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College Students Invent Pill Bottle That May Make Drug Trials Easier For Patients

Nathan Sokul
This is the most recent design of PATCH, a "smart" pill bottle developed by Trinity University students Gavin Buchanan and Andrew Aertker.

A pair of Trinity University undergrads who set out to create something to help people take opioid medication with less risk have instead developed a product that has the potential to improve how new medications are tested all over the world.

Gavin Buchanan, 19, and Andrew Aertker, 20,  were in an entrepreneurship program together, and working on a class assignment.

"We were just brainstorming, thinking about ideas that we were going to present for the entrepreneurship class when I came up with the idea for what would become PATCH," Buchanan said.

PATCH stands for Pill-Administering Technology for Compliance Healthcare.

        View this post on Instagram                       A post shared by Trinity University (@trinityu) on Oct 26, 2018 at 11:25am PDT

Buchanan and Aertker set out to make a locking pill bottle that would dispense opioid medications in the proper dose at the proper time, which they thought would limit the risk of addiction and overdose. The idea excited them, and they were sure it would be easy to design, produce, market, and sell.

"Both of us being so young and not knowing (really anything you can imagine), we didn’t have funding, we didn’t have any idea how to build an actual model of the thing," Aertker said.


So they decided to learn.


Buchanan said, “We taught ourselves how to use 3d print software and started brainstorming models and got really good at 3d printing to where we were making several types of design iterations.”

They tried a gumball machine design. They looked to the Pez dispenser for inspiration. Aertker and Buchanan said they spent hundreds of hours printing things out in a Trinity library basement, and that trying to balance their big idea with a full course load was challenging.

“Having two tests in the same week, and an essay due the following day, and you’ve just spent eight hours downstairs in a printing lab trying to get something to print out just the correct way, then realizing the day after that design may not be viable at all for what you’re trying to do,” Buchanan said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of tension there.”

“I think if you’re down there for enough time you’re kind of asking, ‘Is this going anywhere? Why are we doing this still?’” Aertker added.

Credit Trinity University
Trinity University
Trinity University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship director Luis Martinez stands with PATCH co-founders Gavin Buchanan and Andrew Aertker. He's awarding them $10,000 in funding from the Stumberg Venture Competition.

Then they came up with the first version of the current design.

“It was simple,” Buchanan said. “It worked. And it was - in our opinion - really an elegant solution.”

The PATCH pill bottle has a locking cap that lights up when it’s time to take medicine. When a patient picks it up, the light turns a shade of yellow. The patient turns the bottle upside down to load the pill in the cap and when it’s loaded, the light again turns green. The patient then presses a button and the pill dispenses.

PATCH then relays to a doctor via the internet how much of the medicine it dispensed and when.

Joseph Schmelz oversees the Clinical Trials Office at UT Health San Antonio, and he thinks PATCH is quite novel. Aertker and Buchanan initially approached Schmelz about how they could design a trial of their pill bottle to make sure it worked the way it was designed to work and was user-friendly. Schmelz was taken by what they had come up with so far, but he thought they should wait on targeting opioid use. He said researchers who do human trials of new medicines needed something like that right now.

"One of the major challenges most clinical trials have is somehow measuring and promoting what we call 'adherence to drug strategy,'” Schmelz said. “So, if you're supposed to take two pills four times a day, one of the things that will affect how well the clinical trial works is whether the patients actually take their medication when they're supposed to and don't forget any doses or don't take them at the wrong times."

Schmelz has joined the PATCH team informally, as an advisor, and Aertker and Buchanan have raised $100,000 in investment money. They and their product also won $10,000 from Trinity's Louis H. Stumberg Venture competition.

So what if they start marketing this thing, and it takes off? Buchanan is set to graduate this year and plans to finish college no matter what happens. Aertker is set to graduate in 2021 and is not as sure about what he’ll do if PATCH starts making money and taking even more time.

"One of the quotes I've heard is you're in college to get a job, so if you can invent one, that's better," Aerker laughed.

Buchanan and Aertker will be doing a beta test of PATCH involving students on the Trinity campus in March.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at bonnie@tpr.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie