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Johns Hopkins Undergraduate Team Named Finalist in Collegiate Inventors Competition

September 13, 2021
CONTACT: Kait Howard
Cell: 443-301-7993
kehoward@jhu.edu jhunews@jhu.edu

A team of Johns Hopkins University students are among the finalists in the Collegiate Inventors Competition for their invention of a device to reduce pain from nerve damage in people with amputations.

The annual competition founded by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where Johns Hopkins has had finalists or winners 37 times, encourages innovation and entrepreneurship at the collegiate level.

The team of undergraduates, named Innerva, invented a funnel-shaped biodegradable device to help direct the regrowth of nerves and prevent the formation of tumors called neuromas that cause severe pain in up to 80 percent of amputation patients.

The students, senior Bruce Enzmann, junior Anson Zhou, and 2021 graduate Michael Lan—later joined by junior Juan Diego Carrizo—began the project after hearing from Johns Hopkins surgeon Sami Tuffaha about
the challenges of a surgical procedure for facilitating nerve regrowth in amputation patients called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation.

Unlike treatments that stop nerve regrowth completely, this procedure is compatible with advanced prosthetics that use nerve signals to direct movement. A surgeon takes the severed nerve, which is usually larger, and sutures it to a smaller motor nerve, Zhou explained.

“However, because of the mismatch in sizes between the severed nerve and motor nerve, the procedure has around a 30% failure rate,” said Zhou. “Our goal was to address that size mismatch and allow for a tapered regrowth of the nerve.”

The invention has a flexible outer sheath that guides the direction of nerve regrowth and contains a proprietary gel containing a bioactive agent that slows nerve regeneration.

“We’re aiming for an almost paradoxical outcome where we’re facilitating the regrowth of the nerve toward a target muscle, but also preventing it from disorganized overgrowth,” said Zhou.

Team advisor, Hai-Quan Mao, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, said the students’ organizational and leadership skills were critical for the success of the device.

“It was also really important that we were able to work across departments,” said Enzmann. “Some of us are materials science and engineering majors and some are biomedical engineering majors and we each brought our different interests and training to the problem.”

Early studies show that the device enhances normal nerve growth, prevents neuroma, and reduces pain and muscle atrophy in the area fed by the motor nerve, said team members who have secured a provisional patent and plan to conduct additional studies before hopefully moving to clinical testing.

As finalists, the team will present their inventions Oct. 13 in a virtual format to a panel of judges composed of the most influential inventors and invention experts in the nation—National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees and United States Patent and Trademark Office officials. Winning teams will be announced on Oct. 14.

Image 1: Innerva team member Michael Lan in the lab. Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University. Image 2: (from left) Bruce Enzmann, Anson Zhou, Michael Lan, and Juan Diego Carrizo. Credit: National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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