Rice University engineering students, from left, Alexander Lu, Sylvia Cai, and Jamie Leong demonstrate their automated external defibrillator add-on to better deliver an electric shock to the heart of a patient in cardiac arrest.
Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University’s Zfib team of senior bioengineering students created an add-on for automated external defibrillators (AED) that punches through the skin to deliver a jolt to a person in cardiac arrest.

With the help of advisers Eric Richardson, a Rice bioengineering lecturer, and Dr. Mehdi Razavi, a cardiologist at Texas Heart Institute, the students developed a needle-laden pad that can be pressed through a flexible AED pad and the skin to overcome the skin’s typical impedance, 500kO/cm2.

AED users would apply pads to the exposed skin of a patient’s chest and side. The needles would then be pressed through a pad and the patient’s skin to bloodlessly deliver a more effective shock.

By the team’s measurements, the add-ons reduce the skin’s impedance by 72%. In turn, that should increase a patient’s chance of survival and reduce the odds that they will need multiple shocks.

“We looked into other ways to break the skin impedance, and some of the things we saw used chemicals or abrasion, like a sandpaper material,” team member Billy Jeon says.

“But in an emergency situation, you wouldn’t want to mess around with chemicals or something very complicated,” says team member Alexander Lu. “With needles, you just push straight down and it’s pretty effective.”

The team, which also includes Jamie Leong, Natalie Bolton, and Sylvia Cai, was inspired by insulin-delivery patches that break through the skin with microneedles.

The Zfib add-on is a 3D-printed plastic frame with a rubber backing that allows the user to press 180 tiny needles into a patient’s chest without having to touch the needles. The needles collect current from the side of the pad that touches the skin and deliver it to the patient. Indicators on top of the device turn green when enough pressure is applied.

The needles have to do their job without interfering with the AED’s ability to monitor the heart’s rhythm and decide whether a shock is necessary, according to the team. The current must also be kept low enough to prevent burns.

Rice University engineering students – the Zfib team – developed an add-on to automated external defibrillators to better deliver electric shocks to patients in cardiac arrest. They are, from left, Jamie Leong, Billy Jeon, Alexander Lu, Natalie Bolton, and Sylvia Cai.
Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

“We had to calculate how many needles we needed based on surface area,” Leong says. “We ran into the problem of putting so many needles on that it distributed the force and wouldn’t break the skin, like a bed of nails.”

Once they settled on 180 needles, the team evaluated their design with tests on artificial skin, an animal cadaver – and on Jeon.

“We actually hooked our device – really lightly – onto Billy to see if it would pick up his rhythm,” Leong says, “and it worked.”

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