Rice Univ. bioengineering students responded
to an ophthalmologist’s cry for help with a device to diagnose dry eye, the
itching and burning sensation that results when a person doesn’t produce enough
tears or the tears evaporate too quickly.
A team of five seniors made a portable unit that controls the air around a
patient’s eyes so doctors can study and treat those who suffer from this
Stephen Pflugfelder, the James and Margaret Elkins Chair and professor of
ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine’s Cullen Eye Institute, approached
Rice to invent a device to help clinicians standardize a testing regime for dry
“He wanted a way to control temperature, humidity, and air flow all
around the eyes and record it over time so he could track changes in their dryness,”
said Daniel Hays, a member of Team ClimaTears, the student group that included
Austin Edwards, Amanda Shih, Anastasia Alex, and Michelle Kerkstra.
The students’ solution incorporates a modified and padded set of laboratory
goggles with embedded data sensors that monitor temperature, relative humidity,
air flow, and blink rate over an hour and a half. A cable carries data saved
every 10 seconds to a small box that includes controls and conditioning
equipment. A separate hose carries air to the goggles.
The goggles keep the humidity of air around the eyes between 40% and 15%—”about
as low as we can go without hurting patients,” Alex said.
“We’re exacerbating the symptoms so doctors can see them,” Hays
Normal patients will produce tears, he said, but those who suffer dry eye
will exhibit symptoms, which will give clues about how to treat them. Follow-up
sessions with the goggles will let doctors see how well the treatment is
“With this, we’re putting the power in the hands of clinicians, which
is very appealing to them,” Shih said.
“We did a lot of research on the ocular test they currently perform to
help us analyze the data we collected,” Alex said. “We know there’s
still a lot to be done.”
“We hope our device will create a gold standard for diagnosis,”
The team and Pflugfelder spent two weeks this spring testing patients at the
Alkek Eye Center in Houston and will continue this summer. The students hope
the larger trial will lead to an academic paper—a fine reward for spending
nearly 2,000 hours developing the goggles over the course of their final year