Smart Pill, Sepsis Chip Named Winners in NIH DEBUT Challenge

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently announced the winners of the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge, which included designs for smart pills and disposable sepsis detection chips.

Six teams of undergraduate engineering students produced winning designs for technological advances in health care in a nationwide competition. Winners excelled across six key categories:

  • Significance of the problem addressed.
  • Impact on clinical care.
  • Innovation of the design.
  • Existence of a working prototype.
  • Market potential.
  • Ability to be patented.

The first-place team, from Purdue University, created a “smart pill” to diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in children. TB diagnosis is a challenge in low-resources areas because they require trained clinicians and stable electricity–and for children, pediatric diagnostic tests are invasive and painful. This “smart pill” just has to be swallowed, and then can sample bacteria in the stomach to determine if TB is present. This pill is low-cost, less painful, and can be used in areas without clinicians or electricity.

The second-place team, from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed a disposable sepsis detection chip. The chip detects biomarkers of sepsis with higher sensitivity and specificity than current methods–and as sepsis survival rates drop every hour after onset, this early detection component is critical.

“This project’s strength was integrating a microfluidic device with a controller and mobile app to achieve a complete package that can determine the stage of sepsis from a single drop of blood,” said Zeynep Erim, manager of the DEBUT Challenge. “A new way to more easily and effectively diagnose sepsis could potentially save millions of lives.”

In third place, the Columbia University team integrated a camera system with cancer detection algorithms to create a smartphone-compatible, hand-held cervical cancer detection device.

Additional winners created devices that eradicate catheter bacteria, reduce pancreatitis inflammation, and assist in central venous catheter placement.

The challenge is sponsored by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and VentureWell, a nonprofit higher education network.

“This year is a milestone for the DEBUT challenge—it is the fifth year that NIBIB has supported this challenge for undergraduates and the first year that we have joined forces with VentureWell to extend our collective reach and impact,” said Roderic I. Pettigrew, director of NIBIB. “This public-private partnership makes it possible to support more of the many creative and potentially life-saving technologies that are produced by remarkable undergraduate teams and allows a one-stop application process.”

“The diversity and creativity of all the solutions presented by the 72 entries from 30 universities in 17 states was impressive,” said Phil Weilerstein, president of VentureWell. “Joining forces with NIBIB in this combined DEBUT challenge created an opportunity to elevate the profile of the program and engage a broader group of institutions. The winning teams demonstrated the innovative capability of emerging undergraduate biomedical engineering students from across American higher education.”

Prize money equaling $75,000 will be rewarded to the six teams in a ceremony at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society conference in Minneapolis on Oct. 7.

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