Intubation Device Created by Biomedical Engineering Alumni Earns NIH Prize

Sep 13 2019 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Courtesy of InTouch | Video Credit: Jane Nisselson/Columbia Engineering

InTouch engineers Samuel Castro, Mary Gana, Miriam Saffern, Amy Wu, Xiaomeng Xian showcase their prize-winning device at Columbia's Senior Design Expo.

Intubating patients might appear deceptively simple, but the procedure can intimidate even experienced medical personnel. It’s a delicate multistep process and the stakes are high—failure to properly insert the tube can result in hypoxia, hypertension, or even death.

InTouch, a new intubation guidance system developed by recent Columbia Engineering graduates, recently garnered a major prize and recognition by the National Institutes of Health for its ability to make the experience more painless for all concerned.

“Our premise was to make a device that could make non-experts into experts,” said Amy Wu ‘19.

To prototype their “smart” laryngoscope blade, Wu and fellow biomedical engineers Samuel Castro ’19, Mary Gana ’19, Miriam Saffern ’19, and Xiaomeng Xian ’19 collaborated with anesthesiologists at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Equipped with force sensors, the device provides health care workers real-time feedback and guidance.

The group originally created the technology as a senior capstone project; in initial clinical testing with attending anesthesiologists they managed to detect—and help correct—nearly 90% of incorrect intubations. Their ingenuity went on to earn them first place and $20,000 in the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge co-sponsored by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering​, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and VentureWell, a non-profit geared at advancing student and faculty innovators and entrepreneurs. Just six teams were recognized from more than fifty contenders hailing from across the United States.

“We are very grateful for this recognition from the NIH,” Wu said. “It’s encouraged our team to think more seriously about what we can possibly do. Our first step has been applying for a patent for our device, and we hope to collaborate more with the Medical Center to further improve our device and gather more nuanced clinical data.”

The idea for InTouch was born in a class taught by Aaron Kyle, senior lecturer in engineering design in the biomedical engineering department. Kyle mentored the team as they developed and iterated their product throughout the year. Kyle’s two-semester course challenges seniors to take a comprehensive approach to tackling open-ended biomedical problems, from brainstorming prospective solutions and building prototypes to conducting customer discovery and assessing the commercial landscape—all with an eye to formulating potentially viable business strategies.

“Intubation is a serious issue that there hasn’t really been a great solution for,” said Kyle, who’s previously advised several teams working on the problem. “As InTouch developed their prototype, they incorporated some automation and a machine learning algorithm. They’ve really created a very elegant and effective solution.”

Key to InTouch’s success was also feedback from Professor Peter Yim ’02 and others at the Medical Center, from whom the students got an inside look at the most urgent challenges of intubation and most acute clinical needs. They first showcased their product at the Senior Design Expo this past spring, along with DEBUT honorable mentions Rachel Mintz ‘19, Stehpanie Rager ‘19, Kelly Ryu ’19 and Mia Saade ’19, creators of the Hera Bra, a device for detecting subclinical mastitis.

 “I think for many of us who choose to study engineering, we do so in the hope of being able to apply what we learn in the classroom to help somebody in the real world,” Wu said. “It was an incredible opportunity to start making that happen in our Senior Design class, and also to be able to work in this fashion with our professors in biomedical engineering and physicians at the Medical Center.”