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Device to make surgery punctures safer earns $30,000 prize for MIT student

If you’ve ever drilled through a wall, you get the idea: The moment the bit clears the plaster or wood, it plunges forward until your brain registers the change in pressure and pulls it back.

When surgeons use a puncture device to poke through a patient’s skin at the start of minimally invasive surgeries, the same effect can cause the device to accelerate once it has penetrated the skin, sometimes causing damage to organs below.

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Nikolai Begg, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the 2013 winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, designed a puncture device meant to react quicker than a surgeon can -- within one-hundredth of a second. It releases a clutch and retracts the blade the instant it passes through the skin. The invention earned Begg the $30,000 award given annually to MIT seniors or graduates for improving a product or process.

The 25-year-old originally from Wellesley has been focused on medical inventions for much of his young career, since a report on robotic surgeries that he wrote in seventh grade sparked his interest.

“I realized I could be doing what I love to do -- building things, designing things, creating things -- and, at the same time, be involved in this incredible world of medicine,” he said.

Begg said he realized how pervasive puncture devices, called trocars, are in medicine as he observed surgeries while in college.

A decade ago, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a report saying that, over about five years, it had received reports of more than 1,300 puncture injuries during laparoscopic surgery and 30 deaths.

“It’s definitely something that surgeons are paying attention to, and it’s something that is still a source of risk,” Begg said.

Others have tried creating a safer trocar. Begg said his invention is different because, rather than stopping the blade or capping it in place, it retracts the sharp edge, reversing its forward motion into the body.

But the device has not yet been tested on real patients. Begg said he is looking for the best application and for help in developing the product from interested surgeons or others.

“There’s so many inventive opportunities in medicine,” he said. “Surgeons, doctors, and nurses have been making do with the devices they have for hundreds of years.”

Particularly today as health care spending grows, he said, a new device must bring more than just a marginal improvement. When he’s working on solutions to a problem, he said, “I try not to let cost restrict me too much, at first. But it has to be there. It has to be in the back of my mind.”

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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