By Matthew Chin
It started out as an undergraduate senior project. It ended up an award-winning design for a cancer diagnostic test.
A team of five UCLA Bioengineering seniors – Armin Arshi, David Kuo, Robert Lee, Elizabeth Ng, and Andrew Tan – received top honors recently in the National Institutes of Health’s biomedical technology undergraduate design competition. They won for Q-Path – their high-throughout, flow-through microfluidic platform that is designed to screen patients’ urine for transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), the most common form of bladder cancer.
The project had it beginnings in Bioengineering 177A and 177B, the senior capstone design course series that covers current topics in bioengineering, and requires students to work in teams to develop solutions that address current problems in biology or medicine.
“Because bladder cancer has a very high rate of recurrence, it must be screened for on a regular basis for many years to detect if the bladder cancer does come back,” Kuo said. “Current screening methods are often uncomfortable and invasive, expensive, or not sensitive enough.”
In contrast, Kuo said that the team’s device, called Q-Path for “Quantitative Pathology,” is inexpensive, as it is composed simply of a microfluidic flow-through system, a microscope with a camera, and a computer running a program. It’s also noninvasive, as it only requires urine samples, rather than using a catheter on a patient. And the test is designed to be more sensitive in detecting signs of TCC, because it quantitatively analyzes cell parameters that are strongly correlated with bladder cancer. The team also devised an index to score how far along the cancer is.
While they are all excellent students, the project challenged them to work together and come up with their own ideas.
“From my experience, the most difficult part of the project was to come up with a way to stain our cells while they were in suspension so that the nucleus would be visible under a microscope,” Tan said. “This was difficult in that colorimetric staining in suspension was not something that had ever been done before as far as we could tell from our background literature research, and it involved devising a protocol for a staining process that was not normally done with cells in suspension.”
The team solved this by trying different stains and working through several problems with the procedure until they had solved both issues. And it’s these difficult open-ended problems, that they needed to solve on their own, that are the main idea behind the senior capstone design courses.
“The capstone series is the first time our undergraduates get experience dealing with practical problems that have no known answer,” said Dino Di Carlo, an associate professor of bioengineering and the class’ instructor. “I think the most important thing they learn is how to deal with ambiguity – sometimes even the right question to ask is unknown. For the students, I think this is excellent training to become real world leaders, where there often are no model problem sets to train on, and they will have to be trailblazers.”
And blaze trails they did. Di Carlo, who was also the group’s faculty advisor, and class lecturer Darice Wong encouraged the group to think about entering Q-Path in the Diagnostic Device category of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering’s (NBIB) Design by Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge. Sixty-one teams from 39 universities submitted projects to the competition. Projects were scored on the significance of the problem being addressed, the impact on potential users and clinical care, the originality of the design, and the existence of a working prototype.
The UCLA team will receive $10,000 to share among themselves at an award ceremony at the Annual Meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society, to be held in Atlanta in October.
Each team member when asked, said that the biggest highlight was working together and the growing of friendships.
“I had known most of them since freshman year, but getting to know them through late night working or eating sessions was very rewarding,” Ng said, capturing the thoughts of all the team members. “I learned a lot from each member and am so glad we were able to pull through at the very end.”
The new device also holds potential to analyze a broader range of bodily fluid samples, such as blood, and could be used to diagnose other types of cancers. A few of the students plan to continue working on the project, even though they are now enrolled in graduate programs.
Today, Arshi is at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; Kuo at UCSD School of Medicine; Lee at the UCLA School of Dentistry; Ng at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine; and Tan is finishing his bachelor’s degree and is currently applying to medical schools.
To find out more about the DEBUT Challenge, click here: http://debut.challenge.gov/