MEng Capstone team wins 2nd place in Big Idea pitch competition

by Jessie Ying

From left to right: Gideon Ukpai, Alvina Kam, Matthew Powell-Palm

A group of Master of Engineering and PhD students recently placed 2nd in the “Hardware for Good” category of the Big Idea competition at UC Berkeley. Their project utilizes cryotechnology for 3D bioprinting and isochoric preservation to increase access to tissues and organs for millions and quadrupling current preservation times. They were chosen from over 300 teams to be one of the seven to pitch for the Grand Prize and they won the 2nd place across categories. In addition, they were also picked by popular vote across categories and won the Big Vote competition. The team is made up of Alvina Kam (MEng ’19 MSE), Matthew Powell-Palm (PhD ME), Gideon Ukpai (PhD ME) and advised by Dr. Boris Rubinsky (ME).

We had a chance to talk to the team and learn more about their project.

How did this project start?

Our advisor, Dr. Boris Rubinsky, is one of the great pioneers of low-temperature biology (“cryobiology”), and as a lifelong student of thermodynamics, he envisioned that there might be a purely thermodynamic, non-chemical method of preserving organs outside the body. The life-saving potential of efficient, on-demand organ preservation is difficult to calculate in its immensity, and we were thrilled when we arrived at Berkeley for our graduate degrees to be invited to work on something that’s both very scientifically compelling and has huge potential to save lives and advance medical science. We’re trying to tackle this problem from every angle — thermodynamics, biological aspects, product design — and are thrilled by our early results.

Image source: Alvina Kam

How did you come up with the solution of using isochoric preservation to address the current issue?

The concept of isochoric preservation is based on Dr. Boris Rubinsky’s early theoretical work on isochoric thermodynamics and the suppression of ice formation. Based on these thermodynamic principles we’ve developed several early prototypes, both chambers in which we actually store the organs and additional devices to accommodate stable, passively-cooled, constant-temperature transportation of the system.

What’s the issue with current organ delivery?

The lack of access to organ transplantation is a widespread healthcare issue. In the United States alone, 20 people die every day waiting for an organ transplant, and it’s estimated that only 10% of the global need for organ transplantation is being met. Despite this incredible need, however, currently five out of every eight donor organs go to waste, principally because we have no adequate method of preserving the organs outside the donor body long enough to find a recipient, transport the organs outside a very limited radius, match the immunological characteristics and so on, let alone perform the operation.

The most common current clinical preservation practice is to simply hold the organ on ice, which can yield only four to six hours of viability in hearts and lungs. Lower temperatures are needed to extend the preservation time, but the drawback is that ice forms within the organs at these temperatures and renders them useless. So our method provides a way of holding the organs at the subzero temperatures required for longer preservation whilst protecting it from ice formation.

What are some challenges you’ve faced during this project?

As we were putting the proposal together, we were challenged with translating abstract scientific concepts into clear and concise writing for all audience. Although we had a strong grasp on the technical concepts of the project, Big Ideas helped us hone in on further developing our product narrative and establishing a strong problem space.

How did you feel when you learned you won the Big Idea competition?

We were thrilled — we’ve spent many long hours in a windowless lab working on isochoric preservation, and to step out into the sun (metaphorically and literally!) and receive this recognition for our work was very validating. Plus, the Big Ideas team is great! Shout out to Miriam, Dani, Francis, and Captain Denny! On Wednesday, May 1, 2019, we also won first place in the Big Vote competition.

What are your next steps?

We are currently developing a phase two titanium prototype of the isochoric chamber. In June, we are planning to attempt the first-ever interstate mammalian heart transplantation, where we’ll procure the organ in Minnesota and transport it to North Carolina for transplantation (approximately 18 hours of preservation). In parallel, we plan to continue preservation testing across a wide range of additional human and animal systems.

We recently received an NIH grant to continue developing the isochoric preservation system for the next three years and to expand our team across several other universities and hospitals. During this period we intend to ramp up animal trials and trials with available human tissues and cellular systems, with the intention of beginning the transition to clinical trials in the next three to five years and landing a product in the clinic that can be used to reliably preserve a human heart for 24+ hours in the next five to ten years.

Connect with the team on LinkedIn: Alvina Kam, Matthew Powell-Palm, Gideon Ukpai, and Dr. Boris Rubinsky

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Berkeley Master of Engineering

Berkeley Master of Engineering

Master of Engineering at UC Berkeley with a focus on leadership. Learn more about the program through our publication.