Queen's engineering students aid in design of new assistive device for amputees

Posted on October 11, 2018

By Matt Mills, FEAS communications staff

When a person loses a limb, especially a lower limb, to accident or disease there are a host of possible complications and side effects that can adversely impact their quality of life. Among them, impaired circulation and damaged nerve tissue in the vestigial limb can make adapting to the use of a prosthesis a painful process.

“We suffer from horrendous circulation problems,” says Bryan Costello, who has used a prosthetic leg since a motorcycle accident a few years ago. “My stump has to be tight in the socket, which makes it really susceptible to cold. It’s like wearing a really tight glove on a cold day. Combine that heat transfer with poor circulation, and it can get painful fast.”

Bryan Costello, David Hyndman and Tim Bryant

A FRUITFUL PARTNERSHIP: Bryan Costello, flanked by David Hyndman of the Office of Partnerships and Innovation at Queen’s, and Dr. Tim Bryant of The Human Mobility Research Centre and Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Queen’s, is ready to take his much needed Costello Heatsleeve to market.

Costello is youthful and vigorous and so kept busy working various jobs after he retired from his first career as a pipefitter in a nuclear power plant in Upstate New York. Among those jobs was plowing snow. In an effort to be more comfortable on cold, dark, winter mornings, Costello adapted some of the technology he worked with as a pipefitter to build a heating device for his vestigial limb. The device is essentially a lightweight, battery powered, heating pad that can be fitted around the outside of the socket on his prosthetic leg. It helps with circulation, keeps his vestigial limb warm, and makes his prosthetic leg more comfortable to use.

Costello finds the device helpful even on warm days while he is at rest. It is just more comfortable and the heat improves blood flow and microcirculation in his vestigial limb, leading to healthier tissue and faster recovery.

“For me as an amputee it’s the little things, the little adjustments, that make the difference and this just makes life easier,” says Costello. “It didn’t dawn on me right away but eventually I realized there wasn’t anything like this out there and other people could use it.”

Last year administrators at the Central New York (CNY) Biotech Accelerator at The State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University announced that they were looking for budding entrepreneurs with clever new medical device ideas for their inaugural Medical Device Innovation Challenge (MDIC). It seemed a good fit for Costello, so he applied. It was not long before his company, Costello Prosthetic Warmers, was born.

“Bryan’s story was very compelling,” says Kathi Durdon, Director of Operations and Innovation Partnerships at the CNY Biotech Accelerator. “His company is not a university-based start-up, which is what we often see coming into the facility. He’s someone with work experience that helped him to identify an unmet need for his own personal life, and he is just the nicest person. He had needs we could help him with: developing a team, getting his IP solid, making sure he got the networking that he needed for product development.”

One of those network connections turned out to be the Office of Partnerships and Innovation (OPI) here at Queen’s. That relationship is part of an initiative called the Kingston-Syracuse Pathway [PDF]. It is a partnership among Queen’s, SUNY Upstate Medical and their Biotech Accelerator, the Center State Corporation of Economic Opportunity (CEO) in New York, the Ontario East Economic Development Commission, and The Kingston Economic Development Corporation (KEDCO) with a stated aim to promote economic development and research collaboration among people in the Syracuse and the Kingston areas.

“Kathi reached out about Bryan, who was entering their Accelerator Program, and asked if we had any resources at Queen’s that might be appropriate,” says David Hyndman, Assistant Director of Industry Partnerships at OPI. “I immediately reached out to the Human Mobility Research Centre (HMRC) to see what might be available.”

An initial meeting and visit to Queen’s was facilitated for Bryan and HMRC became the technology development partner. HMRC is a partnership among Queen’s, Kingston General Hospital, and Hotel Dieu Hospital for collaboration among the disciplines of medicine, engineering, health sciences, and computer science. Dr. Tim Bryant, a professor in Queen’s Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is a co-director of HMRC and faculty advisor to fourth-year undergraduate mechanical engineering students who are working on their capstone design projects.

“I’m involved with prosthetics and orthotics and Bryan’s idea was totally original to me,” says Bryant. “Bryan is very passionate and he’s very excited and he’s very focused on what he wants to achieve in all of this. A project like this has a lot to offer the students, and to me that’s the big success. The students had a chance to work with Bryan, a real client, to develop something that is real. Probably less than 12 months later, we’re starting to see this become a real product.”

The students – Andrew Gowthorpe (Sc ‘18), Stefan Low (Sc ’18), Stuart Duncan (Sc ’18), Meghan Koo, (Sc ’18), and Chris Keroglidis (Sc ’18) – refined Costello’s design in a new and clever way to ensure a more durable device capable of a more useful distribution of heat to the socket.

Student group

REFINED DESIGN: Chris Keroglidis (Sc ’18), Meghan Koo, (Sc ’18), (With Professor Tim Bryant), Stuart Duncan (Sc ’18), Andrew Gowthorpe (Sc ‘18), and Stefan Low (Sc ’18) iterated on Costello’s design as part of their capstone design project.

“We spent some time on materials selection and creating a new heating element using Nichrome wire,” says Gowthorpe. “We also used reflective insulating material on the inside to reduce heat transfer to the environment and made the whole device more robust. Bryan is a very driven and motivated entrepreneur and it was great to work with him. He gave us freedom in on our design and was very open and willing to accommodate what we thought was the best path forward for his device.”

Equipped with that refined design, a new prototype, and a new name for the device – The Costello Heatsleeve – Costello was ready to further prove the usefulness of the device in the hopes of finding a manufacturer able to produce and deliver it for market. The Costello Heatsleeve has since been tested in conditions well beyond its design parameters. Costello managed to convince extreme adaptive athlete, mountaineer, US Marine Corps veteran, educator and philanthropist, Kirstie Ennis, to test the Queen’s-built prototype on her ascent of Denali earlier this year. Denali is the highest peak in North America and Ennis is on a quest to be the first combat veteran amputee to climb all of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain peak on each of the seven continents. Ennis says the device performed well to 14,000 feet before altitude and extreme cold disabled the battery.

device up close

TECHNICAL CHALLENGES: The new iteration included provisions for a more useful distribution of heat, improved insulation, and a more robust build.

“I want to give kudos to Bryan for exploring uncharted territory,” says Ennis. “He had an idea and went after it and we need these types of advancements in a big way. By being able to take of care of our residual limbs and prosthetics in an appropriate manner, we’re adding longevity, but we’re also opening doors of accessibility so others can participate in our sports.”

Costello has received new funding and support through venture development organizations Launch NY and the Tech Garden, and has partnered with medical product development firm, Bridgemedica, to develop new FDA-compliance prototypes and then to begin manufacturing the devices for sale to users and the US military. There is further investor interest and Costello is already thinking about developing new versions of the Costello Heatsleeve for different applications, like mountaineering.

“The students here at Queen’s are exceptional, just really great people,” says Costello. “They dialled in my design to something that works a lot better. The people I talk with in the amputee clinics all say The Heatsleeve has been needed for a long time. This is for those who need it in their daily lives but building it into a business has given me new purpose and a new life with perspective and direction.”

wearing the device

IMPROVED COMFORT: The device is useful not only while out on the cold, but also adds comfort and mobility for the user while they are at rest.