A group of biomedical engineering students teamed up to create a solution for lymphedema in breast cancer patients, according to the University of Iowa.
The students successfully created a garment that helps to prevent lymphedema, a swelling that can occur in the arms or torso after mastectomy surgery. After collaborating with medical experts, plastic surgeons, breast cancer patients, physical therapists and engineers, the group began creating their senior design project.
The instructions for this project was to prototype a medical device that addressed a growing need. The process is intended to mimic the real-world product development process.
The idea for this design came from Amy Kimball, an associate in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Sciences. Kimball works with breast cancer patients following their mastectomy surgery, and noted that if lymphedema is left untreated, it can lead to loss of function and physical deformities.
Although, many patients often have both breasts removed, some undergo a procedure called unilateral mastectomy and keep one healthy breast. The medical device industry has not developed many solutions for this group of patients. Oftentimes, a physical therapist will improvise and stuff a bra with dense foam so there is pressure on the mastectomy side, which reduces the swelling.
“When I was a practicing physical therapist, I would see patients who could not find a garment that would provide them with the compression they needed on one side of the chest and the support they needed on the other,” Kimball, who is pursuing a doctoral degree at the UI, says. “Many of these patients are left in a sort of uncomfortable limbo. A solution to this problem has the potential to impact thousands of breast cancer patients.”
In order to ensure the team’s prototype would meet expectations, they measured material properties of different fabrics. Using a wood clamp and paper grid, they would stretch the samples and measure how much the shape changed as they pulled on the fabric. This ensured their choice in fabric would remain tight enough and provide the right amount of pressure without cutting off circulation.
Once they determined the fabric, the group realized they were not apt in sewing, so they reached out to costume designers in the UI Department of Theatre Arts. Another challenge occurred when they realized that compression garment companies could not donate materials because of a patent infringement. They had to think outside the box, and bought extra-long compression socks and cut them.
Finally, the team presented their prototype lymphedema garment called GAMA bra, an acronym for the first letter of each of their names.
“In any journey toward a solution, you will have people who don’t believe in the problem you are trying to solve,” said Ashten Sherman, one of the students working on the senior project. “Working through the negative comments and dismissals was tough, but we knew that we were doing something positive that would impact a whole community of patients, and that kept us going.”