At Trach Tech, BioInnovation Students Tackle Bio-Film

I am Sh’nai Royal, a high school graduate from Sophie B. Wright and an aspiring scientist and activist. Through my YouthForce NOLA internship at NOBIC, I had the pleasure of interviewing members of the Trach Tech team including Alex Verne, a bio-engineering student at the University of Washington, as well as biomedical engineering students at Tulane Michael L’ecuyer and Stephen Hahn. As an incoming freshman at LSU, I wanted to learn more about this graduate student-led startup, what their technology does, and their experience creating and sustaining a company during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Trach Tech team came together through a senior capstone project at Tulane University, where they were introduced to the intubation process. In Stephen’s words, “We talked to a trauma surgeon at Tulane Medical Center, Dr. Chrissy Guidry. She listed a bunch of issues that she wanted help with or thought we could tackle. One of them had to do with intubation. From there, she set us up with a respiratory therapist at University Medical Center.” The team learned that Biofilm build-up within an intubation tube will increase the resistance that the patient will feel when attempting to breathe without a ventilator, and can also cause infections such as Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia (VAP). After going at it for a year, the Trach Tech members decided to continue their work resulting in the creation of extraordinary technology — a spinning device that effectively knocks out all of the biofilm mucus, a highly antibiotic bacterial buildup present in intubation tubes, and safely pulls it out without extubating patients. 

Trach Tech offers an entirely different solution to cleaning endotracheal tubes that minimizes the insertion of medical devices into a patient. The device thus helps patients survive, and both the patient and the hospital save money that would otherwise be dedicated to treating bacterial infections arising from the biofilm build-up. With COVID-19 resulting in record levels of patient intubation, Trach Tech’s technology could not be introduced at a more critical time. Stephen notes, “In 2020 … there were thousands [of patients] a day, or even like tens of thousands being ventilated.” Ventilation is just one of the several uses for endotracheal intubation. Endotracheal intubation allows air to freely flow into and out of the lungs by providing oxygen. 

Additionally, Trach Tech is setting its sights beyond endotracheal tubes. As compared to existing treatments for cardiovascular plaque build-up, their solution would potentially reduce the number of items introduced into patients. Current solutions presently require a second point of entry to clean & remove buildup, whereas Trach Tech’s solution would operate within the tubes that are already in place.

Trach Tech expressed that a ‘pro’ of working through the COVID-19 pandemic is that you can collaborate with team members and others around the world virtually. Alex points out that, “we are really spread out at this point and going virtual has helped us coordinate.” Stephen adds, “we can also meet with mentors and advisors that are all across the country.” The Trach Tech team also pointed out that the pandemic has drawn more attention to the matter at hand by increasing awareness of the issues with intubation. 

On the other hand, COVID has created an obstacle for their technology because the biofilm build-up may contain COVID particles which pose a risk to other patients and hospital personnel when removed. Alex observes, “a lot more people are aware that there can be additional complications that come from being intubated, but [the pandemic] has also made it a little challenging for us to get some testing done.” This means that even though COVID has created an increased need for their device, the device isn’t ready to be used on patients just yet. 

The pandemic prevented Trach Tech from learning more about the intubation process through hospital visits, and also made it difficult to conduct clinical trials. Michael spoke on this issue, mentioning how, “[the team has] been invited on several occasions to visit an ICU to see what the normal procedure looks like, but that hasn’t been possible.” 

As a scientist, this interview helped me learn more about biofilm-related phenomena. Trach Tech’s cutting-edge approach to removing biofilm eliminates the need to find out how to destroy the bacteria. Furthermore, I asked the team to give a soon-to-be college student, such as myself, some advice. They all agreed that it’s key to build your network throughout your time in college and to engage with your teachers on topics you’re passionate about.