Bucknell Engineers, Geisinger Partner to Solve Real Medical Problems

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Biomedical engineering students worked with Geisinger Health Systems professionals to devise, design and test medical devices to solve real health problems.

"They are solving problems for an actual clinical mentor rather than for a professor." -- Dan Cavanagh, chair of biomedical engineering department

Infants in the neonatal intensive care unit often are treated for jaundice with phototherapy – or the application of blue light to skin.

Devices that administer the therapy are, however, uncomfortable, noisy and non-portable, noted Neil Dold, who graduated from Bucknell University Sunday with a degree in biomedical engineering.

Dold and classmates Abraham Khan, Nyein Ko and Anna MacAlister spent a year developing a novel device to treat jaundice in the NICU for their senior design project, a graduation requirement for engineering majors at Bucknell. Working with Registered Nurses Lenore Skocik and Carlene Blagrave at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, the group created a soft cloth vest that uses an existing blue-light generating technology to treat an infant's jaundice. With further development, the device could be used for portable and longer-lasting treatments.

"What we developed was a light-delivery system that wraps around the child and provides phototherapy treatment," said Dold, who plans to pursue a career in medical device or product design. "We hope for the system to be used for at least an hour at a time to allow for interaction with family members, which is critical to neurodevelopment."

Bucknell's biomedical engineering students each year partner with surgeons, nurses and other medical professionals to solve real-world medical issues. The students meet with the Geisinger staff from varying disciplines throughout the year to conceive of ideas, develop plans, trouble shoot and ultimately test potential products. Following a design expo in which the students present their projects at the end of the academic year, Geisinger researchers evaluate each technology for potential further advancement.

In the past, biomedical engineering students have focused on improving means to measure bone quality in older adults; analyze DNA; and remove dangerous air bubbles from tubes administering fluids and medicine, among other goals. Because of a confidentiality agreement and to protect the future development of the technologies, specific details of this year's project designs cannot be revealed.

Brittany Scarpato, Nick Barnett and Raymond Kessler worked with Geisinger Physician's Assistant Barbara Leauber '96 to develop the protective device for patients who have had kidney transplants so they may participate in sports. As part of the design process, they created a "mock pelvis" and conducted numerous "drop tests" to mimic the effects of falls and blows to the kidney area. They also tested materials of varying thicknesses to come up with a protective device that fits in an athletic uniform, said Scarpato, who plans to attend medical school or work for an engineering firm.

"We learned through the process that you really can't plan for anything," Scarpato said. "We had to redesign, validate and conduct feasibility tests several times. We learned about economics, sustainability, management and resources as well as liability insurance. It's a very diverse class."

Kelly Desharnais, Daniel Redmond-White and Lisa Tostanoski worked with emergency room physician Timothy Vollmer to create an adapter to enable patients to be oxygenated during emergency intubation.

"The doctor has to open the airway of the patient by inserting an endotracheal tube with a laryngoscope," Desharnais explained. "It is a difficult procedure if the patient is obese or has had head or neck trauma, so the doctor administers a paralytic drug that relaxes the patient's throat muscles but also stops them from breathing. We worked with Dr. Vollmer to explore a way to enable oxygenation during these intubations when the patient is not breathing."

The team went through a "prototype evolution" to design and fabricate a device that maximizes the delivery of oxygen, maintains patient safety, and is easy for physicians to use, said Desharnais, who plans to pursue a Ph.D in neural engineering at Case Western Reserve University.

"We used a combination of unique flexible tubing and custom-designed fittings," said Desharnais. "It gave me a greater understanding of a full-circle process and where ideas come from and how we filter them. As biomedical engineers, we are trained to be translators between the medical world and the engineering design world. This goes far beyond the classroom experience."

Vollmer, the emergency room physician, said working with students is fun and mutually beneficial to the students and Geisinger.

"I put a problem out there, looking at it one way, and almost from day one, the ideas have been coming from them, going in a different direction," Vollmer said. "This is a resource to explore ideas and a great collaboration between the biomedical engineering department and a medical center of this size."

The senior design process allows students to bring together skills from all of their classes at Bucknell and prepares them for future careers, said Associate Professor Dan Cavanagh, chair of the biomedical engineering department.

"They are solving problems for an actual clinical mentor rather than for a professor," he said. "It really is an independent effort that lets them make decisions based upon their creative thought processes, acquired knowledge, developed skills and personal experiences."

As an extension of the senior design partnership, Bucknell and Geisinger will sponsor six biomedical engineers and three management majors this summer to solve newly identified clinical challenges. This is the first such collaboration between biomedical engineering and management students at Bucknell, allowing the teams to consider market needs as well as design, said Cavanagh, who will serve as project manager for all of the teams.

The students will work with faculty advisers and mentors from Geisinger's Emergency Department and Department of General Surgery. "I am excited to see how the students combine their skill sets to work toward a common goal," Cavanagh said.

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Julia Ferrante
Bucknell University
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