Mechanical Engineering seniors entered their mechanical leech capstone project in the national Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC) held annually in North Canton, Ohio and took an impressive third place. CIC is a competition that recognizes and rewards innovations, discoveries, and research by college and university students and their faculty advisors. Entries are judged on the originality and inventiveness of the new idea, process, or technology. Entries are also judged on their potential value to society (socially, environmentally, and economically), and on the scope of use.

University of Utah School of Medicine surgeon, Dr. Jay Agarwal, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, Division of Plastic Surgery and Huntsman Cancer Institute Investigator, proposed the idea of a reliable functioning mechanical leech device to Dr. Bruce Gale, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Center of Excellence for Biomedical Microfluids at the University of Utah.

mechanical leech on chickenGale felt it would make a nice undergraduate senior capstone project. The University of Utah Mechanical Leech mimics the functions of the biological leeches used in leech therapy. Leech therapy is the practice of introducing biological leeches to induce blood flow through the region.  The primary function of the leech is to prevent blood pooling and reduce pressure. This is accomplished naturally through the feeding process of leeches that creates a small incision, secretes an anticoagulant, and reduces the excess fluid.

The Mechanical Leech is currently about 1” (25mm) in diameter plus additional tubing, and will eventually offer numerous size variations to accommodate the doctors’ needs. The primary customers for the Mechanical Leech are intended to be doctors and surgeons. The completed device will provide a suitable replacement for the biological leech by reducing excess fluidic pressure and injecting an anti-coagulant into patients.

In addition to eliminating a patient’s adverse reaction to biological leeches, a Mechanical Leech will be able to provide more consistent, controllable performance over its parasitic counterpart, making it more desirable to doctors and surgeons to use during therapy. “Mechanical Leech was in my top five project choices, but I didn’t really know what the project would be like; the title is what caught me,” says Jessica Kuhlman, mechanical engineering B.S. ’13. “We were going to be solving a real world problem and that is the main reason I wanted to go into engineering.  After the team got together, we met with Dr. Agarwal, who was crucial to our coming up with the design.  Having a surgeon that has used leeches and be able to tell us how the device needs to function was very helpful.  He was also a great resource regarding our potential future customers and what would make the device better and, from the doctors’ view point, more user friendly.”

“After coming up with the conceptual design,” commented Jessica, “we were able to create 3D printed designs and test them to the specifications that we had created. As our design progressed and we created multiple iterations, it seemed as though our design could be a viable option for the medical community.   We had a lot of help along the way from our faculty advisor Professor Gale and senior design teacher, Dr. Shad Roundy, assistant professor in mechanical engineering. They were able to direct us on the path to success with our project.”

“As for myself,” say team leader Andy Thompson, mechanical engineering B.S. ’13, “what attracted me to this project was the opportunity to be part of the development of a medical device.  My background is in manufacturing and I have spent some of that time manufacturing medical devices, so it was very interesting to be part of a medical device from the beginning. One of the biggest problems we faced was actual testing of the device.  Testing on live tissue is not really an option so we had to figure out ways of verifying different aspects of the device in other ways.  Testing on “fleshy” type fruits to verify the diffusion and removal of the injected liquid solved this.  Another was to pump Heparinized bovine blood through the device for several days to verify that the areas of fluid flow would not become clogged. Dr. Gale worked with us in a great advisory capacity, he helped us when we were starting to move in the wrong direction, but left us to fight out the details and learn for ourselves.”

“The thing that is most rewarding about this project is the scope of the project,” noted Scott Ho, mechanical engineering B.S.’13 and current masters student. “We were able to go from a product and field research stage to exploring commercialization and really consider all aspects of the engineering process. It was a project that had a practical application in the medical field and our role in the project encompassed the entire device, not just a small section of a system.  At Design Day, typically the larger projects draw more attention because they are more tangible and ‘mechanical’,  but I think the immediate and practical application of our device was a big draw, especially for Boeing and other people coming from an industry background.”

On April 12, the Mechanical Leech team finished as the runner up at the Bench to Bedside competition at the Point in Huntsman Cancer Institute and received a $10,000 cash award. Ho noted that, “Our participation with the Bench to Bedside competition pushed us to take the device further than the basic design and verification that most engineering projects reach. We really had to explore end-product market scenarios and the viability and customer demand for the mechanical leech. For me, the positive attention we received at the Bench to Bedside competition and at Design Day was completely unexpected. At Bench to Bedside, we were the only mechanical engineers and the majority of the teams were composed of medical school or bioengineering students and others with more experience in the medical field.”

The Mechanical Leech undergraduate project was one of 23 senior design projects showcased during the Department of Mechanical Engineering Design Day held on April 16, 2013.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education.  By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.

ABC4 Mechanical Leech Feature -November 20, 2013

Salt Lake Tribune Article: “So long, suckers! U. students create a mechanical leech -November 22, 2013