For WARF Award Winners, Innovation is a Family Affair
Madison, Wisconsin – A $10,000 award for a potentially life-saving device is welcome recognition, but for a husband-and-wife team of University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health doctors, the real reward is so much more than that.
“It takes two to do this,” said Dr. Guelay Bilen-Rosas, who has been working with her husband Dr. Humberto (Tito) Rosas on developing a better device to detect airway obstruction in sedated patients. Both practice at University Hospital.
“This started with pancakes and a fight,” said Tito, an associate professor of radiology.
For some time, Guelay would come home from work deeply affected by seeing people suffer from problems that could be prevented if the technology were there to help, she said.
Tito, who Guelay proclaims makes some of the world’s greatest pancakes, was indeed making flapjacks one day, and in a burst of anger said, “You do something about it.”
And – she (they) did.
Together they spent the next 18 months researching, talking to anyone who would listen for advice, looking for engineering tips to make their device workable, and reading – a lot. Well, Guelay, anyway.
“I went crazy with the literature,” said Guelay, an assistant professor of anesthesiology.
Stephen Johnson, senior academic librarian and clinical sciences informationist at Ebling Library at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, helped Guelay find information to support the development of this device.
He can vouch for the difficulty of finding information for a novel device like this.
“It’s always fun working with challenging ideas and our incredibly talented faculty, but seeing the development of a potentially life-saving monitor is extraordinary,” Johnson said.
The problem was simple, Guelay said: Airway obstruction causes reduced oxygen supply, which can lead to cardiac arrest, brain damage or even death. Current technology, like pulse-oximetry, is erroneous and not capable of detecting early airway obstruction.
People under the influence of anesthesia don’t always show typical signs of airway blockage, like coughing or choking. The device Guelay and Tito have conceived would be able, using ultrasound, to detect the minor, imperceptible variations in the throat that signal a problem. That’s something they were told was impossible.
But, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) thought it was possible, to the tune of a $10,000 Innovation Award.
“It’s humbling to be believed,” Guelay said.
The couple received the news, along with five other finalists, just before a ceremony Oct. 11 at the UW-Madison Discovery Building.
“I didn’t know if it was spam,” Tito said when he received the notification email. “I felt like it validated all the work she had done.”
The next year will be important for the development of the project, he said.
Their goal is to make the device small enough to be placed on a patient’s neck and to be wireless. These two key features would open up a world of possibilities, allowing the device to be used in remote emergency situations like a military application or rural-emergency scenario.
The couple plans to work with WARF to acquire the business and legal knowledge necessary to bring this life-saving technology to market.
Financial gain may be a positive side effect of creating a device, but the fact that this device could save people from dying is the true goal of this project, Guelay said as she fought back tears.
“Guelay has a big passion for preventing kids and adults from having major complications,” Tito said.
Through it all, this family whose journey has taken them from Europe to Texas and Missouri, and finally Middleton, Wisconsin, has grown closer over the last 18 months since that fight over pancakes.
Their two children, Aydin, 10, and Yasemin, 8, have become very curious with the near-constant discussion of the device at home, Tito said.
Yasemin has been helping create a logo for the device, for example, and Aydin has had his entrepreneurial spirit sparked.
“My son has come up with like 12 inventions,” Tito said, with a laugh.
With all the excitement and prospects for the future, the path the family has followed so far has been the real treasure.
“We are spending more time together,” Guelay said. “You really need the yin and yang to be true to your vision.”
Date Published: 10/28/2016