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MIE Team Wins One of Eight Prizes at Innovation Challenge Seed Pitch Competition

Rune Percy and Alex Smith (center and right)

Undergraduates Rune Percy and Alex Smith of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department won one of the eight prizes handed out at the second competition of the 2016-2017 Innovation Challenge series with their successful “Seed Pitch.” Calling their fledgling company ARBioDesign, Percy and Smith are researching and developing a groundbreaking on-line device that can quickly, continuously, and accurately measure key electrolytes such as potassium in dialysis patients without the need for additional blood testing at a lab. More about the Seed Pitch Competition »

This year’s Seed Pitch, hosted by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, originally considered applications from 35 teams from disciplines all over campus. For the actual competition, the center whittled down that number to 15 teams of entrepreneurs composed of seven Ph.D. students, three M.S. students, and 15 undergraduate students to present their seed pitches on November 30. A panel of three judges awarded eight teams a total of $15,000 in funding for their ventures.

As Percy and Smith explained the need for such an electrolyte-measuring device, “There are 500,000 dialysis patients treated three to five times per week in the U.S. yearly, and this number is rising. Hemodialysis technology is outdated and is far from mimicking the natural bio-feedback of a kidney. From our research with clinicians, nurses, managers, and nephrologists, blood testing is far too infrequent (once per month on average) and, as a result, nearly 90,000 patients die yearly from treatment complications. 24,000 of these patients die from sudden cardiac arrest alone. This and other major complications in patients with End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) could be mitigated with more modern technology.” 

With all these critical factors in mind, Percy and Smith are working on a less invasive, more frequent blood-testing technique so that electrolyte imbalances can be caught and tracked more easily, potentially saving the lives of thousands.

“We are developing a microfluidic device that uses DNA-based sensors and a single drop of blood to measure potassium inexpensively and immediately,” said Percy and Smith. “As potassium is the leading culprit of sudden cardiac arrest, we believe this proof-of-concept device has the power to demonstrate to dialysis companies that accurate, inexpensive electrolyte tracking is both possible and worthwhile.”

The two MIE students are collaborating with Professor Juan Jimenez of the MIE Department and Professor Mingxu You of the Chemistry Department.

Percy and Smith said that one major reason for many complications in dialysis patients is inadequate electrolyte filtration. Dialysate, which acts as the filtration mechanism for dialysis machines, is often generically prepared, and patients’ prescriptions do not change unless adverse health effects arise. Unfortunately, electrolyte imbalances occur suddenly in patients and can have life-threatening complications, as is the case for tens of thousands of ESRD patients every year.

“As the average age of dialysis patients continues to increase and the benefits of personalized medicine continue to proliferate,” said Percy and Smith, “this one-size-fits-all approach is becoming increasingly inappropriate.” 

The two MIE students noted that, with their new device, clinical nurses can visualize measurements of crucial electrolytes in real time. Such measurements eventually could allow hemodialysis machines to recreate the kidney’s natural function by adjusting the dialysate fluid in a time- and treatment-dependent fashion. By measuring the blood that’s already passing through the machine, medical personnel can improve clinical workflow by removing the need for time-consuming lab testing.

Such measurements can also reduce the risk of infection from additional invasive sampling, reduce costs associated with transporting to, and measuring samples in, a lab, and reduce the risk of blood samples changing due to transport.

In addition to Jimenez and You, who are supporting the development of both the sensors and the microfluidic device, Percy and Smith are also collaborating with nephrologists and nurses at Fresenius Enfield Dialysis Center, where they have access to on-site facilities to validate their proof-of-concept prototype once completed. Percy and Smith plan to have a functioning proof-of-concept device by the end of the spring semester in 2017. (January 2017)