Undergrads devise unique solutions to real-world medical challenges.
Last fall, cardiothoracic surgeon Neel Sodha, MD, walked into a classroom full of Brown University engineering students and presented them with a problem.
Cardiac bypass surgeries save hundreds of thousands of lives every year, but create new risks for some patients,
as plaques and other debris break loose from the heart and travel to the brain. Each year, around 10,000 people nationwide suffer embolic strokes.
Aortic filters designed to prevent those strokes, by capturing debris before it exits the heart, simply don’t work as well as doctors would hope. Sodha, an assistant professor of surgery and director of the cardiovascular ICU at the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute, challenged the students to come up with something better.
A team of five students worked through the fall semester on a new aortic filter, building a prototype and testing it for safety as well as its effciency at capturing embolic debris without impeding blood flow. They filed a provisional patent for the design of their device, Embonet.
Last spring, Embonet won first prize in the Advanced Healthcare Systems track at the 2018 Johns Hopkins International Healthcare Design Competition. The team is now exploring commercial
options and hopes to license the technology to a medical device company.
Ileana Pirozzi ’18 says that the problem- based approach and the chance to work side-by-side with a surgeon
made for an invaluable educational experience. “Being able to sit in on surgeries and to look at existing medical devices to understand why they’re failing … was really something you can’t get in just the four walls of a classroom,” she says.
But it’s not just the students who benefit. Ravi D’Cruz MD’13 RES’16 F’19 has served as a clinical adviser for the course since 2016 and overseen five projects. “It’s really nice as a clinician to be able to bring people into your space,” says D’Cruz, a fellow in neonatal and perinatal medicine at Women & Infants Hospital.
Last year D’Cruz advised a group of students who created a new kind of transilluminator, which doctors use to help find veins for blood draws and other procedures but are maddeningly unwieldy, he says; people constantly fumble and drop them. The undergraduates devised an idea for a wearable transilluminator that’s much easier to use.
“I used to be an architect before going into medicine, so I had this background knowing that there are things that are fixable through design,” D’Cruz says. “But one of the biggest issues I see is that we build up silos where designers aren’t privy to the problems in health care, and the people who can identify the problems in health care don’t know how to fix them through design. So it’s nice to have a way to bring those two sides together.”