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Student news - Wisconsin biomedical engineering undergrads design meaningful medical solutions


Tong Award recipients

At the May 2 Tong Biomedical Engineering Award Competition, a panel of industry judges awarded prizes to three student designs.

Sophomores Hallie Kreitlow, Allison McArton, Ryan Kimmel and Joel Gaston designed the “Blinking orbital prosthesis” for client Greg Gion. An orbital prosthesis is a lifelike artificial eye that does not blink. The student team designed a prosthesis that includes a tiny battery-operated motor that enables rods on the back of the eyelid to open and close the eye.

Juniors Ben Engel, Ryan Carroll, Justin Schmidt and Eric Printz designed the “Device to assist in removal of pills from bubble-wrapped packaging” for client Molly Carnes, a professor of medicine and industrial engineering at UW-Madison. Patients who have weak or deformed hands have trouble opening pills that come in “blister” packages, or those in which the user must punch through or peel back a protective covering to access the pill. The students developed a device that includes a concealed blade; when the user pulls the handle on the device, the blade slices the blister and releases the pill from its packaging.

Seniors Sara Karle, Michele Lorenz and Emily Maslonkowski designed the system “Delivery of inhaled drugs through continuous positive airway pressure” for client Mihai Teodorescu, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at UW-Madison. For patients with sleep apnea and asthma, the students’ device can monitor breathing rate and, using a commercial continuous positive airway pressure machine, deliver inhaled steroids at predetermined intervals.

When University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Claire Flanagan graduates in May 2009 with bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Engineering (BME) and biochemistry, she might display her diploma next to an equally prestigious document: a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“We would love to be able to license our technology to a company that could manufacture our device,” says Flanagan.

Justin Lundell, Michael Socie, Adam Rieves, and Claire Flanagan

Justin Lundell, Michael Socie, Adam Rieves, and Claire Flanagan with a medical aspirator project (large image)

Flanagan is among nearly 150 UW-Madison BME undergraduate students who, every semester of their education, work in teams to design meaningful solutions to problems posed by clients in medicine, academia and industry. This unique design-centered curriculum challenges students to experience and learn biomedical engineering by solving real-world clinical problems. In less than a decade, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF—the UW-Madison patenting and licensing arm—has received 41 disclosures based on BME student inventions.

Through WARF, Flanagan and fellow BME undergraduate Ashley Huth filed a provisional patent in spring 2008 for their design, a specialized syringe that can separately store liquid and solid components, and mix and administer a solution. “One of the main challenges of today’s state-of-the-art medication is in the delivery of complex and multicomponent therapeutics,” says W. John Kao, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering and pharmacy and the students’ mentor for the project. “Ashley and Claire’s innovation will no doubt assist the clinicians in the use of such technologies in helping patients.”

The opportunity to participate in such clinically relevant research and design projects makes the Wisconsin Biomedical Engineering undergraduate program unique. “There’s nothing like this anywhere,” says Biomedical Engineering Professor and department chair Robert Radwin. “Almost every engineering program has a senior design experience—but all our BME students work on projects throughout their curriculum. You can only do this in Wisconsin—and students come here because of this curriculum.”

Chris Westphal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in BME in 2007, says the series of design courses enabled him to translate his ideas from sketches and computer models to real-life prototypes. His senior year, Westphal was part of a team that designed and manufactured a device that helps researchers study patient hamstring injuries via MRI. “Further work over the summer improved the design of the device to the point where it was taken down to the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, where a collaborative study with UW-Madison is being performed,” he says.

Westphal currently is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UW-Madison. His master’s research is a continuation of the MRI hamstring-imaging project, which his BME design team began in fall 2006.

Joseph Cabelka, Peter Ma, Mollie Lange and Michael Alexander

Joseph Cabelka, Peter Ma, Mollie Lange and Michael Alexander with their GPS-enabled inhaler project at the Tong BME design competition (large image)

Therese Rollmann and Dhaval Desai

Therese Rollmann and Dhaval Desai presented a device to monitor or control differentiation of stem cells to β-islet cells. Team members Tim Pearce and Jonathan Baran are not pictured. (large image)

While biomedical engineering often is a logical stepping stone to medical school or a graduate degree, the experiential learning component at Wisconsin also prepares biomedical engineers who can contribute immediately in industry positions, says Radwin.

