Engineering student team wins national design competition for zinc patch

For the third straight year, a team from Washington University in St. Louis School of Engineering & Applied Science has won the Engineering World Health’s Design Competition for its device to improve health care in the developing world.

The ZnDermal team (from left): Andrew Chang, Nicole Ensz, Braden Perkins, Julie Knowles.

The ZnDermal team, made up of four Engineering students from the Engineers Without Borders chapter, won $3,000 in the prestigious competition, outdoing teams from Clemson and Cornell universities.

Washington University now has the most winning teams in the competition’s five-year history. The team now known as Sparo Labs won in 2012, and the Electroluminescence Biliblanket team won in 2013. All three teams were finalists in the School of Engineering & Applied Science’s Discovery Competition prior to winning the EWH Design Competition.

The team’s members are Andrew Chang, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering; Nicole Ensz and Braden Perkins, both senior dual-degree students majoring in biomedical engineering; and Julie Knowles, a junior majoring in computer science and mathematics.

The ZnDermal team has created a transdermal patch, similar to a nicotine patch, that transmits zinc that can be used with children with diarrheal diseases. Currently, these types of diseases are the second-leading cause of death for children under age 5 and the fifth leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Although zinc tablets can be used to treat these diseases, it is not always the most effective method, says Ensz, who received a degree in biochemistry from Augustana College in South Dakota.

“I spend a lot of time with children, and it can be hard to get them to eat much less swallow a pill,” she says. “Vomiting is a big symptom of diarrhea, and if someone is sick and bedridden, they may not willing to take a pill. Also, during diarrheal disease, the gastrointestinal system is nonfunctioning, so even if they do swallow the pill and it gets into their system, their GI system won’t absorb it.”

The current treatment with the oral tablets is 14 days, but with the ZnDermal patch it would be just seven to 10 days, says Perkins, who also has a degree in engineering physics from Augustana College in Illinois.

“By going through the skin, it’s easier to get into the bloodstream and help the body retain it,” he says.

While the team doesn’t yet have an exact cost of the patches due to manufacturing variabilities, they estimate it would cost about 37 cents each. They plan to target non-governmental organizations that treat patients with diarrheal diseases in developing countries with the patches, which would be lighter and smaller than tablets, allowing for less costly shipping.

The ZnDermal team will receive its award at the Biomedical Engineers Society (BMES) conference in San Antonio in October. In the meantime, its members are planning to enter other competitions to continue funding their work.

Engineering World Health is a global organization serving engineering students, health-care professionals, communities around the world and patients. It also supports training programs in Asia, Africa and Latin America that are building a workforce of in-country biomedical engineering technicians and instructors.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 91 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 750 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.