Budding biomed engineers show impressive design chops in $30K challenge

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Three teams of college students, undergrads all, have earned bragging rights—and $10,000 per team—in a biomedical engineering design competition sponsored by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), a program of the National Institutes of Health.

In announcing the winning devices and their creators, NIBIB said it based its judging on the weightiness of the problem addressed by the device and the device’s potential to improve clinical care, along with originality of design and the existence of a working prototype.

NIBIB divided the competition, which drew 61 entries from 30 universities, into three categories.

In the diagnostic devices category, a five-member team from UCLA won honors for an entry titled “Q-Path: A Flow-Through High-Throughput Quantitative Histology Platform.” The project aimed at facilitating early diagnosis of the most common form of bladder cancer, transitional cell carcinoma. The team came up with a system using automated image-analysis software to provide pathologists with quantitative analyses of urine samples. It also incorporated an index to differentiate between healthy, low-grade malignancy and high-grade malignancy.

The device “has the potential to be applied to a broader range of bodily fluid samples, including blood and pleural fluids; hence it could play a key role in the early diagnosis of various types of cancers,” said NIBIB in explaining the selection.

A team from Johns Hopkins will split their winnings five ways after topping the therapeutic devices category for “QuickStitch: Surgical Suturing Device to Improve Fascia Closure.” An inexpensive, disposable suturing tool for gastrointestinal surgery, the device is intended to improve safety, efficiency and consistency in stitching fascia, the collagenous layer beneath the skin that wraps around the internal organs to keep them from pressing against skin tissue.  

QuickStitch “aims to improve surgeon performance and patient outcomes by regulating stitch placement and tension, thus helping to avoid the problems of hernias and ischemia that can result from improper stitching after gastrointestinal surgery,” said NIBIB.

In the category of technology to aid underserved populations and individuals with disabilities, a team from Washington University in St. Louis submitted the winning project, “Low-Cost Fluidic Oscillating Spirometer.” The entry addressed the lack of available devices in the developing world to measure lung function for diagnosing and monitoring respiratory diseases.

The $10 device “offers a significant cost reduction compared with traditional spirometers costing $1,000 to $2,000, without compromising accuracy or precision,” said NIBIB. “With respiratory diseases like COPD on the rise, the durable low-cost spirometer could improve healthcare in the developing as well as the developed world.” 

NIBIB said it launched the undergraduate-only competition, which it has dubbed the “Debut Challenge,” as a way to encourage budding biomedical engineers to try their hand at device design “without reservations of being overpowered” by more advanced designers.

“It was very rewarding to read the entries and see how the undergraduates stretched their boundaries, formed collaborations and attacked a wide range of unmet clinical needs,” said Zeynep Erim, PhD, the NIBIB official who organized the competition. “The sophistication of the problems addressed and the innovation of the solutions advanced by the students bode well for the future of biomedical engineering in our country.”

The institute will recognize the winners at a ceremony in October during the annual meeting of BMES, the Biomedical Engineering Society.

NIBIB has posted project descriptions from winning teams and runners-up here.