UPDATED: Pitt students invent surgical instrument

By Abbey Reighard / Staff Writer

The concept was simple.

Doctors who perform a certain type of eye surgery need a microscope to obtain precise measurements of patients’ eyes. While doctors typically manually hold the microscope in place, four Pitt juniors have designed a mechanical arm that holds it steady, freeing the surgeon’s hands.

Mount for Optical Coherence Tomography, or the M-OCT for short, is a mechanical extension designed to more efficiently view patients’ eyes during surgical procedures. Harrison Harker, Ian McIntyre, Stephanie Lee and Nathan Smialek designed and produced the M-OCT.

Ken Nischal, a pediatric surgeon at UPMC, was the first to use the mount and has since used the device in five surgeries, as well as on four other occasions to view the eyes of patients before or after surgery.

The M-OCT is a hand-held microscope that uses light technology to view images of the eye.

According to Nischal, the mount gives surgeons a consistent method that allows for the repeated and accurate imaging of the patients’ eyes. The product has been used in surgeries that utilize stem cells to restore vision to blind children.

“The mechanical arm adds dimension to the accuracy of acquiring images that we didn’t have before,” Nischal said.

The students who designed the mount are all members of the Pitt organization ESMD, or Engineers for Sustainable Medical Development, and began their work on the device in November of last year.

According to Karuna Relwani, a co-founder and previous president of ESMD, the group is currently working on several design projects within the Pittsburgh medical community. The group has worked alongside the Coulter Translational Research Partners II Program, a Pitt program within the Swanson School of Engineering that identifies, selects and develops new designs and technologies to be commercialized for the medical market.

The students in ESMD emphasize sustainable technologies. One group produced an ophthalmoscope, another device that uses light technology to study the eye, that does not need battery replacements. Instead, the students inserted a circuit into the device that recharges the capacitor when shaken, like a shake flashlight or a kinetic self-charged watch.

For those who use it, the M-OCT is a device that makes the process of eye surgery much simpler. The handheld OCT device is placed inside a fitted mount. The fitted mount extends off a mechanical arm that resembles the shape of the number seven, allowing the surgeon to position the fixture directly over the patient. The arm pivots to allow a circular motion around the entire diameter of the eye.

Kira Lathrop, a research instructor at the UPMC Eye Center, aided the students in the project.

Lathrop described the OCT device that she had been using in surgery as a handheld instrument that looked similar to a hair dryer.

Previously, surgeons manually held the OCT device, which made it difficult to work with the instrument for long periods of time. It also made the movements less precise because it was physically difficult for a person to move the microscope around the eye during surgery.

The mount allows surgeons to more easily use the light technology to view the eye during medical procedures.

“They should be really proud. This is an uncommon thing to accomplish and they worked very hard,” Lathrop said.

Nischal said that he and Lathrop had discussed the difficulties of using the handheld OCT device, and Lathrop then relayed that information to the team of ESMD students. With Lathrop’s help, the group then began working on mount designs for the M-OCT.

Lathrop said that the group learned from trial and error and hands-on experience in the design of the M-OCT. For almost a year, the group made adjustments to the design until they agreed on a finished product, which they submitted to the annual MG Wells Student Healthcare Entrepreneurship Competition.

“Personally, [the group] was really good. The instrument is terrific and we really want to take it into the next stage,” Lathrop said.

The group recently filed for a patent for the M-OCT design. The group is now considering licensing the M-OCT with OCT microscope manufacturers.

Grants from the Michael G. Wells Entrepreneurial Scholars Fund are awarded annually through the competition in early October to students who develop new products for which the medical community expresses a need. After students design and develop a device, it is made available at facilities such as UPMC hospitals to be used in medical procedures.

Finalists in the competition are chosen by a panel of judges from the Pittsburgh business community and are awarded $10,000 for further research and production of their medical inventions.

The winners of this year’s competition were announced on Oct. 2. Two Pitt graduate students, Donald Taylor, a bioengineering graduate student, and Austin Nuschke, a pathology graduate student, placed first for their Bio-bandages, which are bandages that use stem cells to regrow skin cells within injuries.

Although they didn’t place first, the four undergraduates from ESMD are still very proud of their work with the M-OCT and its successful use in the medical field.

Harker, who majors in bioengineering, said that he was proud that the M-OCT had already been used in surgery two weeks before the finalists were announced.

He said that although the group did not win the competition, placing as finalists was “icing on the cake” of an overall great experience.

Lee, a mechanical engineer who worked on the project, agreed.

“I thought being in the competition was a great learning experience because we got exposure to sides of engineering that we never get in our classes, such as the patenting process and how to create a good sales presentation,” Lee said.

Editors Note: A previous version of this article said Kira Lathrop is a physician. This was incorrect, and the article has been corrected to reflect this. The Pitt News regrets this error.