Students working on life-saving device win $15,000 in national competition

By Lilly Mashayek, Staff Writer

A handful of undergraduate students came together to create a life-saving device against a disease that kills more people in the U.S. than prostate cancer, breast cancer and AIDS combined.  

The University students won a $15,000 prize for developing a disposable chip that detects biomarkers of sepsis. The prize is from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, or NIBIB, which is an institute at the National Institutes for Health.

The University’s Bioengineering Team won the prize for placing second in the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge, which is sponsored by NIBIB. Winning teams designed tools in response to numerous health care concerns such as sepsis, which is a possibly deadly bodily response to infection.

“Now we are in our fifth year, so it’s kind of known as a prestigious competition,” said Zeynep Erim, program director in the Division of Interdisciplinary Training at NIBIB. “It’s a quite competitive process.”

In order to compete, teams must consist of at least three members and all members must be undergraduate students. Erim said the DEBUT Challenge received 72 applications from all over the country for this year’s competition.

Members of the team from the University include students Emilee Flaugher, Manish Patel, Michael Rappleye, Ishan Taneja, Samuel Wachspress and Jackson Winter. University professor Rashid Bashir and research scientist Bobby Reddy served as mentors for the lab group and project.  

The team expanded on similar research previously done by other graduate and postdoctoral students in their lab group, said junior in engineering Emilee Flaugher, who joined the team in May 2015.

“So initially similar technology was used for work with HIV,” she said. “So that’s sort of where the technology started off, and then we started working with it to look at some proteins associated with sepsis.”

Flaugher said the device works by first taking a really small sample of blood and then destroying the red blood cells in it. Once the red blood cells are removed, the blood moves through a narrow channel that contains a sort of glue that attracts the protein biomarker for sepsis. The more protein on the white blood cells, the more that will get caught in the glue.

“So if you think about a ball with Velcro on it; if you rolled it down an aisle of Velcro, the more Velcro that was on the surface, the better odds you would have to catch it,” she said.

The number of white blood cells in the blood are counted before and after they enter the channel containing the glue. Based on the difference in white blood cell counts, the team can determine how much of the protein that is associated with sepsis is present in the blood.

“And then by using that information we are building basically data sets that tell us … if this many percentage of white blood cells got caught, what does that mean for disease state,” Flaugher said. “The more that got caught, the further along in this septic pathway you would be.”

Sam Wachspress, who graduated from the University last fall, joined the team in spring 2016 as a postdoctorate after he saw a post on Reddit that said the lab was looking for someone to help with software and computer algorithms for the device.

“It seemed like an interesting project so I got back to them and I ended up doing a lot of work on it,” he said. “So I did the signal analysis that is used to detect cells and also wrote the application which communicates wirelessly with the device to provide real time cell counts.”

Flaugher said the team began the application process for the competition at the end of the spring 2016 semester and worked on it throughout the summer.

“What really makes the project interesting is that it’s achieving this thing that’s identification as a point of care device,” Erim said. “They were able to keep the costs within reason to make it really feasible at some point that it will reach the patient.”

She said that the team told her they plan to keep working on the project and to see it through commercialization, which Erim said is an aspect that is “exciting about the project.”

After winning second place, Wachspress said, “It was kind of exciting to find out like, wow, NIH is recognizing this work.”

He said the device is currently broken up into independent modules for each stage of the test and that they are currently trying to combine them all into a single device.

“Then there’s a lot of bench top electronic equipment – the demo takes up, like, most of a desk, but we (want to) get it down to handheld size,” he said.  

Flaugher said that the team plans to use the prize money they received to work on improving their project design and towards their goal of commercializing the device.

“Our final design is that we want these disposable cartridges and a reader that’s integrated that works specifically with these cartridges,” Wachspress said.  

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