Three Hopkins undergraduates have been named finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition for developing “The Dynamic Brace”, a brace for children born with clubfoot.
Clubfoot is a fairly common birth defect, where the foot is twisted in a different position because the tendons in the foot are shorter than usual. It must be corrected by gradually moving the foot in the correct direction through massages or casts, so the child can walk and carry out everyday activities.
The team, which includes Hopkins alum Jenlu Pagnotta, senior Delphine Tan and senior Hannah Yamagata, began their work as a class project in their Multidisciplinary Engineering class in fall of 2022.
In an interview with The News-Letter, the group talked about how they began their process.
“We spent a lot of time talking to families,” Yamagata said. “We found that babies could not sleep through the night while wearing the brace. They were uncomfortable and they couldn't turn over because it’s super heavy.”
According to the team, this interview process was important to help understand how to improve the current treatment for clubfoot that involves a “boots and bar” brace.
Pagnotta, who graduated this May with a degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, noted that they only began prototyping this past spring.
Tan explained what the team prioritized in their prototype.
“Comfort is one of the biggest things that we focused on because that was really highlighted when we talked to the families,” she said. “That really motivated us to be like, ‘Wow, this is definitely a field that we can help improve on.’”
Yamagata reported that their advisor, Alissa Murphy in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, encouraged their design.
“I didn’t know if it was something that would be too difficult to achieve, but our professor was really excited about it,” she said.
Their design uses a vacuum pump to suck air out of the brace, hardening the polystyrene beads into a cast-like form. They described it like sitting on a bean bag chair. It also uses an angle mat, which is similar to the device used to check shoe sizes at stores, that the foot and brace are put into and rotated to ensure the correct orientation.
According to the team, this solves a number of issues with the original brace. It is unilateral, removing the need for a metal bar in typical braces. It is also reusable, since air can be let back in to make it malleable again. The manufacturing price is fairly cheap, and the brace is supposed to grow with the child. The team has also added a soft material on the inside to prevent sores and increase the comfort.
The team reported that they are still looking to improve on the design.
“We would want no handheld vacuum and just a button,” Tan said. “Our prototype works to a certain degree but we're always trying to push that degree to even better.”
However, as Yamagata explained, these improvements require a higher level of manufacturing.
“We’ve been making our design using plastic food bags, but there’s only so much you can do with that kind of stiff plastic,” she said.
They are currently searching for the ideal material that is malleable and would maintain a vacuum.
In addition to researching the patent process, the team is still looking for manufacturers that have the required supplies. They also said that their plans are partially based on the outcome of the Collegiate Inventors Competition, as prize money and the grand prize of a patent acceleration certificate could help make this process easier.
However, to them, this is not the most important objective.
“A patent is the goal, but there's a lot of stuff that we have to do in between that,” Tan said. “It would be really nice to win all these awards, but I am fully prepared to not win anything. I'm just happy to be here.”
According to Tan, this project allowed her to explore using a hands-on project to answer open-ended questions, rather than simply learning about concepts in her engineering classes.
Yamagata echoed a similar sentiment on her positive experiences throughout the project.
“Before this project, I didn't think I'd have fun doing anything mechanical, but working with Delphine and Jen helped me realize that when I go to grad school, I hope to get involved in projects like this,” she said.
She recalled when the team showed their design to faculty member Natalie Strobach, whose daughter has clubfoot and could not sleep due to the boots and bar brace.
“It actually brought her to tears talking about the impact this could have on her life, as well as on the lives of other families with children who have clubfoot,” she said. “That was really moving for me because I saw firsthand how great the impact of our design could really be.”