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David vs. Goliath: Colleges Battle Over Prosthetic Knee Invention

There's nothing like a "best of the year" list for stirring up controversy. This time one of the most prolific list-makers in publishing has literally kicked up an academic squabble.

In choosing its best inventions of 2009, Time magazine singled out the JaipurKnee, a $20 prosthetic designed by students at Stanford University for amputees in developing countries, where expensive prosthetics that cost as much as $18,000 simply aren't practical.

There's just one problem: a similar mechanical knee was designed several years ago, and now the original creators want credit.

"Our issue is that this isn't a new invention," said Roger Gonzalez, professor of biomedical engineering at LeTourneau University, an interdenominational, evangelical Christian university in Longview, Texas.

"We've been working on this for five years," said Gonzalez, who is the executive director of the LEGS (LeTourneau Empowering Global Solutions) program at the school and worked with a team of undergraduate students on the project.

LeTourneau's LEGS M1 knee also costs $20 and is based on a nearly identical design to the JaipurKnee. Both employ a so-called polycentric four-bar mechanism to mimic the movements of a human knee. Both use low-cost manufacturing techniques so that they can be built inexpensively. And both are designed to help thousands of patients in developing countries lead more productive lives.

In discussing the controversy with FoxNews.com, Gonzalez stopped short of accusing the Stanford students of copying his students' work. "But in the academic world, you have a responsibility to do background research," he complained, "so they should have known about us."

"Our students developed their knee completely independently as part of a class," bristled Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman. "Our knee was developed at the request of the Jaipur Foundation to work with their prosthetic foot."

Indeed, according to both sides, when Stanford's work came to the attention of LeTourneau, Gonzalez visited with the Stanford researchers and had what both sides described as cordial discussions. There was even some talk of how they might work together in the future. And then the Time article appeared — without any mention of LeTourneau.

To be sure, there is a David and Goliath element to this dispute. Stanford is one of the top schools in the country. It has an endowment of more than $12 billion and over 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

LeTourneau is a little-known school in East Texas with an endowment of less than $7 million and about 1,400 undergraduates attending its main campus. So there's more than just prestige, academic credibility — and a Time magazine imprimatur — on the line. Getting recognition for research and development can have an economic impact.

"The success of projects can depend on notoriety and being able to secure funds," Gonzalez said.

He added that name recognition is a major factor in generating those funds. "People will say, 'Hey, your knee looks like Stanford's knee,'" he said.

Based on articles written about LeTourneau's work, it seems clear the Texas team was ahead of Stanford. So the question is, are the two prosthetic knees really the same or are they different?

"They sure look similar to me," said Glenn Klute, a Veterans Affairs health research scientist who specializes in helping lower-limb amputees walk better. Klute notes that the form and function of the two devices are "nearly identical."

He also cautions that because both are based on established mechanisms that have been used in other designs for decades, and because both had nearly identical design requirements — low cost and ease of manufacturing — it's no surprise that they would look similar.

For its part, the LeTourneau group plans to pursue patent approval and present the results of its patient trials at the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO) 2010 World Congress in Germany.

Stanford continues to work with the Jaipur Foundation in India and plans to pursue other projects with the group. In fact, the academic dust-up and subsequent media coverage could help raise awareness of the work of both groups.

"Both fit a need and there's a demand for this type of device," Klute said. "The fact that people are willing to fight over trying to help these people, I think that's great."

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.