It may not be an everyday occurrence, but when a surgical sponge gets left in a patient’s body, it can cause pain, infection, additional surgery—and great expense. The problem costs the U.S. healthcare system about $1.4 billion a year in lawsuits and surgeries to remove the sponges, said Devon Anderson ’09.
Anderson, Jonathan Guerrette ’09, and Nathan Niparko, a classmate from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, developed a solution that won second prize in the Collegiate Inventors Competition in November.
In recent years hospitals have used inventory devices to keep track of sponges. But that doesn’t prevent the need for additional surgery. So the Colby-Dartmouth trio, in a one-year capstone course at Thayer, created a sponge that breaks down in the human body, causing no harm to the patient. “We decided that we needed to alter the sponge as opposed to altering our counting methods,” said Anderson, who is now working full time on the project as he plans to begin medical school.
Anderson is careful not to give away any secrets. But he can say that the sponge is composed of cellulose, typical for sponges, and alginate, a similar natural polymer. But these particular polymers aren’t inherently biodegradable. “We chemically modified the polymers, but that’s only after we put them through a fabrication process that creates nanofibers,” he said. “It’s a pretty new field that a lot of people around the country right now are working aggressively on for different biomedical applications, mostly for drug delivery.”
“The applications are pretty wide,” for their sponge, he said, including “integrating drugs into the sponge itself so that as it’s degrading the drugs are released.” For now, the 23-year-old is focused on the original goal. Obtaining a patent will take 15 to 24 months. Then the team expects to decide to manufacture the sponges or sell the rights.
Either way, besides potentially solving a dangerous and expensive medical problem, there may be substantial money for the inventors.
“Really big money, I think,” Anderson said.