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Ithemba wins $10,000 “Cure It!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

April 23, 2019

Members of Ithemba, an all-female team of biomedical engineering students from Johns Hopkins University, are applying their shared passion for women’s health to bring hope to women with breast cancer. The name Ithemba, in fact, translates to “hope” in Zulu. By traveling to places such as South Africa, Peru, and Guyana, team members learned first-hand about the lack of safe, early, and accurate methods to diagnose breast cancer in rural areas of these countries. To address this problem, the team created a reusable, low-cost, contamination-free breast biopsy device to expand breast cancer diagnostic capabilities in low resource settings. This inventive work has earned Ithemba the 2019 $10,000 “Cure it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

Following a nationwide search for the most inventive college students, the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize recognizes young inventors who have dedicated themselves to solving global problems. Teams were selected based on a variety of factors including the overall inventiveness of their work, the invention’s potential for commercialization or adoption, and youth mentorship experience.

The current gold standard for breast cancer diagnosis is the retrieval of tumor tissue from the breast via a core-needle biopsy (CNB), performed using a driver device. In low and middle-income countries, the cost of disposable driver devices is prohibitive, so clinicians often rely on reusable models. While there are existing reusable driver devices on the market, these are expensive to clean and susceptible to contamination.

Ithemba invented a reusable CNB driver device with a low contamination risk, allowing for cost-effective breast biopsies. The novel component of the team’s driver device is a chamber that collects contaminants and separates the needle attachment from the spring mechanism that fires the disposable needle. Because of this, the driver can be easily sterilized with a bleach wipe and reused, offering hospitals and clinics a significant cost savings over the expected twenty-year lifespan of the device.

Additionally, Ithemba’s invention is quieter and more ergonomic than current drivers, which have gun-like shapes and loud firing noises that often deter patients from having the procedure. The device is also more environmentally sustainable than existing disposable models, as only the biopsy needles are thrown away after each procedure.

Team members are currently working to ensure that their device meets FDA guidelines for biopsy devices, and are completing bench testing for contamination, functionality, and usability. Next, Ithemba will partner with the Hlokomela Clinic in South Africa to perform clinical trials. After filing a patent in May of 2018, the students incorporated as a Limited Liability Company to continue their work.

Team members of Ithemba include Laura Hinson ’21, Madeline Lee ’21, Valerie Zawicki ’20, and Sophia Triantis ’21.

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