From problem to prototype

Sometimes inspiration is literally at your fingertips.

For bioengineering undergraduate students Nasim Barzanian, Sakthivel Nagaraj, Neil Ray and Jeffrey Yang, inspiration took the form of a ballpoint pen, which sparked their development of an innovative technology for laparoscopic surgery.

Berkeley Engineering’s Sakthivel Nagaraj, Jeffrey Yang, Neil Ray and Nasim Barzanian (L to R) have developed an innovative technology for laparoscopic surgery. (Preston Davis photo)Berkeley Engineering’s Sakthivel Nagaraj, Jeffrey Yang, Neil Ray and Nasim Barzanian (L to R) have developed an innovative technology for laparoscopic surgery. (Photo by Preston Davis)“Through rigorous investigation, prototyping and testing, the team arrived at a brilliant solution,” says bioengineering professor Amy Herr. “Something that is not obvious, but when you see it for the first time, you say, ‘Yes, of course!’”

The student team formed during Herr’s bioengineering 192 course, which partners undergraduates with a physician to address a real clinical challenge, providing in-depth experience with the formal engineering design process.

The group of four was teamed with Stanford surgical resident and physician Joseph Forrester. Meeting with the students, Forrester described his experience with laparoscopic surgery, which utilizes a tool known as a laparoscope—a specialized instrument equipped with a camera that transmits interior images of the body to a television screen, providing the surgeon with magnified views of the surgical field inside the abdomen.

One of the primary challenges Forrester and other surgeons face during laparoscopic surgery is that the camera lens gets splattered with the patient’s blood, fat and guts. When the lens gets dirty, it obscures their view. Surgeons need to remove the laparoscope from the body, clean the lens and reposition the laparoscope—a process that can take anywhere from 3–5 minutes.

“I let them figure out a way to solve my challenge. Throughout the semester, I would meet with them occasionally, during which they would bounce ideas off me. I would let them know what I thought wouldn’t be safe, what would be cumbersome and then continued to tell them that the sky is the limit,” Forrester says. “They took it and ran with it.”

After extensive brainstorming and research into existing technology, the students chose to develop a prototype based on an unusual idea originally proposed by Nagaraj. His solution? A spherical lens, akin to the tip of a ballpoint pen.

“I just thought about how the ballpoint pen revolves, how it keeps picking up ink on the inside,” Nagaraj says. “So I made that the opposite, so that it’s cleaned off on the inside.”

This specialized lens is placed in front of the laparoscope’s camera and constantly rotates by means of a motor in the back. As the lens turns, any larger pieces of patient debris hit the rim and remain inside the patient. Anything that’s small or liquid rotates back into the device, where an integrated saline and vacuum channel constantly cleans the device’s interior. Throughout the process, there’s a clear viewing angle, reducing or even eliminating the need for removing the laparoscope during surgery.

“This was the most novel idea,” says Barzanian. “We thought, this is maybe really hard and unfeasible, but it’s really interesting, so we decided to pursue it.”

The students created an oversized prototype, shown here, with off-the-shelf parts. (Courtesy the researchers)The students created an oversized prototype, shown here, with off-the-shelf parts. (Photo by The Researchers)The students designed the technology, built a large-sized prototype with off-the-shelf parts and then put it through extensive testing. Because the scope is an adaptation of a tool that surgeons already use, the team hopes their solution will be adopted; it just takes pressing a button to make it work.

“It gave us a new perspective on how medical devices are made and how complicated innovation can be. You have to keep doing research, keep coming back and forth, keep recycling ideas and then build a product, so it’s really time-intensive,” Yang says, “but it was very rewarding at the same time.”

The team recently won the top prize at Berkeley’s Engineering the Future competition and now plans to enter other competitions as well. Currently, the students are working with Berkeley’s Office of Technology Licensing to file a provisional patent for their design. They hope to secure funding from industry sponsors so that they can further refine and test their prototype.

Although the team members are currently moving in different directions—Barzanian will graduate in December, Ray is heading to medical school, Yang is working on a separate medical device at UCSF and Nagaraj is applying for jobs in the medical device industry—they remain united in their commitment to further develop their innovation.

They are also unanimous in their praise of this experience, and all see it as informing their future endeavors. “Actual engineering happens when you’re solving problems. And in going out and solving those problems you ferment your knowledge,” Ray says. “You’re an engineer by practice—not by paper.”

If you want to get involved—either as a physician with unmet needs or as a practicing engineer mentor — please email Professor Herr, aeh@berkeley.edu.