Needless Needles

A medicine-engineering collaboration could help you avoid the sting of sharps.

Hate needles? Many of us do. And when it comes to inserting an IV line before surgery, your doctor or nurse doesn’t enjoy poking you repeatedly with a needle any more than you do.

That’s why alumnus Sheena Hembrador, M.D., Res. ’17, an acting instructor and anesthesiologist at UW Medicine (who also has a degree in engineering) partnered with the UW College of Engineering to develop a new device. One that could make the pre-surgical experience much less stressful for everyone.

“For a lot of people, the anxiety of surgery doesn’t hit them until they get into that preoperative bay and meet me, because all of a sudden, that makes it real,” Hembrador says. She talks with patients before surgery, discussing their health, state of mind and any previous experience with anesthesia. If her patient is a child, she’ll even sing them to sleep.

Still, needles are a sticking point.

“I was chatting with a med-school buddy about how frustrated we were by the difficulty of placing arterial lines and how we hated having to poke the patient more than once,” says Hembrador. “He said, ‘You’re an engineer. Can’t you find a better way to do it?’”

Inspired by the challenge, Hembrador went to work. Unlike veins, arteries aren’t visible under the skin, so a doctor or nurse must feel for the patient’s pulse in order to know where to place the needle. It’s an imperfect method that often results in multiple pokes. Ultrasound or Doppler machines are more precise, but most hospitals share one machine among many operating rooms. And nurses, who also take single-poke blood draws from the artery, aren’t trained to use them.

Hembrador envisioned a pocket-sized device — “like a stud finder for your arteries,” she says — that would use sensitive pressure sensors to identify the artery, with a visual display that would show exactly where to place the needle. Armed with seed funding from the Washington State Society of Anesthesiologists, she reached out to UW faculty Minoru Taya, M.S., Ph.D., the Nabtesco Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering, about a collaboration.

This kind of collaboration spawns creativity, notes Taya. “You have to keep thinking and reading in different disciplines,” he says. “That’s when I often have an ‘Aha!’ moment with a design issue. By working in multiple research areas, we can generate new ideas and connections.”

In this collaboration, Taya’s group provided an important resource to Hembrador: the time of Kevin Kadooka, Ph.D., one of Taya’s students. Kadooka developed a polymer to coat a sophisticated sensor that measures a patient’s blood pressure. That information is displayed on a screen in real time, using the same technology the group developed for the Boeing 787’s color-changing electrochromic windows.

While Hembrador and Kadooka worked on the initial prototype, Hembrador applied to CoMotion, the UW’s collaborative innovation hub; it helps UW inventors develop their ideas into projects that attract investment. Hembrador secured funding from CoMotion’s Innovation Gap Fund, which also provides mentors to help candidates develop and pitch ideas. In addition, CoMotion developed the intellectual property strategy and filed the patent applications for the prototype. And importantly, the funding from the Innovation Gap Fund was matched by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Commercialization Initiation Fund.

“This really wouldn’t have been possible without the philanthropic support of CoMotion and the Murdock Trust,” says Hembrador.

With the backing of this team, Hembrador worked with an engineering firm to develop a second, more sophisticated prototype that’s slightly larger than a postage stamp. Now, she’s working on a clinical feasibility study, recruiting volunteers to help test the tiny device and assess its accuracy. No needles required.

“I think most doctors don’t realize how much effort goes into the tools we use,” says Hembrador. “Now, I have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the process of medical device development.”

ACCELERATE RESEARCH

With a gift to the Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine General Gifts Fund.

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