December 05, 2005

Necessity is mother of invention for SIUC senior

by Tim Crosby


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill -- When his older brother found him that morning, Tim Ditch was already shaking, incoherent and on the verge of slipping into a diabetic coma.

Andy Ditch knew he needed to raise his brother's blood sugar level, and fast. The quickest way to do that was to inject him with a syringe containing glucagon. But after finding Tim's emergency injection kit, Andy's heart sank as he unfurled the 2-foot-long, small print instructions for loading, dissolving, drawing and finally injecting the critical substance.

It would be a complex procedure, and this was Andy's first attempt.

"He told me later he just scanned over the directions and went for it," said Tim Ditch, a Johnston City native and a senior at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "He didn't really know how to do it. But he knew his little brother was in trouble and needed it fast."

For his senior thesis class, Ditch, who will collect his bachelor of fine arts degree in industrial design on Dec. 17, created a device that could speed up and simplify emergency glucagon injections for diabetics.

Ditch, 22, began dealing with Type 1 diabetes as a seventh-grader. The morning his brother saved him, he was on an overnight church field trip, which included lots of walking and sports. He ate extra food in anticipation of his body needing the additional glucose, but apparently not enough.

Such experiences are common among Type 1 diabetics, who must take insulin and the right amount of glucose balanced with the amount of activity they are planning for the day. If they miscalculate or overexert, they can experience hypoglycemia, which can be dangerous.

In such an emergency, glucose can be taken orally, but injection is faster and more effective, Tim said.

Ditch, whose father and brother both are engineers, nurtured a love for art throughout his career as a student. When he chose SIUC, majoring in industrial design – which often combines the concepts of art, human interaction with objects and engineering – seemed a natural way to go.

"It looked challenging, interesting and fun," he said. "You need a mind that works in 3-D. I always liked drawing cartoons, and that led to action figures."

But it was his long experience with diabetes and the shortcomings of some of the essential equipment that led him to develop the prototype injector device,

To start, Ditch did extensive research on existing injector kits, such as the one he carries with him at all times. He then looked at injector kits used for other emergency situations, such as spring-loaded epinephrine syringes used for treating severe allergic reactions. Ditch also interviewed diabetics, health care providers and emergency medical technicians about the situations they face in the field. The themes that emerged did not surprise him: They wanted simplicity, comfort, cost-effectiveness and confidence in how to use the device under pressure.

Another consideration was keeping the needle out of sight.

"Some people don't even like to look at a needle," said Ditch, which might distract them from the task at hand.

After his initial research, Ditch took two days to list all the potential problems with existing products. His challenge then became rolling the input and his own experience into a new device that would also be aesthetically pleasing, intuitive and comfortable for use by a novice confronted with a Type 1 diabetic emergency situation.

It was a daunting task, but one his professors believed Ditch could accomplish.

"Tim's project contained many conflicting goals based on his target user group needs and the delivery system realties," said Steve Belletire, associate professor in the School of Art and Design. "But his dogged determination kept him focused on finding the best blend of these variables."

The device took on various incarnations as he tried one idea after another and sought additional input from those who would use such a device. The prototype Ditch settled upon resembles a joystick handgrip that requires just two simple movements.

First, the person giving the shot pushes a plunger to break and mix a pre-loaded vial of glucagon with a dissolving agent. Next, the person places the device against a portion of the patient's body, preferably a place with lots of tissue such as the thigh, and pushes. A housing covering the needle at the end of the handgrip slides back as it is pushed down, allowing it to travel into the muscle and deliver the substance.

"It's designed to be used by the diabetic or by anyone else nearby if the person is past the point where he can help himself," Ditch said. "The difference in time can be the difference between recovering and …not recovering."

To keep costs down, Ditch designed the device to be reusable by changing the needle and reloading it with a new glucagon vial.

"His work stands out for two key reasons," Belletire said. "One is his ability to explore a wide variety of ways to solve the core problems. The other is his maintaining a dialogue with his user group throughout the entire design process."

Ditch, who gives himself several insulin shots and tests his own blood sugar at least four times daily, said he hopes to enter the product design field after graduation. He has ideas for other products and enjoys the variety of challenge in the field.

"I like working with form, color concepts and problem-solving," Ditch said. "You can apply all that to how and why people interact with a product the way they do."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(Caption: Potential solution— Tim Ditch, a senior in industrial design at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, displays a variety of his designs for a simplified emergency glucagon injector. Ditch, who has Type 1 diabetes, created the design for a senior project. He will collect his bachelor of fine arts degree during Dec. 17 commencement ceremonies.)

Photo by Russell Bailey