As five North­eastern Uni­ver­sity mechan­ical engi­neering stu­dents geared up to select their senior cap­stone last summer, they desired a chal­lenging project with a pro­found real-​​world appli­ca­tion. A month later, as they observed a live recon­struc­tive pro­ce­dure at Brigham and Women’s Hos­pital (BWH) lasting many hours, they real­ized the immense global impact their work ahead could have to advance med­ical care.

The stu­dents worked with Dr. Lifei Guo, an inventor and recon­struc­tive micro­sur­geon at BWH, on designing an “anas­to­motic cou­pler” to bind tiny blood ves­sels only mil­lime­ters in diam­eter. Guo said the cur­rent sur­gical process is “very tedious, tech­ni­cally demanding, and error prone” because doc­tors must care­fully hand-​​sew sutures thinner than hair fol­li­cles, and each vessel could take more than an hour to reconnect.

If you’re looking at this project on paper, you say, ‘I have to con­nect this tube with that tube.’ Then you see this (surgery) and think, ‘Wow, this is someone’s life,’” said Nick Cote, one of the stu­dent researchers.

To sur­mount the steep med­ical learning curve, the stu­dents — Cote, Ryan Myers, Matthew Ouel­lette, Jes­sica Patel and David Schecter — immersed them­selves in prepara­tory research. They dis­cov­ered that many injured sol­diers lose their limbs because the surgery is lengthy and mil­i­tary field medics don’t have the same exper­tise and access to state-​​of-​​the-​​art facil­i­ties that spe­cial­ized sur­geons do.

It was moti­vating to know we could make the surgery a lot quicker,” Patel said.

The project also aligns strongly with Northeastern’s com­mit­ment to use-​​inspired research that addresses global prob­lems, par­tic­u­larly in health.

After Guo ini­tially came up with the new con­cept to improve vessel anas­to­mosis, Northeastern’s Office of Tech­nology Inno­va­tion and Com­mer­cial­iza­tion and BWH’s Office of Research Ven­tures & Licensing dis­cussed ways in which the insti­tu­tions might col­lab­o­rate on pro­to­type devel­op­ment, with the ulti­mate goal of improving patient care.

That part­ner­ship facil­i­tated the col­lab­o­ra­tion between Guo and mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering pro­fessor Jef­frey Ruberti, who served as the stu­dents’ advisor. Both Ruberti and Guo offered the stu­dents invalu­able guid­ance along the way, and Guo called North­eastern and its cap­stone pro­gram a nat­ural fit for his idea to be fur­ther explored.

In the stu­dents’ the­o­ret­ical chosen design, the pro­ce­dure could be per­formed in min­utes rather than hours, and Guo said this work opened new fron­tiers not only for his future research but poten­tially for a par­a­digm change in recon­struc­tive microsurgery.

I think the stu­dents did a fan­tastic job,” Guo said.

This group was phe­nom­enal,” added Ruberti. “They were very moti­vated, prac­tical, and analytical.”

Guo’s project was par­tially funded by CIMIT, a med­ical research con­sor­tium that brings tech­nology and inno­va­tion to health care. North­eastern has since joined CIMIT, and Guo hopes that part­ner­ship will extend this project’s research and lead to other future North­eastern collaborations.