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Dartmouth BEs Win $20,000 for C. diff Treatment System

By Anna Fiorentino
October 2013 • Thayer By Degrees: BE

A team of Dartmouth Bachelor of Engineering (BE) graduates collected $20,000 from two national competitions for their novel system to treat an increasingly common severe bacterial infection, known as Clostridium difficile (C. diff), rampant in hospitals and causing more cases of diarrhea, colitis and even death each year. In Seattle last month, team members Jennifer Freise ’12 Th’13, Taylor Gray ’13 Th’13, Pauline Schmit ’13 Th’13, and Alison Stace-Naughton ’11 Th’13, accepted $10,000 from NIH's Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge, and, with Sharang Biswas ’12 Th’13, another $10,000 from NCIIA's BMEStart biomedical design competition for undergraduates for their collection and isolation system that takes in a stool donation from a healthy person and outputs the beneficial bacteria to repopulate the colon of the patient with C. diff.

Dartmouth BE students
l to r: Jennifer Freise '12 Th'13, Pauline Schmit '13 Th'13, Taylor Gray '13 Th'13, and Alison Stace-Naughton '11 Th'13

In their senior design course, ENGS 89/90: Engineering Design Methodology and Project Initiation/Completion, the students optimized this unstandardized yet highly effective replacement process known as Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT), which is beginning to gain traction in the medical field, with a machine built in a closed environment to mitigate cleaning difficulties and reduce human exposure to fecal pathogens. Their project borrowed from prior ENGS 89/90 work by Peter Ankeny ’12 Th’12, Alex Engler ’12 Th’13, and Will Hart ’12 Th’12.

“None of us expected to win one, much less two first place prizes in such prestigious national competitions,” says Schmit. “It was extremely gratifying to see our hard work recognized by professionals who acknowledge the potential of FMT to be a clinical game changer in the treatment of many different diseases.”

Their timing was spot on—in June, the Food and Drug Administration dropped plans to tightly control FMT, saying it will no longer require doctors to get the agency’s approval before using the procedure. Until recently, the same costly broad-spectrum antibiotics that cause C. diff infection have been used to treat the condition, despite 35 percent of patients experiencing recurrence after the drugs and more than half of those patients developing chronic, recurrent C. diff. These medications don’t allow for the re-colonization of the colon with healthy bacteria, like FMT. The group’s standardized filtration system, however, separates viable bacteria from the insoluble waste in stool within a closed system to avoid contamination and make the process of FMT, which has shown to be 90 percent effective, less crude. The treatment has been so effective that some in the medical community are exploring whether FMT could treat irritable bowl syndrome, Chrohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

“What an honor and great opportunity to further explore this project. Still in the early stage, we are excited to see where it goes as we seek clinical validation and continue with the engineering development,” says Stace-Naughton, a budding entrepreneur who is also developing a vacuum pressure system to stabilize tissue during endoscopic surgery. “Biotech development takes time, but this is a new up-and-coming procedure so we want to use that momentum to help us get it to the clinic faster.”

Tags: award, engineering in medicine, innovation, projects, students

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