Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering offers many unique opportunities, including the Design Team program in which undergraduate students work to design a device to solve an existing medical issue. Here, Pascal discusses the work done by his Design Team to improve access to treatment for breast cancer in low-income countries.

Affordable Breast Cancer Treatment Breakthrough

JHU BME Design Team 4, Team Kubanda

That Eureka Moment…

Clarisse: “By the way, I forgot to tell you all, the histology results came back from the lab.  The treated tumor has been completely necrosed.  The images show a huge difference from the original tumor.”

Bailey: “When did you find out about this?”

Clarisse: “Last Friday, when we were doing animal testing.”

Bailey: “You found out that we cured cancer and waited an entire weekend to tell us?”

Clarisse: “I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Bailey: “Yes it’s a big deal!  We didn’t know whether our device would actually work.  This validates everything we have been doing for the past two years!”

Clarisse: “Of course it would work, our science said so.”

In just its second year participating in the Design Team Program hosted by Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering, Kubanda Cyrotherapy, a team of nine undergraduates, has made a significant breakthrough in developing a low-cost, easily accessible breast cancer treatment for use in low-resource rural areas of developing countries.  They hope to treat breast cancer using cryotherapy, a cutting-edge procedure used to kill cancer tumors by freezing them.

Cryotherapy was approved by the FDA for use in human patients in 2015.  Current treatments in the United States use argon or nitrogen gas to freeze and destroy cancerous tissue.  By designing a carbon dioxide (CO2) based cryotherapy system, Team Kubanda seeks to match the same standard of care as the other cryogens but at a fraction of the price since CO2 tanks are cheaper and more readily available.  One of the biggest early challenges for the team was controlling the temperature of the probe tip with CO2 circulating through the probe as opposed to the lower temperature argon and nitrogen solutions.  After tackling that by optimizing the probe dimensions, animal tests were conducted.

The team has recently begun animal testing to treat tumors in rats, and has already seen very promising results as Clarisse describes in the dialogue above.  By freezing tumors and leaving them in vivo for a few days, it has been found that the tumors undergo complete necrosis.  The hope is that by leaving the frozen cancerous tissue inside the animal, an immunology response will ensue that will “recognize” and necrose the tumor, with the surrounding healthy tissue remaining unharmed.  More trials are being conducted to confirm a repeatable result.  The team’s next steps are to advance the study by testing their device on pigs whose heat load induced by fatty tissue is more similar to that of a human breast.  This will help them gauge the efficiency of their device in the intended application.

Bailey Surtees, the team leader, describes her inspiration for making medical devices accessible to patients globally, including developed countries.  With breast cancer so prevalent around the world, she considers this cryotherapy project “a perfect fit” for her career interests that she has had for many years.  She reflects that, “Design team was always the epitome of Hopkins BME and one of the large draws for me to attend Johns Hopkins in the first place. For these reasons, working with Monica Rex [the previous team leader] and Team Kubanda was a dream come true.”  From the onset of the project, Bailey and many of the other team members saw the potential for the project and wanted to advance the work beyond the laboratory and into a viable medical treatment.

Diverse funding sources have fueled the rapid development of the device prototypes and animal studies.  These include the CBID (Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design) program as well as a $100,000 grant by Under Armour, Inc., headquartered in Baltimore, MD.  Even though the team will be completing the Design Team coursework stage this May, the project will progress beyond.  Many of the team members plan to continue development and testing over the upcoming summer and through the next academic year as Kubanda Cryotherapy seeks to transition from a design team course into a full-fledged start-up company.

The team hopes that within a year they will have completed all animal studies including characterizing survivability rates for cancer treatment. This would shift their focus from achieving a minimum viable product to entering the market for veterinarian use with pets.  Within 5 years the goal is to implement their device in rural clinics across South Africa, treating women with breast cancer for whom the cost and travel commitments to larger cities can be prohibitive.

Typical of other biomedical devices, Team Kubanda’s CO2 cryotherapy system is the result of a multidisciplinary effort engaging the design, simulation, and testing from a diverse group of skilled engineers and medical doctors.  The team is excited about their progress and what the future holds, having witnessed their concepts materialize as originally planned and designed.  They are confident in the long-term utility of this device as a low cost means to treat breast cancer because so far everything has worked as the “science said so.”

For more information on the team and to follow their progress, check out the team website:

Or their official Facebook page:

Members of Kubanda Cryotherapy: Bailey Surtees, Sean Young, Serena Thomas, Yixin Clarisse Hu, Tara Blair, Pascal Acree, Grace Kuroki, Shivam Rastogi, Evelyn McChesney

Faculty Advisors: Dr. Susan Harvey, Dr. Nicolas Durr

Posted by Pascal Acree

Pascal Acree is a freshman studying Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. As a Biotechnology writer for HMR, Pascal wishes to capture the rapid innovation in the field and suggest its implications for the future of healthcare through his passion for research. Outside of HMR, Pascal is the Programming Chair of the Johns Hopkins chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society. He is also the first author of three peer-review scientific journal articles, two of which deal with radon-related research topics. Recently, he has experience on a BME Design Team working to design a carbon-dioxide based cryoprobe to treat breast cancer in low resource areas, and is ultimately interested in developing biomedical solutions to combat cancer through prevention and treatment.

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