The MEDtechBIO program gives particularly talented students the opportunity to develop and implement their own project ideas: from drug delivery systems for people with Alzheimer's disease to researching pigments with antibacterial properties.
At first glance, the device looks like a marble run behind Plexiglas. Two small servo motors start moving as Feline Herrmann taps a touchpad. A Smartie separates from the colorful supply, slides down a chute, and lands in a small medicine beaker. A medical technology student collaborated with three of her fellow students to construct the prototype of a dispenser that reminds Alzheimer's patients to take their medication. "This project," says David Kreickmann, "is a great opportunity for us to gain practical experience before we even complete our third semester; we are learning a lot here."
The group of four successfully presented their dispenser idea as part of their successful application for a place at the MEDtechBIO "School for Talents" in the winter semester of 2022/23 – a program offered by the University of Stuttgart for particularly high-achieving students and funded by the German Research Foundation as part of the German federal and state excellence strategy. There are currently nine faculty projects being run at the School for Talents, as well as the "Annual Program," in which students work on innovative interdisciplinary projects. In addition to professional training, the program also includes personal development coaching.
Together from the initial idea to the end result
Since 2020, almost 30 bachelor's and master's students in medical technology and technical biology have taken part in MEDtechBIO, where they gain project experience, prepare for competitions, and are given the opportunity to write their first papers for publication. MEDtechBIO is headed up by Prof. Peter P. Pott, head of the Institute for Medical Device Technology (IMT), and Jun. Prof. Michael Heymann of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomolecular Systems (IBBS). "The idea is to teach students how to exploit their theoretical and practical knowledge,” says Heymann.
"They are encouraged to break their projects down into a number of small steps as they move from the initial idea to the final result, and to find solutions to problems on their own. At the same time, the students learn important lessons about teamwork and experience the success of working together to accomplish a common goal."
They are encouraged to break their projects down into a number of small steps as they move from the initial idea to the final result, and to find solutions to problems on their own. At the same time, the students learn important lessons about teamwork and experience the success of working together to accomplish a common goal.Jun.-Prof. Michael Heymann
The four students in the dispenser group first stripped down a dispenser for sweeteners, which they then used as a model to design a device adapted to Smartie dimensions. They used a laser cutter to cut some of the components to size, and modeled others to be 3D printed. The group is currently working on a particularly ingenious feature of their prototype, which involves programming simple memory and arithmetic tasks, which the patients are asked to complete on the touchpad before the medicine is dispensed as a kind of reward.
Whilst these short tests are designed to be fun and to stimulate the brain, they also collect daily data on the development of Alzheimer's disease. "This", as Kreickmann explains,"makes it possible to produce a very precise individualized record of the course of the disease."
Trying out new things whilst gaining valuable experience
Another ongoing MEDtechBio project involves research into pigments that have antibacterial properties. Eight students studying for bachelor's and master's degrees in technical biology are working on the production of melanin and carminic acid using bacteria and yeasts. The resulting pigments could be used in things such as vegan lipsticks or in dressings to promote wound healing. Carminic acid is a red dye currently obtained from dried cochineal lice, and eumelanin is a dark dye obtained from the ink sacs of cephalopods. Other substances are usually substituted in industrial production, but some of them are suspected of being carcinogenic.
Most days, the group gathers in the laboratory at the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomolecular Systems to continue their ambitious experiments. "We all help and motivate one another, and everyone contributes ideas," says Fatma Caliskan, who is studying for her bachelor's degree. After the students isolate lice DNA, they use PCR equipment to amplify it and incorporate the DNA fragments into plasmids, which are ring-shaped double-stranded DNA molecules that can be absorbed by coli bacteria. "If everything goes according to plan," Caliskan explains, "the bacteria produce an enzyme, which we can detect."
A number of challenges still need to be overcome, both when it comes to incorporating the DNA into the plasmid scaffold and in the detection of the enzyme, but this does not faze the group. "The laboratory practicals we do during our studies involve experiments with known outcomes," says Caliskan. "But here we have the chance to try new things and design our own experiments. It's a great experience!"
Text: Miriam Hoffmeyer