Pitt doctors team up for innovation

In the PInCh —Pitt Innovation Challenge — students and professors scored $400,000 prizes this weekend to advance health care. 

Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Office of the Provost and the Innovation Institute hosted the second year of the challenge, and more than 60 teams competed. Three groups won $100,000 each at the University Club Saturday night, while four other groups received $25,000 each.

To win the prize money each group responded to the question: “From cell to community: How can we individualize solutions for better health(care)?” 

The prizes cover direct costs to help advance the winning groups’ project over the next 12 months, with additional help from a project manager assigned to each winning group. 

The Challenge posed the question in September and then selected 20 teams from a first round of 60 video entries. Following a written entry round, the University chose 10 finalists to present their ideas in a showcase. 

Groups Nebukin, Nanoketo and ACL took the top prizes. Dr. Timothy Corcoran from the Department of Medicine and Bioengineering, Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine of UPMC led the Nebukin team, which aims to use a tablet-based software tool to help children properly use nebulizers, which deliver drugs through an inhalable mist, to treat asthma. 

Corcoran said the software acts like a game to guide children through breathing patterns that administer the optimal amount of the drug.  

“The game also helps to keep the child entertained during the treatment and alleviates boredom and anxiety. It also provides physicians with a degree of control over dosing,” Corcoran said in an email. 

Corcoran said he has worked with aerosol medications for more than 20 years, prompting “some ideas about where the problems were with inhaled therapies and some insight on how to fix them.”

Corcoran said his team will use the prize to hire user-experience professionals, which study the usablity of a device, and software designers to produce a beta version of Nebukin.

James Ellis, a graduate student in Dr. Alexandar Star’s lab from the department of chemistry and bioengineering, led the Nanoketo team, which will develop a portable sensor for monitoring ketosis, a condition common in diabetics.  

Ellis said Nanoketo will develop a handheld, breath acetone sensor for type-1 diabetics and epilepsy patients. The sensor would use the correlation between breath acetone concentration and blood ketone levels to replace the current methods of blood and urine sampling, he added. 

Ellis said the team will use the prize to prepare for the application as well as build and test electronic prototypes.

Dr. Michael McClincy from the UPMC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery led the ACL Interaction team, which will develop a Web-based tool to individualize recovery from knee injuries.

“PInCh is a celebration of the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of some of the brightest, most enterprising teams of visionary thinkers in and around the Pittsburgh region,” Steven E. Reis, CTSI director and associate vice chancellor for clinical research, Health Sciences, said in a UPMC release.

Corcoran collaborated with Jenna Date from the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon, who will lead the team that will research the needs of children with lung diseases and produce the device.

Corcoran said they plan to design the tool first for children with cystic fibrosis, and the team includes David Orenstein and Daniel Weiner, pediatric pulmonologists and cystic fibrosis experts from Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“We first plan to bring our designers together with children with cystic fibrosis so that they can gain a clear understanding of the role inhaled therapies play in their life and understand their perspective,” Corcoran said. “Our design will evolve from those interactions.”