14:30 PM

Going Back to the Well(s)

BioE and CEE Graduate Students and Faculty Place in the Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition

Teams from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering placed in the annual Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition. Named for Michael Wells, Pitt alumnus and successful biotech investor, the competition awards cash prizes to student-led teams pitching innovative healthcare technology. 

Original release by Mike Yeomans can be found on the Pitt Innovation Institute site.

A common pitfall for many who attempt to bring a new technology to market is to present it as a Swiss Army knife capable of several applications all at once.

Such was the case for Adi Mittal, the Pitt School of Medicine student who is working alongside Pitt neurosurgery resident Kamil Nowicki to develop a blood test that can detect cerebral aneurysm formation. Mittal pitched in last year’s Michael G. Wells Student Healthcare Competition. While he and his team did not win one of the cash prizes, they did walk away from the experience with some good advice from the competition’s benefactor, Michael Wells, who suggested they narrow their focus out of the gate to a single most viable product.

They took his words to heart and over the past year they have refined their go-to-market strategy with guidance from several corners of the university’s innovation ecosystem. They reapplied for the 2022 Wells competition with their pitch finely honed on purely diagnosing aneurysms and not on treating them.

This time they walked away with the $20,000 grand prize.

Mittal and Nowicki, working in the lab of Robert Friedlander, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, are developing CAT-7, a protein-based blood panel of seven cytokines that screen in lab tests to a 95 percent specificity for aneurysms and can predict the risk of rupture.

Michael Wells, Pitt alumnus and successful biotech investor, noted that 2022 marked the 12th year of the competition that he has funded to help accelerate the commercial translation of innovations emerging from Pitt labs. In that time participating teams went on to form 20 spinout companies and have raised $48 million in investment.

Also winning awards in the 2022 Wells competition were:

EndoDX: Second-place ($15,000)

Student: Isabelle Chickanosky, PhD candidate, Department of Bioengineering
Faculty: Timothy Chung, research assistant professor, Department of Bioengineering;
Nicole Donnellan, associate professor, Department of Obstetcis, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences;
David Vorp, professor, Department of Bioengineering

Endometriosis is a gynecological disease affecting 10% of women (~200 million) worldwide. These patients often live with chronic pelvic pain (80%) and infertility (50%) but can only seek out diagnosis of this disease via an exploratory surgical laparoscopic procedure. This surgery costs more than $12,000 per procedure, with 60% ending in no endometriosis diagnosis. Prior to the surgery, clinicians who provide these procedures often provide blood tests, ultrasound imaging, or magnetic resonance imaging to identify the presence of this disease, contributing to the average 7-year delay in diagnosis.
EndoDx is a machine learning tool to identify risk, presence, and stage of endometriosis in patients non-invasively

Deep Brain Stimulation: Third-place ($5,000)

Student: Jordyn Ting, PhD candidate, Department of Bioengineering
Faculty: Elvira Pirondini, assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine; Jorge Gonzalez-Martinez, professor, Department of Neurological Surgery

Stroke is the leading cause of disability among adults in the United States. Currently, over 7 million individuals in the US have suffered a stroke and nearly 800,000 new strokes occur each year. Approximately 20% of stroke survivors have lasting speech deficits that leave them unable to adequately communicate with friends and family members and maintain jobs.
Additionally, the inability to effectively communicate can result in greater isolation and accelerated deterioration of patients’ health. Despite the magnitude of this issue, there are few options available to improve speech after stroke, including a limited period of speech therapy and assistive devices, such as amplifiers and voice output communication aids. However, speech therapy is ineffective in patients with moderate to severe deficits and assistive devices produce unnatural speech patterns. Our solution involves applying deep brain stimulation to the motor thalamus, which leads to an increase in
motor output from the facial muscles that improve speech. This technology could be used as a stand-alone device at home to improve daily communication or applied in conjunction with traditional speech therapy to improve recovery.

Other participating teams in the competition included:

NoVRel: Surgical Hardware Modifications to Augmented Reality Headsets

Student: Vanni Bansal
Faculty: Paul Garnder, neurosurgical director, UPMC Center for Cranial Base Surgery; Jacob Biehl, School of Computing and Information

There are several devices to aid a neurosurgeon during surgical procedures, including loupes (magnification), fluorescence-guided-surgery machines, headlights, and monitors displaying patient records and other pertinent procedure information.
However, these essential devices are scattered throughout the operating room, increasing surgical time, resulting in a higher incidence of patient morbidity and future complications. This calls for a compatible solution to integrate key components of the operating room (OR) into one key device: noVRel’s solution, a surgical attachment for the Microsoft Hololens 2, a market-leading Augmented Reality (AR) headset. The current market for surgical AR technology has not yet implemented a universal solution to solve this time issue in the operating room. noVRel’s solution streamlines the surgical process by giving surgeons a customized and more independent OR experience.

Novel Herpes Virus Antiviral

Student: Liam Carmody
Faculty: James McNulty, professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology; Leonardo D’Aiuto, research assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry

This antiviral can be utilized by primary care physicians and obstetricians to prevent the spread of herpes virus from mothers to infants. Topical treatment of the birth canal offers a new avenue to prevent neonatal herpes, which currently has high rates of morbidity. Unlike oral or intravenous antiherpetics, our antiviral can be used on mothers otherwise unable to receive systemic treatment. Other treatment alternatives include Caesarean sections, which are costly and invasive. This
novel antiviral will provide a more cost effective and comfortable option for the 25% of expecting mothers with Herpes infection.

Nouvosis: Metematerial Orthopedic Implants

Students: Yahar Aucie, Post doctor, Bioengineering; Endy Lu, PhD candidate; James Luo, PhD candidate
Faculty: Amir Alavi, Department of Civil Engineering and Bioengineering

United States. Lumbar arthrodesis or spinal fusion is performed to treat a wide variety of spinal disorders. Approximately, 30% of these cases will experience post-operative complications. A key factor to determine the success of spinal fusion is a precise assessment of its healing process by monitoring it closely. Current monitoring technologies are limited, costly, and expose the patients to significant radiation. To address these challenges, we have developed a new platform monitoring technology that can potentially transform the landscape of patient-specific smart spinal fusion implants. We have created self-powered smart interbody fusion cages that can monitor the spinal fusion progress without a need to any external electronics, while accelerating the bone healing with built-in electrical stimulation mechanisms. Such smart implants can help significantly reduce post-operative complications and revision surgeries and enhance the healing process. Each spinal fusion surgeries typically cost $80,000 to $150,000. Therefore, if our technology can reduce the spinal fusion complications by only 10%, over $4B will be saved by our health care system.

C-Lift: A Smart, Comfortable, and Equitable Approach to Sleep

Student: Nathaniel Mitrik, recent Pitt graduate
Faculty: Kirill Kiselyov, Department of Biological Sciences; Ata Murat Kaynar, professor, Department of Critical Care Medicine and Anesthesiology

Snoring affects about 90 million people in the US, nearly half affected have Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The two related conditions cause a deluge of symptoms and elicit serious negative effects on heart and cognitive health. The market for snoring treatment is projected to reach $40 Billion USD by 2031 and is dominated (30-35%) by invasive and unequitable continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) solutions/devices, which suffer from low user compliance and high purchase/maintenance costs. The C-Lift smart pillow uses automation to open the airway for snorers through a clinically established medical maneuver, and will offer effective, convenient, and comfortable sleep care to all snorers. The C-Lift will offer low purchase/maintenance costs, address care inequities, and maintain compliance through user convenience and non-invasive care strategies.