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UNC alumni invent handheld drug delivery device

The first things visitors see in 1789 Venture Lab on Franklin Street are a ping pong table, arcade games, and an assortment of comfy chairs.

But when Chase DuBois, Jorge Martinez-Blat, John Pamplin and Christopher Roberts come there, there’s no time for fun and games — with the exception of a quick round of ping pong. 

The four UNC graduates meet to discuss progress on their invention, VoluMetric, a handheld drug delivery device that increases the accuracy of measuring chemotherapy drugs. A seven-inch by three-inch sensor attached to a syringe measures the distance the plunger is pulled back and the volume of fluid taken.

Roberts said technicians typically measure the amount of chemotherapy drugs based on the tick marks on the syringe, but the accuracy of that process can vary.

“There is a lot of variation between the prescribed doses versus the doses actually going out," he said.

The team started their inventing process during a two-semester biomedical engineering senior design class beginning fall 2013. Stephen Eckel, a professor in the Eshelman School of Pharmacy, asked them to find a way to make the chemotherapy program at UNC Hospitals more accurate.

“When you’re dealing with chemotherapy drugs, it’s just barely not killing you and killing all the cancer cells,” Pamplin said. “So a very small amount in the difference in the accuracy can be quite literally be the difference between life and death.” 

Designing a prototype proved to be a challenge. The team wanted to make the device both easy to use and affordable. DuBois said VoluMetric has the potential to help hospitals with less money than UNC.

“UNC has the ability to actually buy some of the other systems that increase accuracy,” he said. “But there are a lot of hospitals out there that just can’t afford these multi-million dollar systems, but could afford our system and drastically improve their cancer treatment.” 

The team created the prototype for about $100, less than one percent of the cost of the high accuracy equipment UNC uses today, DuBois said. 

Pamplin said VoluMetric is a work in progress, and working on the prototype is his second full-time job. The team plans to send VoluMetric for FDA approval soon, but Pamplin said the process could take at least a year and a half. 

“We’re in the process of exploring our options right now,” he said. “We’re trying to get our name out there.” 

The team members are also finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition, a nationwide competition that encourages innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity for graduate and undergraduate student inventors. 

The team will travel to Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va. on Nov. 17 to present their invention to members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

“I’m super proud of them,” said Devin Hubbard, the team’s adviser and former senior design instructor. “I think we have a talented set of students here at UNC, and I think it’s good that we’re finally able to demonstrate that at a national competition.”

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