that we’re No. 1 in the development and testing of 3D-printed prosthetics,” he said one morning in his office in the cutting-edge Biomedical Research Center at UNO. “Most people don’t know that the state of Nebraska is leading in this 3D printing of prostheses. We’re the No. 1. It’s not Harvard. It’s not MIT. It’s not even Johns Hopkins or any of those other big medical institutions. It’s our University of Nebraska.”
A few years back, when Zuniga was director of Creighton University’s 3D Research and Innovation Lab, he became a pioneer in the printing of 3D mechanical hands when he created the Cyborg Beast, a design that people around the world can download for free. The Beast hand costs just $50 to make. Because of that, families now can afford new ones over the years to match how fast their children grow.
And the Beast looks super cool. Like something a superhero would wear while saving the world.
Kids pick their own colors and create their own look — a pink hand for a kid who loves pink, an Iron Man hand for a kid who loves Iron Man.
In 2014, MSN.com named the Cyborg Beast one of the top inventions of the year. As of October, Zuniga’s Beast design has been downloaded nearly 60,000 times.
In 2016, not long after coming to UNO, his alma mater, Zuniga and his team created a shoulder for a 6-year-old boy from south Omaha who was born without one. The engineering was very complicated, he said, because it’s hard to build a shoulder that little.
“It was the first 3D-printed shoulder in the world,” he said. “But we didn’t really know at the time that was so special. We just did it for him. Now he gets a shoulder every year, for free, and it basically costs us $200 in materials.”
The colors the boy chose? UNO’s colors, Maverick red and black.
Zuniga is now working on the next-generation devices — electronic limbs. He’s the lead investigator for a two-year, $150,000 grant through the University of Nebraska’s Collaboration Initiative, an effort started by NU President Hank Bounds to invest in cross-campus and cross-discipline research in areas where the university has the potential to become a world leader, as it is in 3D prosthesis printing.
Last year, in the first year of the grant, Zuniga and his team designed and made electronic prototypes. This year, they’re testing the devices on area kids. He thinks his team has connected with at least 90 percent of Nebraska families with kids who are missing limbs.
“My goal is to be able to give these to everybody in Nebraska who’s missing limbs,” he said.
He’s happy to live in Nebraska. He’s loyal to the University of Nebraska, he said, because he received his master’s degree in exercise science at UNO and his doctorate in exercise physiology from UNL. His mentors and colleagues at NU, he said, are some of the best and smartest people in the world. He can’t believe how far he’s come from his childhood in Chile.
Or how happy he’s become. His story, he said, is almost too hard for him to believe, even now.
His life changed forever back in 2002, when he was a college kid in Chile working as a lifeguard. Few wanted that job. But it paid well, and he could save enough money each summer to stay in school. He saved swimmers, too. One day on the beach, a tall, blond young woman asked to take his photo. They fell in love at first sight, even though he couldn’t speak any English.
Her name was Jessica. She was vacationing from Nebraska. He stayed awake the whole night before their first date, studying English. Six months later, they married. They now have two super little boys.
She is his No. 1 hero. He smiles.
“She married a real fixer-upper,” Zuniga said.
Now, Zuniga gets out of bed every morning excited for the day. He arrives at UNO around 5:30 a.m. He loves this Biomechanical Research Building, which was built in 2013 through the generosity of private donors. The building will more than double in size soon, thanks to an $11.6 million addition, which will also be built through private gifts and include a much bigger 3D printing lab.
The university’s donors, he said, are his heroes, too.
“They are the ones who make it happen,” he said. “They make us No. 1.
“My team — we have the wisdom and knowledge. But without donors, you can’t take it too far. We have to have the equipment and we have to have the resources that can make you No. 1.”
In front of him on his desk is a mechanical hand, one he made for a teenage boy from Lincoln. The hand is black, super cool. It looks like something left there by Batman.
He lifts it up.
“You see children come in here, hiding their hand,” Zuniga said. “But then you give them a hand like this, and there you go — they’re showing their hand to people instead of hiding it.”
And being able to help them, he said, is the best thing in the world.