2017 Science, Technology and Environment

Justin C. Sanchez

Oversaw research to develop life-like prosthetic arms with near-natural dexterity that enables amputees to pick up small or fragile objects, and is managing efforts to restore the ability for brain-injured soldiers to form new memories

Justin Sanchez tackles the toughest issues that wounded warriors face—amputations, paralysis, traumatic brain injury, neuropsychiatric disorders and memory loss.

As director of the Biological Technologies Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Sanchez manages a large research portfolio that has led to the development of significant breakthrough technologies—notably advanced prosthetic arms with novel features, control and feedback techniques. These prostheses can be controlled using decoded brain signals and can provide sensation to the user when the prosthetic hand touches objects.

Sanchez also manages researchers who are developing technology to help people with brain injuries regain the ability to form and recall memories, and to help people with neuropsychiatric disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

“Justin is a leader in neurotechnology development in the country,” said Bradley Ringeisen, the deputy director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “One of his contributions to national security is the restoration of function to wounded warriors, which not only helps fulfill our obligation to individuals who have given so much for their country, but also inspires current soldiers to keep up the fight.”

Recent conflicts have led to more than1,500 military amputees and many thousands more who suffer from brain injuries and extreme mental stress—motivating Sanchez to push researchers for solutions.

The leading edge of this research is the “LUKE” prosthetic arm, named after the Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker, who gets a bionic hand. Sanchez’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has taken this idea from science fiction to reality. The LUKE arm has a computer to decode nerve signals and muscle contractions from the residual arm and translate them into movement commands for the prosthesis.

The LUKE arm is the first prosthetic arm with a powered shoulder cleared by the Food and Drug Administration. It was funded by DARPA and designed by DEKA Integrated Solutions Corporation, the company headed by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. It is now commercially produced by Mobius Bionics and available for veterans living with upper-extremity amputations.

Sanchez is leading development of another prosthesis control technique using two-way communication. The brain sends signals to make the prosthesis move and sensors in the prosthesis return signals back to the brain—together providing a near-natural sense of touch.

The provision of sensation from a prosthetic hand was a very sophisticated and important problem to solve.

“Without the sense of touch, it’s more difficult to try and grab a glass, for instance,” said Steven H. Walker, the acting director of DARPA. “In order for robotic arms to work better and give a wounded warrior an opportunity to use these arms to do real things, that sense of touch is so important.”

The prosthesis using the brain-control technique is funded by DARPA under Sanchez’s guidance and designed by scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, headed by chief engineer Mike McLoughlin.

The prosthetic arm is controlled by signals received from electrodes implanted in the patient’s brain.

“We’ve completed the circuit,” Sanchez said. “By wiring a sense of touch from a mechanical hand directly into the brain, this work shows the potential for seamless biotechnological restoration of near-natural function.”

McLoughlin said the biotechnology programs overseen by Sanchez are transformative in the same way DARPA’s role was revolutionary in creating the internet, opening the door to a future in which people interact with machines in powerful new ways.

“Justin is helping push us into that new world,” said McLoughlin. “Things like the robotic arm don’t happen unless there is real leadership.”

Other colleagues said Sanchez grasps technical areas outside his own expertise in neurotechnology, hires good people and expertly manages his multimillion dollar research portfolio. Sanchez has “a vision for pursuing research and developing breakthrough technology” that is focused on “restoring the health of wounded warriors,” Walker said.

Scientists and engineers throughout the U.S. and in other countries are building on DARPA’s advances. And with each innovation, Sanchez, his colleagues and other researchers are helping paralyzed patients regain movement and independence.

Sanchez came to DARPA from the University of Miami, where he was an associate professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience. He worked with paralyzed patients, secured seven patents in neuroprosthetic design, and in 2013 decided to move to Washington, D.C., for the chance to improve the quality of life for people who were wounded in the course of military service.

“We have to give them something to make them whole again,” Sanchez said. “My work is to determine how we achieve a breakthrough that profoundly changes the lives of our military personnel. That’s what gets me out of bed every day.”