Above: Rice University students Caz Smith, left, and Kelvin Boateng have developed a device to help patients with diabetes easily monitor their feet for cuts or other injuries. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
Patients with diabetes are often at risk of cuts or other injuries to their extremities that they may not be able to feel or easily check. Rice University students have developed a device to help them find early signs of ulceration that, left untreated, could endanger their health and even lead to amputation.
Mechanical engineering student Caz Smith and bioengineering student Kelvin Boateng, both Rice sophomores, completed a prototype of their inspection device, which looks something like a foot stand one might see in a shoe store but with a clear plastic top, cameras, lights, a mirror and electronics that allow people to easily inspect their feet.
Images are posted to an automatically generated website they can view on a cellphone or other device and forward to a doctor.
The students took on the project last summer as part of Rice’s Summer Experience in Engineering Design program, working at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen with visiting international students Luis Felipe Silva of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil and Christopher Dzuwa of the University of Malawi Polytechnic.
“For me, this project had the coolest combination of electrical and mechanical engineering,” Smith said. An earlier iteration, he said, was a camera on a gooseneck attached to the end of a telescoping stick that patients could use to manually inspect their feet, but the new team took a path they decided would be less arduous for patients.
“We wanted it to be an at-home device you could put in the corner of your bathroom or living room and have it stay there, as opposed to the device we inherited, which was more mobile but also much heavier and clunkier,” Boateng said.
Patients with diabetes often suffer from diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage disorders that can numb feelings in their extremities. “Doctors want checking their feet to become part of patients’ daily routines, because wounds can become infected,” Boateng said. “If they’re not caught, they can lead to amputation.”
The students said their device is simple to operate. A sliding top plate with toe separators is adjustable for the right or left foot.
Once a foot is in position, the patient starts the device from the custom website, which lights LEDs inside, snaps photos of both the top and bottom of the foot and transfers them to the website by way of an onboard Raspberry Pi computer.
“It’s much easier than a manual device, like a mirror on a stick, for people who aren’t flexible enough to look at the bottom of their feet directly because of their condition or age,” Smith said. “If your visual acuity is harmed in any way, you absolutely cannot see your foot from a mirror that is 3 or 4 feet away.”
He said the device is now in the hands of another class of Rice engineering students who are studying ways to streamline the design and move it toward manufacturing.
The students were advised by Rice lecturers Deirdre Hunter and Matthew Wettergreen and doctors Susan Fisher-Hoch and Anand Prasad and graduate research assistant Nelson Gonzalez of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.