Johns Hopkins students take top honor in national biomedical engineering contest

EchoSure device designed to detect blood clots at transplant locations

Johns Hopkins student-built devices—a blood clot detection system and a concealable, hands-free breast pump—have won two of the top three awards in a national contest that recognizes innovative biomedical engineering designs that have high commercial potential and social impact.

The honors were announced Wednesday in Philadelphia by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), as it concluded its annual Biomedical Engineering Innovations, Design, and Entrepreneurship Awards (BMEidea) competition. Johns Hopkins student teams previously earned first place in this competition in 2012, 2010, and 2007.

This year's first-place winner, awarded $10,000, was EchoSure, developed by five Johns Hopkins graduate students. The device emerged during a year-long master's degree program that required student teams to identify an urgent healthcare problem and then design and test a solution.

The EchoSure team focused on a setback that can occur during free flap reconstruction. In this treatment, healthy tissue is transplanted from one part of a patient's body to help repair another region that has been damaged by cancer or an injury. The procedure, performed on 50,000 patients annually in the United States alone, requires doctors to connect blood vessels from the transplanted tissue to veins and arteries in the target location. However, non-preventable blood clots form in up to 15 percent of these cases after surgery, and if they are not found and removed promptly, the reconstruction will fail.

To help prevent this, the students devised an internal marker and ultrasound software system to monitor blood flow in the transplant area and give doctors an early warning when a clot begins to form. The Johns Hopkins students who developed the system were Kaitlyn Harfmann, Ting-Yu Lai, Adam Lightman, David Narrow, and Devin O'Brien-Coon.

"Our team has seen firsthand the consequences for patients when vascular complications are not detected early enough to salvage a surgery," Narrow said. "EchoSure has the potential to prevent thousands of surgical failures and otherwise unnecessary reoperations."

At Johns Hopkins, the EchoSure team worked within the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, which brings students, faculty researchers, and physicians together to develop new medical devices and business strategies to help move these products toward commercial use. CBID operates as a part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is shared by the university's School of Medicine and its Whiting School of Engineering.

All five student inventors received their master's diplomas in May. They plan to form a start-up a company to seek additional funding and advance the EchoSure prototype toward clinical use. "All of the BMEidea prize money we just won is going back into the project," said O'Brien-Coon, a Johns Hopkins Hospital plastic surgery resident who completed the CBID program this past year to obtain an additional degree in biomedical engineering. His teammate Narrow, who attended the BMEidea event with O'Brien-Coon, said he had not been certain EchoSure would finish at the top. "It was a pretty exciting moment when we realized we had won first-prize, because we were very impressed with the other two finalist projects," Narrow said.

A team from Stanford University received the $5,000 second-place prize.

The $2,500 third-place prize went to a device invented by Adriana Blazeski and Susan Thompson as Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering doctoral students. (Thompson recently completed her doctoral studies and received her diploma in May.) The two were recognized for developing the Gala Pump, a hands-free, concealable and quiet breast pump designed to allow nursing mothers to discreetly pump in the presence of others. The inventors said their device eliminates the need for bulky vacuum pumps, so that milk collection can be contained in a compact system that fits comfortably and securely into an undergarment.

The concept came from Thompson, who was struggling to incorporate a healthy and efficient pumping schedule into her routine when she returned to work and graduate school after having her first child two years ago. She conferred with other new mothers, conducted additional research and set out to design a more discreet and effective breast pump. She teamed up with fellow graduate student Blazeski and formed a company, DS Labs, to develop the device. The concept received an early seed grant from the Johns Hopkins-Coulter Translational program, based in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The women's company, however, is not connected with the university.

The students named their device "Gala" because the word means milk in Greek and is associated with a Greek myth about the creation of the Milky Way. Thompson said she and Blazeski are preparing to seek approval to test their prototype on nursing mothers. The inventors then plan to begin to approach investors for funding. The new contest award will help.

"Participating in the BMEidea competition has been such an exciting honor," said Thompson. "The winnings will go straight toward facilitating the institutional review board process, liability insurance and further refining the prototype, so that the Gala Pump can help moms worldwide."

NCIIA sponsors the BMEidea competition, with support from The Lemelson Foundation, to recognize the best student-driven, innovative biomedical engineering design projects. First held in 2004, the annual competition has selected winners from some of the nation's top biomedical engineering departments. Judging is by faculty and industry representatives.