Published August 28, 2013
The “Four Hundred Grand Guy” doesn’t have the same ring.
In the popular TV show “The $6 Million Man,” Lee Majors plays former astronaut Steve Austin, whose broken body must be rebuilt with bionic implants following a crash. In its famous opening sequence, a narrator explains how “technology can help,” overlaying scenes of Austin lifting hundreds of pounds and racing at 60 miles per hour.
“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster,” the narrator intones.
In today’s dollars, Steve Austin would have been worth $31.5 million rather than $6 million. But today’s superman would cost more like $460,000, thanks to advances in science and technology that won’t offer superspeed and ultravision but can at least replicate some basic functionality for the injured -- and that’s amazing in itself.
Bionic Legs, Cost: $115,000
“In ‘$6 Mil,’ they ran my behind off,” Majors told FoxNews.com Wednesday. That’s thanks to bionic legs that let him run at tremendous speeds in the TV show.
Real science has made leaps and bounds in bionic limbs, with several companies selling prosthetics that let amputees walk and even run again. Double leg amputee Oscar Pistorius won gold medals at the 2012 Summer Paralympics, for example, thanks to Flex-Foot Cheetah replacement feet from Ossur. Each Ossur blade costs between $15,000 and $18,000.
Then there’s the wearable exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics. Developed by the military to allow soldiers to carry heavy weights long distances, the computer-controlled, battery-driven, 48-pound frame straps around a limb; you can move it forward by simply pushing your arms.
This real life "Iron Man" uses two lithium batteries, motors, computer chips and a hand-operated console. It's available at 30 hospitals around the country so far, and costs up to $140,000. While it won’t allow anyone to run like Steve Austin, for a wounded warrior, regaining motility is remarkable in itself.
The most advanced bionic limb comes from Otto Bock. Called the Genium X3, it’s a carbon-fiber, microprocessor-controlled “intelligent” prosthetic with integrated gyroscopes and acceleration sensors.
“The X3 is the first certified waterproof knee in the world,” Bill Sampson, who runs Sampsons’s Prosthetic & Orthotic Lab in Schenectady, NY, told FoxNews.com. “We’re in the process of fitting a patient here with the X3 right now.” The world’s most advanced replacement leg sells for $115,000, he said.
Bionic Arms, Cost: $200,000 (est.)
Austin’s incredible bionic arm is shown lifting 150 pounds or more in the opening sequence.
We’re not quite there yet, but researchers are doing some amazing work. For example, the Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program from DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced research group, has been working on direct, reliable connections between prosthetic limbs and the brain, spinal cord, and neurons in replacement limbs.
That’s just a research dream at present. But real-world work from a related group at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago allows an amputee to actually feel what they are touching with a prosthetic hand. The technique involves rerouting nerves that once led to a missing limb to other muscles instead. A standard prosthetic costs upwards of $150,000, said Gregory Dumanian, who co-developed the targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) technique. These bionic arms, when available to the public would increase the cost, he told ABCNews recently -- call it $200,000.
Bionic Eyes, Cost: $145,000
Steve Austin wore a bionic eye with a zoom lens and night vision, as well as other high tech capabilities like infrared filters. Such technology remains in the realm of science fiction, although some advances have made progress toward restoring sight.
The Alpha IMS from German company Retinal Implant AG is connected directly to the brain via 1,500 electrodes and is essentially a self-contained bionic eye, as opposed to other models that require external processing -- essentially making the user wear a computer around. Tested in January, the high-resolution device allowed four of nine test subjects to read letters and essentially regain “visual functions useful for daily life.”
That product is still in testing in Europe. But the Argus II from Second Sight is approved for use in the U.S for treatment of a rare condition called retinitis pigmentosa. The Argus II bypasses the rods and cones in the eye and sends its own electrical signal through the retina to the brain via the optic nerve.
Duke University is one of 12 centers around the country offering the device, beginning this month. For each Argus II, Duke pays $145,000.
“Retinitis pigmentosa is a condition we have no treatment for,” said Dr. Paul Hahn, a retinal ophthalmologist and surgeon at Duke. “To finally have something that we can say, ‘We can try this,’ gives patients hope.”