MIT bionics leader Herr wins Spanish research prize

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CAMBRIDGE – Hugh Herr, a leading developer of bionic limbs, won a Spanish prize for medical research on Wednesday for his work improving the lives of people who have lost arms, hands, legs and feet.

Herr leads the Biomechatronic Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where he developed “the most sophisticated ankle prostheses in the world,” according to the jury that awarded the prize from the Princess of Asturias Foundation in Oviedo, Spain.

The scientist, who is 51 and holds more than 70 patents, is himself a double amputee, having lost the lower portions of both legs because of severe frostbite that set in during a climbing expedition when he was 17, according to the foundation. His research has focused on improving the mobility of people with disabilities. Herr designed special legs for himself that give him the capability to climb again.

“Herr has opened up new lines of research, resulting in a class of biohybrid, ‘smart’ prostheses which are accelerating the merging of body and machine and amplifying endurance and strength,” the foundation said in a statement about the 50,000 euro award. “His methods embrace a whole range of scientific and technological disciplines, from biomechanical science and the control of biological movements to the design of biomedical devices.”

“His achievements have had a significant impact on people with physical disabilities through adaptive knee prostheses for femoral amputees and ankle and foot orthopedic prostheses for clubfoot and pathologies caused by cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis,” the foundation said.

In addition to leading the Media Lab group, Herr founded BionX Medical Technologies, which markets the BiOM Ankle. He is a 1990 graduate of the University of Millersville in Pennsylvania and subsequently earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT and a PhD in biophysics at Harvard University in 1998.

His story was the focus of a National Geographic film, “Ascent: The Story of Hugh Herr” and in 2011 Time magazine dubbed him the “Leader of the Bionic Age.”

The foundation is a non-profit private institution that promotes scientific, cultural, and humanistic values. See a video about the award and Herr here: