Bioengineering project

Engineering Innovation

Bioengineering students identify a need, design a prototype, build it and begin testing — all in a single year.

Bioengineering project

The powder-blue backpack looks like the kind of bag a kindergartener might use to carry lunch to school, but unzipping a flap reveals something more.

A medication pump is tucked inside.

The RX Bag was designed so that children with cancer would be able to stay mobile instead of remaining tethered to an IV pole while undergoing chemotherapy. They would be able to fidget, roam the halls with their parents or visit the playroom.

It’s the creation of a team of four seniors majoring in bioengineering, who dubbed their team Tyke Medical, and is just one example of the many biomedical devices that students and faculty are creating at Clemson University.

Tyke Medical unveiled its creation to the public for the first time at the Clemson Bioengineering Design Symposium, held each year in Greenville, South Carolina.

In few places is the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship more evident. Forty-one teams gathered in May for the most recent installment. They came with new devices to help treat cancer, remove tonsils and put broken bones back together, just to name a few examples. Several students said they saw opportunities to market their devices not only in the United States but globally.

The symposium gave all the students a chance to show their work to faculty, alumni and potential collaborators. But at the center of the event were 22 teams of seniors. Each team worked with clinicians to identify a need, design a prototype, build it and begin testing, all in a single academic year. All seniors who major in bioengineering participate.

Martine LaBerge, chair of the Department of Bioengineering, said the real-world experience is the “capstone” on their undergraduate education. “It’s clinically driven to assure that patient and health care needs are met,” LaBerge said. “The bioengineering curriculum at Clemson is focused on educating students to meet the current and future needs of health care practitioners so they can better serve patients.”

Ideas for the devices came from medical care practitioners across South Carolina, including some from Prisma Health, Medical University of South Carolina and Roper St. Francis Healthcare. Physicians suggest ideas in some cases. In others, students themselves recognize the needs while working in hospitals as part of programs such as CU DeFINE, a six-week clinical and technology transfer immersion experience.

Bioengineering Design Expo

In addition to the RX Bag, other devices developed by the senior bioengineering students include:

Intrafix: A device to treat rib fractures that could help patients heal faster with more mobility during recovery.

Need: Doctors often face a hard choice when deciding how to treat rib fractures. They can perform major surgery, making a large incision to screw a plate onto the rib. Or patients can be sent home to heal on their own, which can mean weeks of bedrest and pain medicine. IntraFix aims to treat patients who would be sent home without surgery by helping them heal faster and giving them more mobility in the process.

How it works: The surgeon would make a small incision in the patient, drill a hole 30 millimeters from the fracture, clean out the inside of the bone and align the fracture. The IntraFix would be placed into the hole, across the fracture, and expand inside the rib. Barbed tips would help hold the device in place. The surgeon would then drill another hole to insert a screw into a plate that would also help hold the IntraFix in place. A handle that would be included could be attached to a suture loop, allowing the surgeon to pull until satisfied with device engagement.

HIFree: A low-cost breast pump with a filter designed to deactivate HIV.

Need: Deciding between HIV and malnutrition is a choice no mother should have to make, but it’s a stark reality in many parts of the world, including Tanzania, where students got the idea for the device. About 40 percent of babies with HIV get it through breast feeding, the team says. And it’s a stigmatized disease. One of the big challenges the team faces is making the HIV filter as inconspicuous as possible to avoid identifying its users as HIV-positive.

How it works: The team’s name, Kifua Pampu, means breast pump in Swahili, which is exactly what the team created. The pump features a filter made out of a special material designed to deactivate HIV. The filter can also kill some of the bacteria in milk that causes it to spoil. HIFree could allow a mother to pump milk and store it for longer than is currently possible — a crucial issue in areas where refrigeration may be limited. Also, the pump can be used manually or electrically, making it ideal for rural areas where power availability can be limited.

Biopsy PolyGuide: A device to be used in breast cancer biopsies to mark the spot of the mass.

Need: The Biopsy PolyGuide would eliminate one of the procedures currently involved in all lumpectomy surgeries. Patients arrive at the hospital hours before their surgeries so that a guide wire can be inserted into the breast, a procedure called localization. It can be painful, and patients are often left waiting hours for surgery with a wire sticking out of their breasts. Students said that 12.4 percent of American women will get breast cancer, and that 60 percent  of all breast cancer patients will opt for lumpectomy.

How it works: The Biopsy PolyGuide would go to work during the biopsy, which is performed to determine whether a mass is benign or cancerous. As part of the biopsy, a thin tube called a cannula is inserted into the breast to help extract a tissue sample. Once the sample has been taken, the syringe-like Biopsy PolyGuide would be inserted into the mass through the cannula. The doctor would use the device’s plunger to push a polymer insert into the mass. The Biopsy PolyGuide would be removed from the breast, leaving behind the polymer insert. The doctor would then cut the polymer insert at the surface of the skin. If the mass turns out to be cancerous, the surgeon who performs the lumpectomy could use the polymer insert as a guide to find the mass. The polymer insert would not need to be removed, whether the mass is cancerous or not, because it is bio-absorbable and would degrade until fully dissipated.

The Apollo: A device to assist surgeons in treating femoral fractures.

Need: The number of femoral fractures worldwide is expected to grow to 8.2 million in 2050 (in 2010, the number was 1.7 million); this increase is driven in part by aging populations, students said. While current methods of cable application take 5 to 15 minutes per pass, the Apollo can help a surgeon complete a single pass in 3 to 5 minutes. OrthoJAMZ, the students’ team name, estimates that their design could save 40 hours of surgical time per year, significantly reducing the risk of blood loss and infection.

How it works: The surgeon would use the Apollo to feed a cable around the bone. The cable would then be tightened to bring the fractured bone back together so that a metal plate, screw or other medical device could be affixed. Devices currently in use travel only part way around the fractured bone. Surgeons then have to use their fingers to locate the device in the patient’s flesh to secure the cable. A big part of what makes the Apollo unique is that a U-shaped “passer” goes through the flesh, and the tip emerges on the other side of the bone. The surgeon would then press a lever-like “pusher” to extend a proboscis from the passer. The tapered end of the cable would be fed into the proboscis and through the passer to enclose the fracture. Then the proboscis would be retracted and the passer would be removed, leaving the cable in place.

The AdjustaBite: An adjustable tool for holding open the mouth and depressing the tongue during tonsillectomies.

Need: About 600,000 tonsillectomies are performed in the United States each year, students said. The tonsillectomy treatment market is valued at $3 million per year and is expected to grow. The AdjustaBite would result in quicker procedures, safer experiences for patients and reduced costs for hospitals.

How it works: The AdjustaBite would be the first fully adjustable tool for holding open the mouth and depressing the tongue during tonsillectomies. The device would not only allow surgeons to better see the tonsils but would also help prevent damage to soft tissue, which could result in less postoperative pain for the patient. The device is made of stainless steel and has silicon pads to protect the molars. Pressing a button would allow for vertical adjustment, while a pin and series of notches would allow for horizontal adjustment. The AdjustaBite is capable of making the tonsils at least 90 percent visible.


Colonize the Final Frontier?

Researchers examine the ethical implications of space exploration


Space might be the final frontier, but as China announces plans to build a moon base, NASA begins working on manned missions to Mars and spaceships continue to probe deep space, one group of scholars is asking: Are human colonies in space ethical?

“As long as space colonization was merely the dream of science fiction fans, serious questions about how and if we should do it were moot. However, now that colonies have become a near-term possibility, the question of whether and how we ought to build them becomes pressing,” said Kelly Smith, a philosopher and biologist at Clemson University and founding president of the Society for Social and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology (SSoCIA). Smith and Keith Abney, a philosopher at Cal Poly, co-edited a special issue of the academic journal Futures devoted to exploring these issues.

Topics like the immediate and irrevocable impact humans will make in space were missing from the discussion until recently. “Now, astrobiologists are looking for fossil evidence of past life on Mars, and the possibility that Mars might host microbial life today is growing stronger,” says Linda Billings, a consultant to NASA’s Astrobiology Program and the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. “Once humans land on Mars, the environment will be contaminated for further scientific exploration.”

In Futures, Smith, Billings and 14 other scholars address space colonization from their variety of disciplines: philosophy, communications, ecology, animal rights, anthropology and religion. The essays are a collective call to “incorporate the ethical dimensions more explicitly in our decision-making,” Smith said.

Feeding the Future

Multidisciplinary effort tackles global food insecurity

The new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement (ILCI) will support multidisciplinary expertise at the cutting-edge of agricultural development focused on tackling the global challenges of climate change, poverty and food security. The lab features experts in plant breeding, machine learning, quantitative genetics, gender inclusion and other disciplines.

Stephen Kresovich, the Robert and Lois Coker Trustees Endowed Chair of Genetics in Clemson’s plant and environmental sciences department, has been named director of the laboratory, and Dil Thavarajah, Clemson associate professor of pulse crop quality and nutrition, will co-lead the lab’s trait analysis team.

The ILCI is a collaboration between Kansas State University, Cornell University and Clemson and will be based in Cornell’s International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The project will support and empower national breeding programs in East and West Africa, South Asia, and Latin America and serve as a model for introducing advanced agricultural technologies at scale to countries around the world. The project is funded by a five-year, $25 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative.

“We are in a critical point in history where booming population growth, climate change and other environmental factors are exposing threats of global food insecurity at an unprecedented scale,” Kresovich said. “Improved varieties of key food crops are one of the surest avenues to reducing risks from economic, environmental and climatic shocks for millions of people in vulnerable and resource-poor populations.”

Eight New Clemson Technologies Ready for Market

The Clemson University Research Foundation works to move the results of Clemson research from the lab to the marketplace where they can provide real-world benefit. Here is a sample of new Clemson technologies available to commercialize.

1 | Ying Mei (bioengineering) has developed a method to help treat patients who have suffered from heart attacks or strokes. By taking a small tissue sample from the patient, doctors can create a miniature 3D tissue “organoid” that can help assess which prescription drugs will be most beneficial.

2 | Ken Marcus (chemistry) has created a novel shaped fiber which can be used in medical diagnostics and disease detection. These “C-CP” fibers trap cellular exosomes, which are produced by a patient’s body in response to certain medical conditions and infections. These exosomes provide doctors an early method of detecting chronic disease.

3 | Worldwide, millions of people are affected by contaminated drinking water. Kevin Finneran (environmental engineering and earth sciences) has developed a new bioremediation technology that can eliminate the common pollutant known as hexavalent-chromium. This new method uses animal byproducts as electron donors, which enable naturally occurring bacteria to break down and eliminate the pollutants. This approach has been shown to perform better and cost less than the current bioremediation materials based on soybean oil.

4 | Mark Thies (chemical and biomolecular engineering) has developed an approach to purify and control the molecular weight of lignin for use as carbon fiber and other plastic materials. Lignin is a wood-derived “biopolymer,” which is a byproduct of the paper-making process. Carbon fiber and plastics made from lignin provide a renewable way to create common materials and products without reliance on limited petroleum resources.

5 | Optical fibers made of glass are critical components of advanced laser and sensor systems. As the power and sensitivity of these systems increase, temperature variation in the fiber can degrade their performance. John Ballato (materials science and engineering) and his team at Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies have created an optical fiber that is stable at a wide range of temperatures. These fibers enable substantially higher performance and more advanced photonic applications

6 | Seeding biological cells within tissue scaffolds is a key technology for regenerative medicine therapies. Dan Simionescu (bioengineering) and his team have developed a scalable method of seeding cells into tissue using a micro-injection roller device. This hand-held roller delivers a controlled volume of cells directly onto the tissue and can accommodate a wide variety of tissue types.

7 | In recent years, approximately 2 million surgical procedures were performed in the United States to treat osteoarthritis and other cartilage defects. Typical treatment for osteoarthritis involves removing damaged cartilage and replacing it with healthy cartilage from a different location in a patient’s body. Unfortunately, this method relies on healthy tissue availability and can cause further complications to a patient’s recovery. To combat this, Jeremy Mercuri (bioengineering) has developed a multilayered “osteochondral” implant that eliminates the need for using a patient’s existing cartilage.

8 | Severe bone fractures may require external pins and wires to provide stabilization during healing. However, these “external fixation” techniques often result in a high amount of complications due to infection. Alexey Vertegel (bioengineering) and Igor Luzinov (materials science and engineering) have engineered a mechanically stable antibiotic coating that can reduce the amount of infections associated with this type of treatment. This PGMA polymer coating enables sustained release for a broad range of medications, including antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, growth factors and others.

For a full list of Clemson innovations available, go to

Pressures and Promise

The Savannah River Basin Photographic Survey by associate professor of art Anderson Wrangle was featured in the Oxford American. In Wrangle’s words, the survey “is a contemporary, pictorial, photographic survey of the rivers, lakes, dams, landscape and significant sites that form the Savannah River Basin.

“I was drawn to explore the basin because I live within it, and my family, and ancestral history stretches along the length of the river, from the headwaters of the Chattooga River to Tybee Island. … This project portrays the connectedness of seemingly disparate and remote sites. It touches on beauty, history and the future by making a statement about the present state, and use of the lands and waters.

“… Pressures and threats to our environment should be considered even as we appreciate the beauty and promise of the Earth. Art can become an important tool, with ecology and science, in speaking of concerns, concepts and understanding of the water and land. The larger context of the increasing water issues we face are magnified by the population, and industrial growth in the Southeast and worldwide, as a feature of global warming.”

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Early-CAREER Faculty Recognized

In addition to Mark Blenner, six Clemson researchers are bringing home early CAREER awards, some of the nation’s top awards for junior faculty members:

1| Eric Davis, chemical and biomolecular engineering (National Science Foundation). Davis and his team are researching new materials aimed at reducing the cost of large-scale energy storage technologies.

2| Ben Jaye, mathematical and statistical sciences (National Science Foundation). Jaye is working to understand the structure of high-dimensional sets through the analysis of geometric wavelets. He also is seeking to increase undergraduate student participation in mathematical research.

3| Hongxin Hu, computer science (National Science Foundation). Hu and his team are developing new security functions to protect computer networks from attacks, including a virtual intrusion detection system and a virtual firewall system.

4|Yunyi Ja, automotive engineering (National Science Foundation). Jia and his team are studying what it will take to make people more comfortable with robots, like autonomous vehicles and collaborative robots involved in advanced manufacturing.

5| Judson Ryckman, electrical and computer engineering (U.S. Air Force). Ryckman’s team is working to create smaller and more efficient photonic devices. The research could lead to improvements, including faster internet downloads and self-driving cars better equipped to navigate city streets.

6| Ezra Cates, environmental engineering (Environmental Protection Agency). Cates and his team are studying how to break down and remove toxic chemicals from water. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are man-made chemicals that have contaminated drinking water supplies and groundwater at several sites around the country.


COMSET lathe

Optical Innovation

COMSET lathe

New lathe enhances capabilities in optical fiber production

Already the only academic facility in the U.S. with industrial-scale capabilities to fabricate optical fiber, the Clemson University Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET) is receiving its second SG Controls MCVD lathe through an in-kind gift from Molex, further positioning COMSET as one of the premier fiber-optics facilities in the world.

“It was Molex’s desire to place this MCVD lathe in a location which would benefit education and foster innovation in the optical sciences field,” stated Jim Clarkin, general manager at Molex’s Polymicro fiber optic business unit. “After considering several options, COMSET was the obvious choice. They have the most comprehensive academic program in the optical fiber field and are the most qualified to utilize the equipment in a manner which will yield the greatest benefit to the technology and society overall.”

Headquartered in Clemson’s Advanced Materials Research Lab, COMSET’s capabilities include manufacturing advanced optical fiber through the SG Control MCVD lathe, a state-of-the-art fiber draw tower, and considerable facilities and expertise to develop high-energy lasers and laser technology. These abilities have provided opportunities to work closely with the defense and private and public sectors.