Student innovators earn national attention

A team of four recent UNC graduates has invented a device aimed at ensuring accuracy in drug dosage. Since graduation, they have been working to generate interest for their device and recently placed as finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, held in November at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia.

VoluMetric, a device aimed at ensuring accuracy in drug dosage.
The VoluMetric team, (L to R) John Pamplin, Jorge Martinez-Blat, Chris Roberts and Chase DuBois

By Jamie Williams -

Study for final exams. Pick up cap and gown. File provisional patent application.

While not exactly typical, that was the experience of Chase DuBois, Jorge Martinez-Blat, John Pamplin and Chris Roberts. All four are 2014 UNC graduates in Applied Sciences with concentration in Biomedical Engineering and inventors of VoluMetric, a device that ensures accuracy in drug dosage.  

Since graduation, the team has been working to generate interest for their device and recently placed as finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, held in November at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia.

The path to the competition began in the fall of 2013 when the four students teamed up as part of a senior design course that serves as the capstone to the Biomedical Engineering Program – a partnership between the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and UNC School of Medicine – under the direction of Drs. Devin Hubbard and Richard Goldberg. The professors work to find clinical mentors for the students. The VoluMetric team worked with Dr. Stephen Eckel, associate director of Pharmacy at UNC Hospitals and clinical associate professor at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Eckel had recently completed a study related to chemotherapy dose accuracy and found that a significant number of doses prepared at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center fell outside the recommended dose range.

“We saw the data and thought we needed to think through what solutions it would take to ensure that we are giving the best care to chemotherapy patients,” Eckel said. “So, I got connected to the senior design course and this team and we began working on a solution.”

In many cases, drugs are measured according to the graduated marks printed on a syringe, which can lead to minor discrepancies. When dealing with powerful drugs, such as those used for chemotherapy, the impact of small discrepancies is amplified.

The team’s interest in this problem stemmed from a combination of personal factors and intellectual challenge.

“Cancer has affected all of us, so we were drawn to the opportunity to do something significant in that field,” Martinez-Blat said.

“We also saw this as a chance to really be creative, to come up with our own design rather than have the steps prescribed to us,” DuBois added. “We knew this was a chance to create.”

And for the past year and a half, that’s what they’ve been doing.

“To start, we spent a whole semester reviewing Dr. Eckel’s research, trying to break it down without any biases,” said Roberts. “We wanted to figure out exactly what we needed to do to solve this problem. Then we got into brainstorming and prototyping and collaborated to put the device together.”

VoluMetric works like this.

A highly precise sensor is attached to a standard syringe, ensuring that medical professionals have an exact degree of precision when measuring drug dosage for patients.

“It measures the distance traveled by the plunger and converts that to a volume measurement based on the size of the syringe,” Roberts explained.

Hubbard, who advised the team on the design of the device, said that simplicity is the key to its potential.

“It is incredibly inexpensive to make and, frankly, performs better than the next best product,” Hubbard said.

It is also non-disposable, durable and battery-operated.

Eckel gave feedback with a particular focus on how the device would be used in a working pharmacy.

“When you are working in a busy oncology pharmacy, you can’t add extra steps that will slow down the process,” Eckel said. “I tried to approach this with a critical eye on what would be realistic for everyday usage.”

Once the prototype was completed, the team applied to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Several months passed before they received a response. Then, all of a sudden, they heard they were finalists and were given a long to-do list to prepare for the competition.

The team complied and submitted video footage and gathered materials for their booth at the expo portion of the competition, where they had the opportunity to take questions from attendees.

“It was a great experience to get serious questions about our work,” DuBois said. “We were able to answer them successfully, which confirmed what we already knew about the potential value of this product.”

After taking questions, the team formally presented VoluMetric to the competition’s judges, almost all of which were National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees. To make their pitch, they explained the device and its utility and answered the judges’ questions. While they were not ultimately selected as the competition’s winner, they took to heart the feedback they received.

“Across the board, they advised us to expand our thinking about the applications of the device and to begin getting more feedback from potential users,” Martinez-Blat said.

In the month since returning from the competition, the team and Eckel have been working together to do just that, meeting locally with clinical technicians to both get their feedback and generate interest.

Three of the four team members are currently working in labs, two at UNC in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Biology, and another in Research Triangle Park. They laugh when asked if they have ever pulled out the VoluMetric to show it off to their colleagues.

“I think we’ve all done that once or twice,” Roberts said.

The team has funding in the form of a grant from NC TraCS, is currently seeking increased investment, and has an eye on filing a full-utility patent in the near term. They are also getting used to the higher stakes that come from working to move forward outside of a classroom setting.

“It’s a different atmosphere for us,” Roberts said. “But, our mission hasn’t changed. We know the problem that we are solving needs to be addressed. Once people see that, they are usually very supportive and interested in listening to our idea.”

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