Could prosthetics be better than the real thing?

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Sarah: Having just written a nanovic blog around nanotechnology, prosthetic limbs and synthetic skin, I was interested to read a recent piece in The Australian newspaper. The article described the recent banning of South African double transtibial (i.e. both lower legs) amputee athlete Oscar Pistorius from competing with able-bodied men.  Pistorius uses carbon fibre blade prosthetics to participate in international sprint races, and was a 2004 Para-Olympian gold and bronze medalist. Biomechanical and physiological analysis of Pistorius’ sprinting technique in November 2007 showed that the blades allowed him to run at the same speed as but expend 25% less energy than able-bodied sprinters. This result is in clear contravention of a recent amendment to rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which prohibits “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other elements that provide the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. Whether the IAAF plans to test all new prosthetic devices is not clear.  I think it will be a very interesting topic to watch in the future, with the emergence of new man-made materials with novel properties resulting from rapid advances in nanotechnology and other modern sciences . Maintaining a ‘level playing field’ within Para-Olympic competition will also be an issue, with the newest and best materials only being available to those with the biggest budgets. Drugs in sport, nanotechnology in sport….what’s next?

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