Breathe Easy

I joined this team because I am fascinated by the intersection of engineering and medicine. The opportunity to work on a project with a truly human-oriented impact in a field I care about was one I just couldn’t pass up.

Megan R., Class of 2022


The common hand-held inhaler is a device that allows a specific amount of medication to enter the lungs and is often used to treat a wide array of pulmonary diseases such as asthma. The device works by delivering bursts of aerosol-based medicine which the patient inhales. While most patients generally self administer the medicine, this simply isn’t possible for some. Elderly individuals, especially those with arthritis or tremors, struggle to correctly use inhalers. Current inhalers require the user to hold the device up to their mouth and press the canister of medicine down for a number of seconds. If the canister isn’t completely depressed, the full dose of medication is not delivered, which can lead to serious medical consequences. 


When the team first came together, their immediate action plan involved fully researching the problem and understanding current solutions. From an in-depth analysis of the problem they were tackling, they realized the issue of inhaler use extends not only to the elderly population suffering from tremors or arthritis, but also populations like small children. They noticed the current best solution is “assisted inhalation”, which entails another human with the ability to operate the inhaler pressing down on the medicine canister while the patient holds the mouthpiece up to their mouth. This isn’t reliable, as the helper who operates the device may not always be there in case of an emergency. 

Equipped with a thorough understanding of the current scope of this issue, the team started brainstorming potential solutions. They used a unique brainstorming method learned in their Engineering 101 class. The technique referred to as “rapid brainstorming”, entails each member writing down every potential solution they could think of on an index card. The index cards are then reviewed as a team, and similar ideas are grouped together. Then, taking the best parts of each solution, a prototype is proposed. 

The team’s final solution involved not only one, but two final propositions. The first solution was termed the “bite-down” device. The bite-down device is a 3-D printed PLA casing which is slid atop a normal inhaler. The area around the mouth is lined with rubber, the same type used in mouth guards. The idea is simple: patients ‘bite down’ on the rubber grip and the plastic sitting atop the canister is depressed, dispensing medicine. The solution is so small, it can fit in your pocket!

The second device proposed by the team was referred to as the “clamp device”. This solution looks similar to a common table vice and is complimented with 3-D printed handles. One pressure point sits on top of the canister, while the second pressure point is seen below the inhaler, holding it in place. By squeezing the 3-D printed handles, you are able to dispense medicine into the mouth of the user. 

The team acknowledged they couldn’t have completed their project without the abundance of help found in the Design Pod. “There was so much help floating around. We would mention we wanted a little help and so many TA’s would come rushing our way and be so happy to help. They offered extremely valuable insights.”, Megan emphasized. 

After completing some trial testing in the Duke ALS clinic this summer, the team hopes to continue iterating their solution and further refine it through rigorous testing.