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Bioengineered Medical Devices in Finals for $100K UC San Diego Entrepreneur Challenge

San Diego, CA, May 31, 2011 -- From hospital-borne infections that cause nearly 20,000 deaths each year to a debilitating dry eye disease that can lead to blindness, engineering students at the University of California, San Diego are developing medical devices that promise to lower costs, improve patient care and save lives. So it’s not surprising that two student teams from the UC San Diego, Jacobs School of Engineering are in the running for $100K prize as finalists in the 5th Annual UC San Diego Entrepreneur Challenge on June 1.

The teams are among five finalists who will pitch their technology solutions to a panel of science, technology and business leaders. The presentation marks the conclusion of a multistage, yearlong competition based on three principles to “educate, connect and fund aspiring student entrepreneurs,” said Jason Steiner, the chief executive officer of the Entrepreneur Challenge. Steiner is also a PhD candidate in materials science at UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.

The teams are charged with building a business plan around a technological innovation. Along the way, they are offered educational workshops on all aspects of entrepreneurship and regular networking and mentoring opportunities with industry experts, including experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and lawyers. 

“It’s extremely hard to get these people’s feedback on your own,” said Inanc Ortac, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering from the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering. “It was very helpful as we shaped our business plan.”

The final pitch competition will be held at The Neurosciences Institute Auditorium from 6-8:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public. RSVP online at http://challenge.ucsd.edu.

Stopping MRSA in its Tracks

Ortac’s team DevaCell has developed a low-cost, handheld device that can detect viruses and bacteria including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the hospital-associated infection more commonly known as MRSA. There are 94,360 invasive MRSA infections – 86 percent of which are hospital-associated -- and 18,640 MRSA-related deaths in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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DevaCell's handheld device enables in-room patient screening for viral and bacterial infections.

Currently, most hospitals screen patients they suspect of having a MRSA infection with a bacterial culture that can take several days during which time the patient may have to be quarantined. By comparison, DevaCell’s ScanStream offers a molecular diagnostic test that can be performed in the patient’s room in just 15 minutes. The ease of use and low cost – between $10 and $20 per test – would enable hospitals to implement a universal surveillance program by screening all patients for MRSA infection. Hospital workers would simply have to collect a small blood sample from the patient and place it on a disposal plastic chip that is inserted into the device.

The technology behind ScanStream is Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, a diagnostic tool used in molecular biology that can identify organisms from DNA by making billions of copies of a particular target region on DNA. PCR is currently available only in centralized laboratory settings, which makes it impractical and expensive for clinical use. For example, Ortac said the current benchtop PCR tools cost about $30,000 per unit and another $50 to $100 per diagnostic test (not including the cost of specialized lab technician training). DevaCell estimates its device will cost a tenth of existing benchtop tools.

Ortac estimates it would cost $300 million annually for all the hospitals in the United States to test all patients for MRSA using the ScanStream system, but it would save them more than $2 billion in costs associated with treating MRSA infections, and save lives. The technology could be applied to many other diagnostic areas including HIV, influenza, and eventually, the early detection of cancer.

In addition to Ortac, the DevaCell team includes Ahmet Erten and Corbin Clawson, who earned their doctorates in electrical engineering and bioengineering, respectively, from Jacobs School of Engineering.  The company will be based in San Diego.

 “As a major center for the molecular diagnostic testing industry, San Diego is the right place for this kind of company,” said Ortac.

Stopping Blindness with Tears

Co-founded by Garrett Smith, a PhD candidate in bioengineering at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, Oculeve has already won $2,500 in cash and $5,000 worth of legal services in some of the earlier phases of the Entrepreneur Challenge.  Oculeve’s innovation is a new medical device that actually stimulates production of natural tears.

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The Oculeve team won the Winter quarter  "Executive Summary" competition as part of the Entrepreneur Challenge. Oculeve team members pictured (L-R): Garrett Smith, Brandon Felkins, Michael Ackerman, and Victor McCra

The National Eye Institute estimates that 5 million Americans suffer from the chronic, but manageable dry eye disease, and tens of millions suffer from even less severe symptoms. Oculeve’s research found that 1.2 million people suffer from such a severe form of the disease that they are in constant pain and suffer vision loss.

“We’ve seen them in the clinic and they’re so bad that they can’t read books,” said Smith. “They’re really sensitive to sunlight. They can’t enjoy a beautiful day. They have to stay inside.”

As a result, Smith said some of these patients resort to extreme treatments, including wearing humidifying goggles or having their eyelids stitched shut, opting for blindness to relieve their painful symptoms. Oculeve team members spent two months shadowing ophthalmologists and optometrists, and conducting interviews with doctors and patients. Their field research led them to conclude that severe dry eye disease is the most significant unmet need in ophthalmology.

“There is really no good treatment for this condition,” said Smith, who credited the Entrepreneur Challenge experience, the resources provided by the von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology Advancement at UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering, and his faculty advisors, for his team’s success thus far.

“I’ve really received a lot of great bioengineering and materials science training from my advisors at UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering that support this project,” Smith said. His advisors are Sungho Jin, professor of mechanical/aerospace engineering and nanoengineering, and bioengineering professor Lars Bjursten.

Oculeve expects to begin human trials of its technology soon. In addition to Smith, team members are: Michael Ackerman, who earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from Case Western Reserve University; Dr. Victor McCray, a board certified surgeon and expert in clinical trial design; Brandon Felkins; and Dr. Vandana Jain, a dry eye specialist. Smith, Ackerman, McCray and Felkins are all Biodesign Fellows at Stanford University.

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