OSU Engineers Battle Hidden Killer

By Alexandra Schaefers

SepsisRight now approximately one-fourth of all patients in ICUs across the country are being treated for sepsis and 28 to 50 percent of them will die from this disease formerly known as blood poisoning. This leads to more deaths in the United States every year than AIDS, prostate cancer, and breast cancer combined. It seems surprising that so few of us are familiar with sepsis, but that is mainly because it shows up as a complication in other situations. Extended hospital operations, injuries from auto accidents, dirty wounds, and infectious diseases in people with weak immune systems are the common cases that result in sepsis. Luckily, the OSU College of Engineering is aware of sepsis and has just been awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue the development of a device that will treat sepsis much more successfully than is currently possible.

In simplest terms, sepsis is the body’s overactive immune response to fragments of dying bacteria. It develops quickly into full-body inflammation; because the culprit fragments are already dead, antibiotics have limited success. The device OSU is developing filters the blood through thousands of tiny microchannels chemically coated to let blood cells flow though easily while retaining the bacterial fragments.

The OSU project began in response to a call for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for dialysis-like treatments of sepsis. “I didn’t appreciate the significance of sepsis until the DARPA call for proposals,” said OSU bioengineer Adam Higgins. “We looked into it in more detail and realized this is a much bigger problem than any of us appreciated.”

There is already one device being used in Japan, but it is not approved for use in the United States and there are questions about how well it works. “The proposal to DARPA didn’t actually get funded,” said Higgins, “but we believed in the idea, continued working on it, and acquired funding from other sources.” The team working on the devices is interdisciplinary including mechanical, chemical, and bioengineers from faculty, graduate students, and undergrads. OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine is also involved.

Currently the team is optimizing the surface coating and the geometry of the microchannels to efficiently remove the bacterial fragments without causing damage to blood cells. When a design is settled on they will produce a small-scale version to begin in vitro trials. Studies will then be conducted on mice and scale up to larger mammals until it can be tested on humans. The manufacturing process will be developed in the meantime, so production can begin after clinical trials are complete.