MedUni Vienna joint research project receives €10 million ERC Synergy Grant

Together with IIT Genoa and Imperial College London Oskar Aszmann develops latest-generation bionic prostheses

Within the research community, the ERC Synergy Grant is regarded as a top-ranking ERC Grant. The maximum funding given for a project is €10 million – the European Research Council (ERC) has now awarded this grant for the first time to the Medical University of Vienna  rather a cooperative project. “Natural BionicS” is a project dealing with bionic reconstruction and the development of innovative bionic technologies. One of the three principal investigators is Oskar Aszmann, Head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Restoration of Extremity Function at MedUni Vienna's Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

The aim of the “Natural BionicS” project is to treat patients after limb loss with this new concept, thereby giving them the benefit of the most natural possible physicality and functionality using modern prosthetics.

“A central element of this research project is the creation of a so-called manunculus,” says Aszmann, alluding to the well-known “homunculus” concept (central sensomotoric movement control). The aim is to establish a biological interface between lost body parts and corresponding mechatronic replacements. A complex neuromuscular surgical procedure is carried out to create a matrix to make biosignals accessible to ultra-modern technology, so that they can interface with bionic prostheses.  “In combination with recent advances in signal transmission and mechatronic development, this opens up a new dimension in bionic limb replacement that allows almost unlimited intuitive movement control and perception.” says Aszmann.

The funding of €10 million will be divided equally between the three project participants, namely the Medical University of Vienna, the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa (Antonio Bicchi) and Imperial College London (Dario Farina).

Bicchi has an international reputation for developing industrial robots and is known in bionics as the inventor of the so-called “Soft Hand”, which responds much more interactively than conventional prostheses. In recent years, Farina has carried out ground-breaking research work in the field of “Neural Interfacing” and, within the framework of this research project, will look at the complex area of signal extraction and interpretation. Oskar Aszmann, for his part, is an expert in the overall concept of bionic reconstruction and will be primarily concerned with advancing concepts of biosignal acquisition and clinical implementation.

The fundamentals of this concept were first implemented at MedUni Vienna in 2009 and, since then, have enabled many patients to enjoy a new quality of life. Over the last few years, many prominent universities (Johns Hopkins, MIT, Harvard, HSS New York, Ann Arbor, U Michigan) have followed suit with similar concepts and research programmes. However, due to this special research funding and pooling of international expertise, MedUni Vienna will doubtless continue to play a leading role internationally.  

About the ERC Synergy Grant

The ERC Synergy Grant funds research groups of a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 4 principal investigators (PI) and their teams who are tackling ambitious scientific problems via a unique combination of complementary expertise, knowledge and resources, in a way that would not be possible for a single PI working alone. Synergy Grants are aimed at substantial advances “at the frontiers of scientific knowledge”. They are open to new methods and technologies, unconventional approaches and research at the interface between disciplines. The maximum funding for ERC Synergy Grants is €10 million over 6 years.