“Design challenges motivate the students to learn new things, to seek out knowledge, to take new courses, and to really tackle problems in which they have to face what they know and what they need to know,” he says. “They learn how to apply what they learn in the classroom. They learn problem-solving skills. And they learn how to interpret the client’s need to come up with a creative solution. When students come out of our program, they’re positioned to work as engineers right out of the gate.”

Not only does the design-centered BME curriculum cultivate a culture of collaborative innovation among the students, but it also stresses the importance of protecting their intellectual property. “I think the opportunity of being able to get a patent before you get your undergraduate degree lingers in the minds of many students while they are designing and building their devices,” says Westphal.

Such was the case for a group of seven BME undergraduates who developed a “tongue toner” for client JoAnne Robbins, a UW-Madison professor of medicine who specializes in swallowing and geriatrics at Madison’s William S. Middleton VA Hospital and sees patients for diagnosis and treatment of swallowing disorders at UW Hospital and Clinics.

As people age, the strength of their mouth muscles deteriorates. As a result, approximately 15 million adults have difficulty swallowing. “With swallowing problems, you’re likely to get pneumonia, malnutrition and dehydration,” says Robbins.

Nathan Kleinhans, Carly Brown, Sasha Cai Lesher-Perez and Lee

Nathan Kleinhans, Carly Brown, Sasha Cai Lesher-Perez and Lee Linstroth display their design for rehabilitation of the paretic hand after a stroke. (large image)

Joseph Labuz and Joel Webb

Joseph Labuz and Joel Webb with their ventilation monitor. Teammates Padraic Casserly and Andrew Dias are not pictured. (large image)

Yet, if patients exercise their mouth muscles, the strength and muscle-mass boost might alleviate some of their swallowing issues. “Addressing the muscles themselves—the mechanism—and building strength improves swallowing so that people don’t have to do something different every time they take a sip or bite of something,” says Robbins.

Working with Robbins, the BME students developed a relatively inexpensive, custom-fitted system that may serve clinicians as a diagnostic screening tool, enables patients to exercise their tongue muscles and, at the same time, allows clinicians to monitor the patients’ progress.

Not only did the tongue toner yield two U.S. patents (initially, No. 6,702,765, and via Robbins’ lab, the alternative patent No. 7,238,145), but the BME students’ device also was the only undergraduate entry among 16 finalists, chosen from more than 900 entries worldwide, in the 2002 Collegiate Inventors Competition.

Thirty-four teams of BME undergraduates showcased their designs for the public during the Tong Biomedical Engineering Design Competition May 2. Among the students’ creations are a device that can monitor and control stem cell differentiation; a gentler, more reliable laparoscopic banding instrument for female tubal sterilization procedures; a “scaffolding” that prevents patient vein collapse during hemodialysis; and a device that monitors skin-color changes during hot flashes as an objective means to assess therapeutic drugs for menopausal women.

2008 Tong BME competition

The 2008 Tong BME Design Awards competition in the Engineering Centers Building atrium (large image)

Senior Mollie Lange is among a group of four students who designed a GPS-linked asthma inhaler, which communicates to population health researchers the time, date and location a patient uses it. The inhaler is an important research tool for population health scientists who track allergy and asthma symptoms, outbreak control and general health observations of people in certain areas of the United States and, ultimately, the world. “The skills I have acquired through the design curriculum will serve me well as I begin work as a medical researcher,” says Lange, who in fall 2008 will begin work on a PhD in immunology or pharmacology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Lange transferred to UW-Madison to study biomedical engineering after two years on scholarship at the University of Oklahoma. “When looking for BME programs, I carefully considered the reputation of the school, its location, and the different career paths of program graduates. UW-Madison was a place that I knew I would have many options after receiving my degree,” she says. “I would encourage anybody who wants a realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a biomedical engineer to apply to this program. The experience of the design course sets it apart from similar schools and stresses the values of teamwork and lifelong learning.”

Flanagan, who knew at a very young age that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, says her BME education has instilled in her a sense of excitement for the field and for the opportunities to use her knowledge in novel and substantial ways. “I think so many incoming college students have a desire to help others and to make an impact,” she says. “The BME curriculum gives us an outlet to do so in the present—while developing