Newswise — When University of Wisconsin-Madison junior Claire Flanagan graduates in May 2009 with bachelor's degrees in biomedical engineering (BME) and biochemistry, she might display her diploma next to an equally prestigious document: a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
"We would love to be able to license our technology to a company that could manufacture our device," says Flanagan.
Flanagan is among nearly 150 UW-Madison BME undergraduate students who, every semester of their education, work in teams to design meaningful solutions to problems posed by clients in medicine, academia and industry. This unique design-centered curriculum challenges students to experience and learn biomedical engineering by solving real-world clinical problems.
In less than a decade, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the UW-Madison patenting and licensing arm, has received 41 disclosures based on BME student inventions.
Through WARF, Flanagan and fellow BME undergraduate Ashley Huth filed a provisional patent this spring for their design, a specialized syringe that can separately store liquid and solid components, and mix and administer a solution. "One of the main challenges of today's state-of-the-art medication is in the delivery of complex and multi-component therapeutics," says W. John Kao, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering and pharmacy and the students' mentor for the project. "Ashley and Claire's innovation will no doubt assist the clinicians in the use of such technologies in helping patients."
The opportunity to participate in such clinically relevant research and design projects makes the Wisconsin biomedical engineering undergraduate program unusual. "There's nothing like this anywhere," says biomedical engineering professor and department chair Robert Radwin. "Almost every engineering program has a senior design experience, but all our BME students work on projects throughout their curriculum. You can only do this in Wisconsin, and students come here because of this curriculum."
Chris Westphal, who earned a bachelor's degree in BME in 2007, says the series of design courses enabled him to translate his ideas from sketches and computer models to real-life prototypes. During his senior year, Westphal was part of a team that designed and manufactured a device that helps researchers study patient hamstring injuries via MRI. "Further work over the summer improved the design of the device to the point where it was taken down to the University of Virginia-Charlottesville, where a collaborative study with UW-Madison is being performed," he says.
Westphal currently is pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering at UW-Madison. His master's research is a continuation of the MRI hamstring-imaging project, which his BME design team began in the fall of 2006.
Although biomedical engineering often is a logical step toward medical school or a graduate degree, the experiential learning component at Wisconsin also prepares biomedical engineers who can contribute immediately in industry positions, says Radwin.
"Design challenges motivate the students to learn new things, to seek out knowledge, to take new courses and to really tackle problems in which they have to face what they know and what they need to know," he says. "They learn how to apply what they learn in the classroom. They learn problem-solving skills. And they learn how to interpret the client's need to come up with a creative solution. When students come out of our program, they're positioned to work as engineers right out of the gate."
Not only does the design-centered BME curriculum cultivate a culture of collaborative innovation among the students, it also stresses the importance of protecting their intellectual property. "I think the opportunity of being able to get a patent before you get your undergraduate degree lingers in the minds of many students while they are designing and building their devices," says Westphal.
Such was the case for a group of seven BME undergraduates who developed a "tongue toner" for client JoAnne Robbins, a UW-Madison professor of medicine who specializes in swallowing and geriatrics at Madison's William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital. Robbins also sees patients for diagnosis and treatment of swallowing disorders at UW Hospital and Clinics.
As people age, the strength of their mouth muscles deteriorates. As a result, approximately 15 million adults have difficulty swallowing. "With swallowing problems, you're likely to get pneumonia, malnutrition and dehydration," says Robbins.
Yet, if patients exercise their mouth muscles, the strength and muscle-mass boost might alleviate some of their swallowing issues. "Addressing the muscles themselves - the mechanism - and building strength improves swallowing so that people don't have to do something different every time they take a sip or bite of something," says Robbins.
Working with Robbins, the BME students developed a relatively inexpensive, custom-fitted system that may serve clinicians as a diagnostic screening tool, enables patients to exercise their tongue muscles and, at the same time, allows clinicians to monitor the patients' progress.
Not only did the tongue toner yield two U.S. patents (initially, No. 6,702,765, and via Robbins' lab, the alternative patent No. 7,238,145), but the BME students' device also was the only undergraduate entry among 16 finalists, chosen from more than 900 entries worldwide, in the 2002 Collegiate Inventors Competition.
This spring, 34 teams of BME undergraduates will showcase their designs during the Tong Biomedical Engineering Design Competition, a public event held Friday, May 2. Among the students' creations are a device that can monitor and control stem cell differentiation; a gentler, more reliable laparoscopic banding instrument for female tubal sterilization procedures; a "scaffolding" that prevents patient vein collapse during hemodialysis; and a device that monitors skin-color changes during hot flashes as an objective means to assess therapeutic drugs for menopausal women.
Senior Mollie Lange is among a group of four students who designed a GPS-linked asthma inhaler, which communicates to population health researchers the time, date and location a patient uses it. The inhaler is an important research tool for population health scientists who track allergy and asthma symptoms, outbreak control and general health observations of people in certain areas of the United States and, ultimately, the world. "The skills I have acquired through the design curriculum will serve me well as I begin work as a medical researcher," says Lange, who this fall will begin work on a Ph.D. in immunology or pharmacology at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Lange transferred to UW-Madison to study biomedical engineering after two years on scholarship at the University of Oklahoma.
"When looking for BME programs, I carefully considered the reputation of the school, its location and the different career paths of program graduates. UW-Madison was a place that I knew I would have many options after receiving my degree," she says. "I would encourage anybody who wants a realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a biomedical engineer to apply to this program. The experience of the design course sets it apart from similar schools and stresses the values of teamwork and lifelong learning."
Flanagan, who knew at a very young age that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, says her BME education has instilled in her a sense of excitement for the field and for the opportunities to use her knowledge in novel and substantial ways. "I think so many incoming college students have a desire to help others and to make an impact," she says. "The BME curriculum gives us an outlet to do so in the present, while developing skills that will sustain our youthful passion for years to come."