An Eye-Opening Discovery
December 14, 2012
Anyone who remembers waiting as a child for Magic Grow Dinosaurs to expand in water understands the gist of an invention by a team of recent B.E. graduates. While this capsule morphs into a dinosaur sponge in minutes, it takes months for the polyacrylamide gel also used in Expandable Hydrogel Sphere for Orbital Implantation to slowly expand the eye socket in patients with anophthalmia and microphthalmia, conditions of lacking an eyeball or having a small eyeball.
In November, the device earned the three dual-degree students—Elizabeth Chang '12, Chris Ng '12, and Amanda Christian '12—the chance to compete against only six other teams from undergraduate schools at the prestigious 2012 Collegiate Inventors Competition in Washington, DC.
"The team may not have placed in the competition, but just getting the chance to defend their product was a victory—that and a trip to the White House to meet the President's science advisor," says Assistant Professor Douglas Van Citters Th'03, Th'06, who has sent three teams, including this one, to the Inventors Competition in the last four years. Presenting both science and business aspects of their Expandable Hydrogel Sphere to judges also convinced the team to pursue the commercialization of their product.
The device crosslinks the polyacrylamide gel with another polymer commonly used in biomedical applications to make soft contact lenses called HEMA (hydroxyethyl methacrylate), with a third agent that manages the expansion and mechanical properties. Together they enable water to enter the socket and swell up like a sponge over a long period of time as the child grows.
The a need for a device with slow swelling properties was brought to the table by to a team of eye doctors from the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, India, where patients don't have the luxury of follow-up visits, yet 15 children a day are born with a small eye or no eye, due to genetic factors.
"Several summers ago I met with the eye surgeons at Aravind Eye Hospital, a Gates Foundation award winner that makes its own inexpensive yet highly effective medical devices, and we discussed areas where we could collaborate—since the Aravind System and Dartmouth have several existing connections," says Van Citters. He presented the challenge in an ENGS 89/90 course last fall, and the B.E.s hit the ground running.
The students traveled last spring with Van Citters to India to present the device to Aravind's affiliate Aurolab, who sponsored the project, and with help from their advisor, Thayer School Senior Lecturer Mark Laser, they pursued an independent study during their final semester at Thayer. At that time they also took home Thayer's 2012 Special Faculty Award for Engineering and Service to Humanity. And it was then that they began to validate the device's mechanical properties, fabrication details and bio compatibility—a task that Taylor Gray '13 since took over with the goal of animal testing in 2013, followed by human testing. Chang and Ng, now both research assistants at UC-Irvine and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center respectively, and Christian, who recently returned to the United States after traveling abroad, are now looking to file a provisional patent.
"Aurolab just contacted me letting me know they are eager to hear about progress on the product," says Van Citters.