A team of recent University of Iowa (UI) graduates who designed a bra to help breast cancer patients prevent a condition called lymphedema will use a $10,000 award to try to commercialize the undergarment.
The prize from the Victoria’s Secret Pink GRL PWR Project will enable the newly minted biomedical engineers to file a patent for the “GAMA bra,” designed for those who have had a unilateral mastectomy — the removal of one breast. The plan is to sell the patent and design to an existing compression wear producer.
In its first year, the Pink GRL PWR Project awarded 20 women ages 18–25 $10,000 each to realize their goals. The project received more than 5,000 applications. Winners were based on the extent to which each project empowered the applicant or others.
The team designed the bra as part of last year’s College of Engineering senior design course. The class required students to identify a real-world unmet need, then design a product to meet it. The inventors, for whom the garment is named, include Genevieve Goelz, Anna Rodriguez, Maria Fernanda Larraga Martinez, and Ashten Sherman.
According to the nonprofit organization breastcancer.org, more than 32,000 unilateral mastectomies are performed annually. ”We know there’s a need for this,” Goelz said in a press release. “Winning this award is bringing attention to a problem that’s so fixable, and this brings us one step closer to a solution.”
Lymphedema is the most common side effect of some cancer treatments, including surgery or radiation therapy. The resulting blockage prevents lymph, a fluid that contains white blood cells that defend against germs, from draining sufficiently, causing it to collect in the fatty tissue under the skin, most often in the arms or legs. Resulting in pain, discomfort or range-of-motion restrictions, the condition affects up to 35 percent of breast cancer patients in the United States. Symptom-controlling treatments include compression devices, skin care and massage.
Traditional compression garments, largely designed for women who have had both breasts removed, allow lymph to collect in one place and then be drained. For women who have had unilateral surgery, however, the residual breast causes uneven compression. The result is a less effective and often uncomfortable garment. What’s more, for support, patients sometimes wear a conventional bra atop these compression garments.
According to the release, the GAMA bra offers even compression, is easier to use and costs less. It works like a conventional compression bra but with two layers of medical-grade compression fabric. The first layer has a hole for the remaining breast, while the second layer contains the bra padding and, if the patient wishes, a prosthetic.
In designing the garment, the team worked with UI faculty and staff, including a College of Medicine cancer patient therapist. A Department of Theatre Arts seamstress stitched together prototypes.
“The university provided us with the resources to create our design, and put us in touch with a network of individuals across campus who could help us understand the scope of the problem and develop the means to create a final product,” said Goelz, whose grandmother had breast cancer and even helped with the bra’s creation.
”It actually helped that I was working on this project at the time of her death,” she said. “It reminded me of why I got into engineering in the first place. As biomedical engineers, we’re creating solutions for people who are facing life-and-death situations. I don’t think there’s a better way that I could be honoring my grandmother’s memory.”
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