Nathan Cunningham, Engineer I, wins ISPE National Student Poster Competition and heads to Las Vegas to present his developments among some of the nation’s leading engineers
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States each year, the vast majority of them resulting from opioid use.
When minutes make a difference
First responders at the scene of an active overdose indeed increase the odds of survival for overdose victims; however, they often are challenged to identify, on their own, which drug was used—particularly when patients are unresponsive.
Of the three classes of drugs often noted in overdose settings — opioids, barbiturates, and benzodiazepines—each of the three requires a different treatment. And, when minutes can mean the difference between life and death, properly identifying the drug in question is of utmost importance.
Enter Nathan Cunningham, a senior at the University of New Hampshire.
As part of a year-long engineering design class, Nathan (Nate) and four of his UNH classmates were challenged to come up with a business plan and design for an innovative project. Knowing they wanted to work in microfluidics (the science of manipulating and controlling the flow of fluid), and specializing in bioengineering, Nathan, et al, devised a plan that would not only meet the class requirements but potentially save the lives of thousands.
Paper, wax, and persistence
After debating their options, Nathan and his classmates settled on a device that used patients’ blood to identify the drug(s) in question at the scene of an overdose.
How? Chromatography paper, a little wax, and a few chemicals
Simple, right? Not so much. But, I’ll do my best to explain it:
Step 1: Incredibly porous, chromatography paper allows for fluid to easily flow through it. Think...coffee filter. The team was able to source printable wax cartridges that they used to print wax barriers onto layers of chromatography paper. These barriers then solidify, creating individual pockets.
Step 2: Connected together, the pockets completed a circuit, and each was injected with a chemical that, ideally, would react to different drugs evident in a patient's bodily fluid—in this case, blood.
Step 3: The chemical reactions would change colors, creating a visual indicator of the drugs in question, allowing first responders—in a matter of MOMENTS
—to initiate the proper treatment. “Like a pool water test kit,” according to Nathan.
Las Vegas, here he comes
Flashback to 2017. As a third-year engineering student, Nathan attended a career fair at nearby Northeastern University where he was introduced to the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE).
“It was eye-opening and amazing to have people in front of me telling me everything I needed to know to move from being a student into the professional space. I learned information from that first ISPE session that I still carry with me today,” said Nathan.
When he arrived back to the UNH campus, Nathan continued his involvement with ISPE, eventually rising to Vice President of the student chapter.
As an involved student member, Nathan was well aware of the national ISPE student poster contest. After a year of development, his drug differentiation device seemed like a viable candidate for a poster submission, Nathan explained.
Well, he was right.
In fact, less than a year later, Nathan was named a winner in the ISPE National Student Poster Contest. And, this month, he will fly to Las Vegas where he will have the opportunity to present his project to some of the most accomplished pharmaceutical engineers in the country.
Not only that, but Nathan will participate in ISPE’s first-ever student Hackathon, where he’ll have the chance to work hand-in-hand with peers to engineer a solution to a medical challenge. The hook? It’s a two-day event.
The ISPE Student Poster Competition is an annual competition held by local ISPE Affiliates and Chapters. The poster presentation consists of a visual display of research findings combined with an interactive question and answer period with a panel of judges. Local winners advance to the ISPE Student & Young Professional Hackathon at the ISPE Annual Meeting & Expo, where they may also display their posters for all Annual Meeting attendees to see and discuss.
“The ISPE Poster Competition is an outstanding way for students to learn more about the industry, become involved in a competitive, educational program that allows them to share their resea
rch and what they’ve learned, and for those who win the experience of attending the ISPE Annual Meeting & Expo
, to participate in the ISPE Student & Young Professional Hackathon, which is a highly educational, collaborative, and challenging two-day program,” said Debbie Kaufmann, ISPE Membership Coordinator. “They also display their posters at the Annual Meeting and discuss them with industry professionals, academia, regulators, and other conference attendees. Students have gotten internships, interviews, and jobs through these discussions and through networking with the international ISPE Community.”
The next chapter
Since graduating from UNH with a Bachelor of Science in Bioengineering in May 2019, Nathan joined Azzur Group in Boston, where he’s working full-time on a project for one of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical manufacturers.
“As a judge for the ISPE Poster Competition, Nathan’s presentation surpassed the contest criteria, and also gave the judging panel insight into his professionalism, and understanding of scientific methodology involving his research, problem-solving, and results observation/evaluation in developing the next steps to continue with his
research,” said David Novak, CQV Project Manager at Azzur Group and long-time representative to the ISPE Boston Area Chapter Board of Directors. “Simply, the ISPE Boston Judges panel is honored to have Nathan represent the region at the upcoming 2019 ISPE Annual Meeting in Las Vegas.”
“I feel incredibly fortunate, so early in my career, to attend ISPE Annual and represent not only my fellow ISPE members, but Azzur Group and the University of New Hampshire. The last two years required a lot of ingenuity and hard work, but it’s certainly been worth it,” said Nathan.
Nathan noted that he’s excited to work side-by-side during the Hackathon with students whose seat he was in merely a year ago.
“A lot of those students are going through a very stressful time when the future looks like a blank wall. I’m looking forward to being able to answer their questions, provide feedback, and hopefully help them along their journeys.”
For more information about Nathan and his project, check out Azzur’s LinkedIn
pages, where we’ll be posting about his journey in Las Vegas. You can also follow @ISPEorg
and #ISPEAM19 on Twitter for the latest news about the ISPE Annual Conference.
Attending ISPE Annual? Even better. We’d love to meet up with you there!