Engineers for Sustainable Development: Designing the Future of Medicine

by Ivy Shi

In 1816, Rene Laennec invented the first stethoscope, which now hangs around the neck of every practicing physician. For nearly two centuries, the stethoscope has been helping doctors hear internal heart, lung, and bowel sounds that are critical for diagnosis. From these early technologies to the development of artificial hearts and MRI machines, technology has revolutionized the practice of medicine and given rise to fields of study such as bioengineering.

Here at the University of Pittsburgh, the Engineers for Sustainable Medical Development (ESMD) organization is taking part in this technological revolution. Modeled after similar organizations at other renowned engineering institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, ESMD offers undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in design teams and projects that develop and improve biomedical devices. Under the guidance of Jack Patzer, Ph.D., ESMD started as a student-led group. It has since garnered the attention of various foundations, as well as generous funding and support from Pratap Khanwilkar, Ph.D., Director of the Coulter Program, and Alan Hirschman, Ph.D., the Executive Director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Medical Innovation (CMI).

In November 2012, the design team of Nate Smialek, Ian McIntyre, Stephanie Lee, and Harrison Harker—all bioengineering undergraduates—started work on a project funded by the Coulter Program to create a mount for handheld Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) systems, which are used to view patients’ eyes during surgery. For about a year, the team worked on the development of the device, with guidance from staff members of the Benedum machine shop such as Thorin Tobiassen, whom Lee credited with some of their best ideas. Named the Mount for Optical Coherence Tomography (M-OCT), the device stabilizes the OCT scope and allows for fine control in multiple degrees of freedom, such as tilting and focusing of the lens. The versatility of the device is the culmination of gradual and repeated improvements on the device design. “There were many iterations,” Lee stated, “because some design requirements did not become apparent until later on.” Current ESMD President Smialek added, “Between the four of us, we spent over 400 hours on the project.”

Last October, the team saw the fruition of their hard work when their M-OCT was first used in clinical surgery by researcher Kira Lathrop. Previously, the OCT device had to be manually held by surgeons, introducing vibrations that resulted in poor images, and making the movements of the device less precise and long procedures more difficult. The M-OCT, on the other hand, eliminates vibrations, frees up the surgeon’s hands, and allows repeated measurements to be more accurate and precise. “The device has already been used in nine surgeries with great success,” Lathrop stated. “It has significantly improved image quality in our surgeries, and thus the quality of our procedures.” The team also submitted their design to the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Entrepreneurship Competition, where they were the only undergraduates named finalists in the competition. A provisional patent for the device has also been filed, and the team is currently evaluating plans for the next generation of the device.

The design project’s journey has been undeniably successful, but it was also a learning experience for the team and has affected the direction and mission of ESMD. “The entire project really highlighted to us how the process of medical device development is integrative,” commented Smialek. McIntyre also added, “There were a lot more economics and business aspects involved than we originally anticipated, especially when we went through the patenting process.” The M-OCT project really strived to bridge the gap between engineering and these disciplines, and Smialek concluded, “At the end of the day, even if you have a really great device that can’t be marketed or used easily, it doesn’t help anyone.” With this in mind, there has been a major recruitment effort by ESMD to include electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and business majors in addition to the previous core of bioengineering majors, to create integrated teams that can work through the entire process of device development.

Following the success of the M-OCT device, there has been increased interest in ESMD. “The club has grown faster than we ever imagined,” stated Smialek. There are currently six new active design teams working on projects passed on from the Coulter Program and CMI, and the club is looking to expand to include business projects as well. ESMD also hosts weekly workshops that educate members on basic engineering skills and offers volunteering opportunities at Global Links and at CMU’s TechNights doing STEM-related activities with middle school girls, as well as study abroad and conference opportunities free of charge. The organization has also been cooperating with hospitals in Guyana, where former ESMD President Karuna Relwani spearheaded their first trip in the summer of 2012 in hopes of developing their international and sustainability branches.

All in all, ESMD hopes to increase and facilitate interdisciplinary cooperation and increase optimization between various disciplines in the design of biomedical devices. It also strives to give undergraduates an industry experience so that they can get a job much more easily. McIntyre stated, “I got my co-op position right now because of my work in ESMD, and I’m able to do a lot more at my job because of my experience in ESMD.” According to Smialek, ESMD really helps undergraduates take what they’ve learned in class to a real life context so that everything can click together.

In a time where biotechnology is becoming increasingly important, ESMD takes a large step in educating students about the discipline outside of the classroom and exposing them to the field in their spare time. “We have an amazing board that has been working to continuously improve the organization, and it is honestly easy for me to be President since my officers are so great,” stated Smialek. “It’s a great and practical experience, and it doesn’t cost a dime.” The organization recognizes the capacity of biotechnology and strives to nurture students who will become better experienced and capable members of biomedical teams in their careers. “It’s the future of medicine. We can take the human error out of medicine. The gap between medicine and technology is getting smaller every day.”