Stevens Team Designs Solution to Empower Dialysis Patients
Senior Design Team Creates Handheld Device to Help Patients Control Fluid Intake
"When people ask me why I’m a biomedical engineer, I tell them it’s because I know I’m helping people," says Stevens Institute of Technology senior Victoria Maglaras. "When I’m making a device, I always think of someone it can help. I know I’m saving lives."
That passion and clarity of purpose is shared by fellow biomedical engineering students Jacob Coumans, David Guirguis, Tracy Levi, Victoria Maglaras and John Martinez. So when they were all looking for a capstone project as part of their senior design curriculum, it was natural they’d choose one that would help people.
The project they chose was a dialysis monitoring device: DiaMonD.
"One in ten Americans have some kind of chronic kidney disease," Coumans recites off the top of his head. Of those 30 million people, "about half a million of these patients are in the end stage of renal disease and have to undergo dialysis," adds Levi. This means they need a machine to filter their blood because their kidneys can’t. Given the increasing rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, the number of patients requiring dialysis will rise for the foreseeable future.
"For these patients, one extra fluid ounce of water in their system could be detrimental," explains Maglaras. "If they overconsume, they’ll need more treatments, or potentially weaken their heart."
In order to experience the best quality of life and have the best possible chance of receiving a transplant (the average wait time for a kidney transplant is four years), dialysis patients need to accurately monitor their liquid intake in an easy, portable way.
That’s exactly what the DiaMonD team set out to help them do.
"The Unknown of Eating Food."
After researching the most accurate ways to track fluid levels in the body—including sodium levels, tears, sweat and urine—as well as monitoring devices like glucometers, patches, tattoos and sweatbands, and checking in with clinical advisors at Seton Hall-Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, the team designed a device that performs an osmolality test—a fluid level measurement test that’s the gold standard used in clinics—simply by having the patient prick their finger.
This kind of handheld solution has never been done before.
"We always had it in the back of our minds that we wanted this to be portable," says Martinez. "Even though our advisor said it just had to show proof of concept, we still wanted to do it really well," says Maglaras. "We wanted to go big or go home."
"We were very stubborn that way," Martinez adds, "but now it’s working!"
The team took great care to build a solution that wouldn’t inconvenience patients. "The sweatband would have been easy to build, but these patients probably can’t exercise," says Martinez, "and with the urine, they’d have to send it to a lab [to analyze]," adds Guirguis.
More importantly, given the general difficulty of tracking fluid intake, "if a device is flat out telling a patient their fluid levels are increasing, it makes it easier for them," says Maglaras.
"The device takes the unknown of eating food away," says Martinez. "They don’t have to be afraid of food."
Helpful as that is, the device isn’t as perfect as they were hoping. "We wanted to provide the most accurate amount of information possible to the patient," says Levi, "and in order to do that we had to go invasive—even though we really didn’t want to."
After getting to know each other, they got to work. "We’re the largest group in our class," says Levi, "We had to get to know each other in order to figure out what we’re best at."
Martinez focused on the electronics while Coumans built the software and oversaw machining for device components. Guirguis handled the business side of the project and helped Coumans wrangle parts. Levi was responsible for figuring out the thermodynamics of the system—which was integral to the part design—while also serving as project manager and leading the team through many highs and lows. Maglaras handled all documentation, and also taught a TA how to use a 3D printer in order to expedite fabrication.
Because the team emphasized portability in their design, obtaining or making parts was a big challenge for them. Other challenges they faced during the build include measuring blood temperature and getting proper sensor accuracy, all of which were resolved with research, hard work and tons of testing.
The result? A device that functions exactly the way they hoped.
"I think we all cried, that first time we saw the temperature going down," says Coumans, with assent from the rest of the team. "Seeing the cooling curve in our results look exactly like it did in the textbook made me so happy," adds Martinez.
"Your Background Becomes Your Expertise"
"Besides the teamwork, I’m most proud of the project itself," says Maglaras. "I’m proud that we were able to do something no one else has done before—measuring osmolality into a fluid ounce."
"It was cool to see how all our courses—thermo, math, physics—related to something that would work in the real world," says Guirguis.
"We all take the same courses here, but it doesn’t hit you till senior design that your background becomes your expertise," says Coumans. "You can practice and get better at what you need to, while providing a solution that can help a lot of people. Overcoming obstacles with this project while handling my course load in order to help people is definitely my proudest moment."
The team is gearing up for the expo. "Right now, we have the full device working as intended," says Martinez. "We want to beautify it for the expo. The software too."
They’re also finding time to squeeze in some fun personal projects. Maglaras and Levi dance, Maglaras as part of Stevens TECHnique dance club. Coumans is on Stevens’ soccer team. Martinez enjoys photographing outdoor scenes and candid shots with his film camera. Guirguis coaches high school basketball for his church league during the summer.
The team’s post-graduation plans are just as diverse. Maglaras is going to dental school. Guirguis is applying to medical school. Levi will be working at a consulting firm that handles business operations for medical device companies. Coumans will be pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management. Martinez will be completing his joint bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering.
But their real hope post-graduation is that this project will continue.
"I hope that there is future direction for this project. I think we all do," says Maglaras, to vociferous asset from the rest of the team. " I hope we can get a patent and keep developing the technology. We could save millions of people."
"We really could. The general public didn’t know this was a problem," says Guirguis. "I didn’t know it was a problem." "Me, either," adds Martinez, "but being able to produce something that can help everyone, no matter how much money they have, is extremely important to me."
"We’re all just so passionate about this topic," says Levi, "which is why we're so invested in the success of the DiaMonD device and its potential for future growth."
"We’re people people," adds Maglaras."We do people engineering," says Martinez.
See this project and many others at the 2018 Stevens Innovation Expo on May 2.