When a team of undergraduates announced the results of their senior research project, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That’s because the biomedical engineering students developed a special lens for patients suffering from forms of paralysis that leave them unable to blink and hydrate their eyes.
Their work led to a $10,000 first-place finish in a national contest and the possibility of relief for the paralyzed.
Adviser Andrew DiMeo assigned the five team members, who share an interest in neurology, to visit the hospital to find a real-life problem to solve. Eli Pollack, Alex McGaughy, Roya Nezarati, Elizabeth Kirk and Trinh Doan went to WakeMed, where they saw a patient with an injury that affected his ability to blink.
“The nurses were constantly applying drops, Vaseline and covering his eyes with Saran Wrap to keep them hydrated,” McGaughy says. “We found that this also happened to burn victims, or people with Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes certain muscles in the face.”
Team members spoke with nurses and doctors in the neurology unit, as well as patients’ family members and the Boston Foundation for Sight. With a helping hand from these experts and lab space from Aerie Pharmaceuticals, the students created the HydrEye CorneOasis, a special hybrid contact lens that fits over the eye and holds moisture against it, preventing the eye from drying out.
“We try to make this experience as much like the real world as possible,” DiMeo says. “Students go through the phases of product development just like they will if they work in the medical industry.”
While the team was working on the project, DiMeo encouraged them to enter the BMEStart competition, a brand-new, undergraduate contest modeled after a prestigious biomedical design competition for graduate students.
NC State won first place in the inaugural BMEStart competition, which attracted competitors from across the country. A portion of the prize money will go toward continued development of the lens.
“This work is important,” says Pollack, who graduated in May with a B.S. in biomedical engineering. “We don’t want to just leave it on the shelf.”