Engineering students seek patent for transdermal patch design, control system

Elon seniors Matt Foster and Michael Borucki wanted to improve the nicotine patch. Their unique solution wowed faculty, will be the engineering program's senior capstone project and could change treatment for addiction.

Two Elon seniors whose little idea for a semester’s project grew long legs are now seeking a U.S. patent for a medical device that could have implications for addiction treatment.

Matt Foster, an engineering major, and Michael Borucki, a physics and computer science double major, began with a simple premise: Nicotine patches aren’t always successful in getting tobacco users and vapers to quit. They asked why, and then they asked if they could make them better.

Those questions and countless hours of research led them to a novel way to administer transdermal medications — specifically nicotine, but possibly some opiates. Now with a patent pending they hope drug companies will see their idea and build on it, specifically to combat the opioid crisis.

“That’s where I think the benefit to humanity could be,” Foster said. “Opioid overdoses are killing 30,000 people a year.”

“We’re just two dedicated engineers who really want to change the world,” Borucki said.

Foster will be one of Elon’s first cohort of four-year engineering program graduates this spring. Borucki began as an engineering major before pursuing physics and computer science. Engineering’s four-year program seniors will complete their capstone project by testing Foster and Borucki’s active transdermal drug delivery design. Borucki will use his final semester building and testing a mobile app to control the device’s drug delivery via Bluetooth, which they also hope to patent.

They will present their work at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research to be held March 26-28 at Montana State University.

If their accomplishment sounds extraordinary, that’s because it is, faculty say.

“They really solved this problem in a way that I wouldn’t have solved it,” said Assistant Professor of Engineering Jonathan Su. “They used the tools they learned here in the engineering program in a fairly sophisticated way.”

The spark lit in August 2018, on the first day of Su’s Research Methods course. Su typically begins that 300-level course posing a series of real-world and mathematical problems before having students embark on a semester-long mission to solve one of them. Students can choose a problem of their own, which led Foster and Borucki to nicotine addiction.

They wanted to solve a prevalent problem on college campuses. Tobacco use is still high among youth and young adults. Vaping is increasingly popular among college students, hooking swaths of young adults on nicotine who otherwise may have avoided tobacco.

“We would have a hundred ideas. We could narrow them down to 20 that might be viable, and Dr. Su could narrow those down to two.”

— Matt Foster ’20

Traditional nicotine patches are passive and deliver steady, slow amounts of the drug through the skin over time — not effective for a smoker or vaper looking for a jolt of the pleasure-inducing drug during stressful situations. Their aim was to design a device that allowed users to control a “hit” of nicotine during cravings while gradually weaning them from the drug.

Su’s own research happened to involve nicotine and drug diffusion. His encouragement and steering throughout the fall kept them on track.

“He’s just a wealth of knowledge. We would have a hundred ideas. We could narrow them down to 20 that might be viable, and Dr. Su could narrow those down to two,” Foster said. “We didn’t have a background in biology. He directed us to materials to read.”

That semester ended with a prototype: A “big, bulky” box about 7 inches long designed to deliver a dose at the push of a button.

Knowing that design wasn’t wearable, they continued to scale it down, modifying it with smaller parts and updated designs. Their latest design is about 2 inches wide and about 4 cm thick, they say.

Matt Foster 20 presenting research during SURF 2019 in the Great Hall of the Global Neighborhood.

“We love the hands-on part, figuring out the problem,” Borucki said.

They received a provisional U.S. patent in January 2019. Later this month, they will file for the permanent utility patent. Foster and Borucki founded FIAD LLC in April and added senior finance major Zack Dudan as a partner in September.

Even when separated by commitments and internships, Foster and Borucki built on their ideas through the spring and summer of 2019. Each researched independently and reported findings in bi-weekly phone calls and over the computer.

This year they’ve been developing their research with Su and Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter, who will oversee the capstone project.

The engineering program’s future capstone projects may involve research with outside organizations and industries, but for the first four-year program capstone, Wolter was proud to have seniors support and advance fellow students’ work.

“What better project could we choose?” Wolter said. “(Foster) designed the active device but hasn’t put it into practice yet. We’ll be working on that.”

Work last fall concerned perfecting testing methodology using porcine tissue, pig skin, as a surrogate for human skin.

“We’ve come up with a way to measure concentrations of nicotine in a phosphate-buffered saline. So, we’ve proven out that we can measure small concentrations of nicotine in the skin,” Wolter said. “We’ve developed an operating procedure for how we’re going to deliver the nicotine and how we’re going to measure it.”

“I never would have thought that we could have advanced from the first prototype to where we are now. It’s impressive to me to look back at how far we’ve come.”

— Michael Borucki ’20

This spring, seniors will test and research two methods of affecting transdermal nicotine delivery: manipulating aqueous channels within the skin and affecting nicotine concentration at the surface of the skin using Foster and Borucki’s device, Wolter said.

The process has been painstaking and patient. Wolter appreciates that undergraduates have been able to acquire in-depth experience building the methodology for biomedical research.

Foster and Borucki will continue work on their projects as part of their studies and independently as they wait the six months to two years it may take before their patent is approved. If and when that happens, they hope to “make noise” in the medical industry and sell their patent to a company that will apply the technology to improve drug treatment.

Asked whether they plan to work together on more designs after graduation, each left the option open. Foster is a natural inventor and mechanical engineer. Borucki considers himself better with programming and perfecting ideas.

“If an opportunity comes, I’m not going to say no,” Borucki said. “If we find something else like this, we’ll probably go for it. We know each other, and we enjoy working together.

“I never would have thought that we could have advanced from the first prototype to where we are now. It’s impressive to me to look back at how far we’ve come.”